The God Who Leaves Room for ‘No’

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In Matthew 19, a young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to have eternal life (see also Mark 10 and Luke 18). Jesus responds with a list of some of Moses’ commandments from Exodus and Deuteronomy. But the young man persists and tells Jesus he has done all that, and then asks what else he must do. Jesus responds with this:

21Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (NRSV)

Understandably, in my mind, the man walks away “grieving” according to the NRSV, “for he had many possessions.” Jesus did not say he had to sell everything. Jesus did not even say he had to sell everything in order to “have eternal life.” Jesus said that if the man wants to be perfect he should go do this radical thing and then become a follower of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel to include this phrase about being “perfect” (τέλειος [te´leos] in Greek), which, according to the commentaries I’ve read, does not mean ”without blemish”, but is intended in terms of maturity, having attained an end purpose, or completeness. So, according to Matthew, if you want to be complete, if you want to attain God’s purposes for your life, loosen yourself from the things that are holding you back and give yourself to the things that will allow you to mature and become complete (e.g., follow in the footsteps of Jesus).

I am always amazed by this passage and others like it, when people are invited to follow Jesus but choose not to. I have come to believe that we follow a God who leaves room for us to say “no” to the Lord’s gracious invitation. Yes, there are stories about people denying the invitation and being cursed to eternal damnation (see Matthew 22), but by and large God’s invitation is graciously given and we are allowed to say no. Yes, there are consequences: a life unfulfilled, the eternal feeling of emptiness (until we do finally accept God’s invitation into relationship), a feeling of unfinished business, etc. But the option is still there.

What was being asked of the young man in Matthew 18 was extreme—can you imagine selling everything you have and giving the money to the poor? I can’t. But I wonder if it was the only way he could be truly free to accept God’s invitation completely. I wonder if his identity was so wrapped up in his wealth that the mere thought of being without that identity he would not know himself. Jesus was inviting him to freedom, ultimately—freedom from the things that held him back from truly living as God intended for him, truly and completely experience the extreme love of God.

I know in my heart that God is persistent in pursuing me, but graciously always allow space for me to say “no.” While I feel like I say yes a lot, like the young man in Matthew 18, I am aware that I say no every day in small but significant ways: when I curse the person driving erratic on the freeway who nearly cuts me off or doesn’t have the common decency to signal (can you hear my refusal just in the way I describe this scene?); when I refuse to stop and help someone in need because I’m in a hurry to get somewhere; or every time I spread un-grace, as Philip Yancey calls it in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, out of selfishness or exhaustion.

God leaves room for “no”, and then turns around and offers another opportunity for us to say “yes.” Time and again, every day, the cycle continues. In some moments we might say “yes”, only to turn around in the next moment to say “no.” I’m trying to practice saying “yes” to God more often. I’m not saying “yes” to more committees or commitments, but yes to God’s invitation to share grace in the every day moments and allow myself to be transformed a little at a time. Thank God for grace, and thank you God for being so persistent with me.

So, how has God been messing with your life, inviting you to more? How have you responded? How often do you “yes” or “no”? Do you think you could say “yes” to God more often? What might that look like?

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