By Alexei Laushkin
Our lives are governed by desires and wants, goals and plans, and if we were to think about them we would soon recognize that for most of us these goals, wants, and desires change. Sometimes they change with the season of life we are in, sometimes they change based on circumstance, and sometimes they change because we change.
If you were to look at what you wanted as a child, for me it was to be a pilot. What you wanted as a college student, for me, for better or worse, it was to get into politics. What I wanted as a young married man, for me it was a strong desire to travel with my wife, and what I want now as a father of three children, to provide well for my children, I can easily trace shifts of desire and wants.
Maybe as you look back at your own life, whether it be longer or shorter than mine, you too can trace these wants and desires and hopes in different season.
The interesting thing about want and desire and focus is that it can have a powerful hold on our day to day. When you really want something and focus on it, it can consume your mind, your heart, your emotions, and desires.
Perhaps this tendency is easiest to see in a dating context. Our mind focuses on the person and begins to ease in, and before too long we notice that we can hardly go very long without thinking about the person. This is a conscious version of what often happens with us on any number of wants, although it’s true they can be less subtle and focused in other contexts.
If you’ve thought about it for very long, you also know that what we find in ourselves is a real mixture. Light and dark. Good motivations and bad ones. We are all mixed people.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way in the Weight of Glory:
It would seem that our desires are not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased
These unchecked and ever changing desires apart from God leave us captive in sin. Unaware of how our desires are not oriented to God creates self-deception. When our desires, mind, and heart are driven by natural tendencies but not really focused or oriented towards the life God has made us for, we tend to believe that we are better than we are. We believe all people seek after the same things and wants, and we minimize our negatives while creating an equal plain as it relates to others, both are the sin of pride.
In the midst of this human tendency, we hear these words of Jesus found in Matthew 6 and Luke 12, but repeated as sub-themes throughout the gospels, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”
These words beckon us alongside this invitation from Jesus, “Come all who are weary and thirsty and I will give you rest, for my burden is light, and my yoke is easy.”
Here we have Jesus, calling us outside of the wearying changes of our own life, into something straight forward and stable, one might say even it’s an invitation to a steadfastness that is the very basis for the life lived with God, the spiritual reality behind the relationship. Righteousness, stability, and steadfastness. This way of life Jesus himself called ‘the narrow way.’
The way is narrow because our natural desires and wants and hopes and deep rooted sense of what is best for us is often the key stumbling block.
How Are We to Seek First the Kingdom of God?
Jesus answers this question by sharing the story of the rich young ruler.
Here’s the account from the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 18:18-23 (NASB)
A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 23 But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich
The rich young ruler comes to Jesus, with the right question. What should I do. Many would find that verse at tension with an understanding maybe you yourself have. Some of us think on this question, and think repent and believe that Jesus is your Lord and Savior. That belief requires sincerity of ascent but not further action, and, yet here the two are linked. Belief and action.
The repentance for the rich young ruler requires a very specific turning. A strong turning away from that what had attached itself to his heart, his mind, his soul, and his focus. His wealth, his life, his way, his wants, his plans were the barrier from cleaning the desires of his heart and starting the path to seeking Jesus first.
Christ makes this plain to him. Sell all your possessions and give to the poor and than follow me.
The request is high and multifaceted much like the invitation to seek first the Kingdom of God. Rid yourself of your self obsession and focus, and in this specific instance your attachment is so great, it must be a total break from your current way of life. It must be drastic to save what’s left of your divided affections.
Now that you’ve rid yourself of the possessions that have a stranglehold on your spiritual life, strengthen your resolve and your heart and distribute that which you held on to so tightly to those you thought so ill of and who are truly in need.
Now with your heart right before God, come and follow me. Come journey with Jesus, come and be with him in his travels and ministries, the long days and nights, the crowds clamoring for healing, the opposition to this true revolution of human nature. Put off the old and start the slow process of desiring the new.
All the elements of seeking first the Kingdom of God are in this account. The stark nature of the request, the ask being proportionate to the sinful attachments and desires, the healing in giving away, and than the freedom to start on the journey that will slowly transform. The rich young ruler is given clear teaching on what it will be like, and knowing the cost he is very sad because the rich young ruler knows that in his hearts of hearts he desires what he wants even more than the relief that would come from prioritizing the heavenly way Jesus puts before him.
We know this tension if we are honest with ourselves. However pious we might seem, however much we want to do the right thing, we prefer our own ways to God’s ways and we resist laying down what we want of our lives from what God might want. We do not want to seek God because we want a safe God who comforts but never confronts.
How Do We Get Passed Our Own Rich Young Ruler
When I was a few years into Christ captivating my heart, I participated in a bible study with a few friends and I can remember posing this question, “If God asked you to sell your car and give away the money, would you be willing to do it.”
Now the question was immature to some degree as you do not always know when you might feel like doing something from something the Lord is truly saying to you, I would certainly advise caution and have adopted a practice of not attributing things to God unless they are of such a quality and nature as for it to be unmistakable to me.
Yet there is a simplicity to this question that mirrors the simplicity of what Jesus asks the rich young ruler. It’s tangible and for a high school teen what greater freedom can you envision than the kind that comes with a car. It’s your early independence, and would you set that aside to seek something of God instead? It’s a harder question than it seems.
Now for our own rich young ruler we are unlikely to be asked for something so direct, but the heart of the matter is very similar.
Can you set aside that which consumes your heart, mind, and desires and instead orient them to God’s Kingdom, to His way of life, His way of thinking, His way of loving.
It’s a tough question and yet there are some very simple starting points which we can find in the Beatitudes.
Here we have it from the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 6:2-12 (ESV)
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Each of the beatitudes start with desire, heart, expectation, and want language.
I would submit a good place to start in dealing with our own inner rich young ruler, is to pray simple but earnest prayers that help you want to be pure in heart, to want to hunger and thirst and not just as an intellectually exercise but that God would grant you the feeling of hunger and thirst as it relates to seeking first the Kingdom of God.
I would couple these simple prayers with habits that actually get at the heart of how far our hearts stray. So for example one day you might think to yourself I know scripture says to give to those who ask, so today God whoever asks anything of me, I will give first before judging them for what they are asking. If someone wants food, I will buy them food. If I am asked at work to do more, I will at least begin by first doing some of what is asked of me. In the process I will refrain from judging those who ask things of me, simply trusting that at least for today I am doing so in obedience to your teaching. I trust you God to do this with me today.
Also start thinking of simple ways to engage. Ask God to send you a friend a pastor or a mentor to help you in cultivating a life of faith that seeks God first.
Finally be consistent in your petition that God would captivate more of your heart and desire and hope and pray in boldness that he would give you some tangible things and areas of life to start with.
Let this kingdom prayer from Thomas Merton be an encouragement:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Most of all be diligent and consistent. Do enough to start dislodging your heart but do not commit to great feats too quickly least you be discouraged and give up all together.
Commit to small and diligent ways to turn the heart from self to God and seek company as you seek the Kingdom with others.
Alexei Laushkin is the Executive Director of Kingdom Mission Society