Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Needle's Eye

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." So says Jesus in Luke 6:20. James tells us that God chose "the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him." (James 2:5)

Does God hate rich people? Mark 10:21 gives us the answer. A rich young ruler approached Jesus and asked what he should do to inherit the kingdom of God. First Jesus reminded  him of some of the commandments, and the young man replied that he had kept them from his youth up. "Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him." So God does not hate rich people. That's a relief, because we are a wealthy nation, even in this economy.

But the story doesn't end there. Jesus told him to sell everything and give to the poor, and then follow him. The man knew he couldn't do that and walked away grieving. He was a good person who came to Jesus to learn how to inherit the kingdom of God, but he left empty-handed. Jesus didn't turn him away or stop loving him. When faced with a choice between God and money, the man simply assessed the cost and made his decision.

Why was it so difficult for him? Jesus illustrates: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25) In other words, a rich man or woman is often too full of self to enter in. William James was one of the earliest writers on the subject of the self-esteem, and he recognized that "everything added to the ego is a burden as well as a pride." We add wealth, beauty, success, goodness, popularity, etc. to the ego, and it all becomes part of our identity. The self becomes bloated, and dying to self becomes exceedingly difficult. The larger the ego, the more it enslaves us, and the more God's peace and joy will elude us.

Sixteen years ago, I learned something about that proverbial needle's eye. Rick and I had just graduated from law school at a time when the legal market had collapsed, and neither of us had jobs. Our five-month-old daughter, Ingrid, started having severe seizures, and our medical bills were mounting while we tried unsuccessfully to get them under control. Our health insurance cost over $1000 a month. We had to move in with Rick's parents. We could afford nothing--only clothing for the kids that we bought at rummage sales. I remember really wanting to buy the book, What to Expect the Toddler Years, but I couldn't justify the $10.

After three months of constant hospitalization, Ingrid was discharged from a hospital that was at the cutting edge in epilepsy care, with nowhere else to go. She had twenty-two seizures while I held her and waited for the discharge papers. I hadn't allowed myself to cry before because I thought that would express lack of faith. But I cried the whole time I waited and all the way home from the hospital.

When we came home to Illinois, I started to question God's existence. What if we were in this nightmare all alone? The burden became so great that I started having panic attacks. Every day I feared that I would lose my mind in addition to everything else.

That's when I was finally ready to receive what God wanted to give. I had to lean completely on the God whose existence I questioned, every moment of every day. I let God fill my thoughts, and he led me in very practical ways: I needed to exercise, cut out caffeine, and fill my mind with gratitude even though there was little to be thankful for. He taught me to take my mind off myself and trust in him. All of this took place within about two weeks. The panic attacks ceased and never came back.

Instead, God filled me with a joy and victory over myself that I had never thought possible. For the first time in my life, God's presence was the only thing I desired. He took everything away, and in doing so, he taught me that only he truly satisfies. Habakkuk 3:17 became very real to me: "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior." (NIV) But this was not because I was particularly virtuous--God had just stripped me of everything that hindered and opened my eyes to his truth. He knew that as long as I had something to prioritize before him, I would.

Which brings me back to the rich, young ruler. Note that when Jesus listed the commandments, he omitted the first one: "You shall have no gods before me." The man could not truthfully have said that he kept that commandment, because his wealth was his god. He knew it, and so did Jesus. If he had kept that one, everything else would have fallen into place. But since he didn't, that good, law-abiding man walked away sad, not able to receive what he sought.

So are the rich in wealth, intelligence, beauty, or success doomed? No. Jesus says: "With people it is impossible [to enter the kingdom of God], but not with God; for all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:27) And Matthew 5:3 quotes Jesus as saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." (Italics added) Just like a poor person can be full of self, a rich person can be poor in spirit. It's just much harder, because our hearts are where our treasure is. (Luke 12:54)

I want to end with an example of someone who had everything, and yet valued humility above all else: C.S. Lewis. He would have been rich if he hadn't donated most of his money to charity; he was brilliant and creative, personable, witty, and he is still the most popular Christian author forty-five years after his death. But in The Apologist's Evening Prayer he bared his soul, a helpless sinner before God, like every one of us, stripped of all his finery: "Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye, take from me all my trumpery lest I die."


Kathy said...

Hi Anette - I like this entry the best, although I hate the topic. Disappointment is hard to deal with when you put faith in God's healing and it doesn't come. It seems His most faithful followers are the ones who don't get the miracle they ask for. I'm sure the disciples felt that way on Friday and Saturday before they knew anything special was going to happen.

I hope you keep up your blog. It reminds me of a devotions book my parents used to keep in the bathroom - with meaningful anecdotes and ideas written by various (Lutheran) ministers.

Anette Acker said...

Thanks, Kathy! Yes, it was disappointing, but it taught me a lot of important things that I needed to learn.