You Can Only Want One Thing the Most: Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine 17 #BCCSundaySchool

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.  And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. (Mark 10: 21-22)

Mark 10 has got to be the most explained-away chapter in the LDS Standard Works. In it, Jesus goes negative on two things that Latter-day Saints like a lot. The first of these is wealth. Jesus tells his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (:25). The second is families, as “no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake . . .  but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time” (:29-30).

These are hard sayings. Taken at face value, they have the potential to disrupt our comfortable lives and even to ruin things that we value—and should value—a lot. Fortunately, though, we have discovered a lot of creative readings of these verses that let us off the hook.

I have heard the work-arounds for most of my life. “The Eye of the Needle” is just the back door to Jerusalem; Jesus doesn’t really want US to sell everything that we have—that is just for the apostles; we aren’t supposed to leave our families unless they aren’t willing to follow the Gospel—and then we can do their temple  work after they die. Surely Jesus knew that families are forever. And certainly he knew that good Americans need to provide for their families and that giving things to poor people only perpetuates their dependency.

Very few of us really believe that Jesus requires us to leave our families behind and sell all of our stuff. We don’t want to believe that. I don’t want to believe that. I have no intention of leaving my wife and children. And, since I need to help provide for my family, I am not going to be selling all of my stuff and giving it to the poor in the near future. Does that mean I don’t get to go to heaven? If so, I will certainly not be lonely

But what if Jesus is speaking descriptively here instead of prescriptively? What if, instead of telling the man how to qualify for a reward in heaven, he is simply pointing out that, BY DEFINITION, “entering the Kingdom of God” means giving up everything that is not the Kingdom of God. What if, instead of promising a reward based on an action, Jesus is simply explaining to his listeners what “eternal life” means?

If this is the case (and I think that this is the case) then Jesus’s advice to the young man—and his later statement to the apostles—should not be read as commandments to be obeyed, but as a simple statement of how things work: only one thing can be the most important thing in the world. That’s what “most important” means. We can want many things, but we can only want one thing more than we want anything else. God does not impose this limitation upon us; logic and language do. Nobody can want more than one thing the most.

And “the Kingdom of God” is not the sort of thing that we can have without wanting it most. Jesus makes this very clear in the Kingdom parables. This kingdom is not a reward for good behavior, nor is it something to be deferred to an afterlife. It is the consequence of a group of people wanting it more than anything else and being willing to give up everything else to get it. The early Latter-day Saints called this “Zion,” and they were willing to sacrifice everything they had, not to deserve it, but to create it.

I’m not there yet. I don’t want it enough, and like the young man in the Book of Mark, I am not willing to risk giving up everything tangible for an idea. This (I hope) doesn’t mean that I don’t get to go to heaven; but it does mean that, for now, I have to stay here on earth. I have to live in a world that is less perfect than it could be because I lack the faith to make a different one. This has nothing to do with God withholding His Kingdom from unrighteous children. It is neither a punishment nor the absence of a reward; it is a consequence. I have yet to become the kind of person who can inherit the Kingdom of God by being willing to give up everything else to create it.

And becoming such a person is precisely what it means to inherit the Kingdom of God.


  1. Natalie B. says:

    I started drafting a blog post on the Sermon on the Mount tonight, because I’ve been similarly troubled by the attempts to explain away the instructions to give a man your cloak also if he asks for your coat, etc. Perhaps what I started can add a perspective to this discussion:

    The Sermon on the Mount starts the with beatitudes. When Christ encounters the crowds, the first message he provides is one of blessings: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for thy will be comforted. . . .” And so he continues to pour out blessings. When we look at these verses, we often import conditions for these blessings. But when we look at the text, such conditions are not there. Christ simply promises that persons with those attributes–not all of which are positive–will be blessed. Even the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

    I believe it is significant that one of the key sermons of Christ’s ministry begins with blessings. As the sermon continues, Christ moves from blessing the crowds to instructing them how to act in difficult circumstances. He tells the crowds to turn the other check, to reconcile with their neighbors, to give to someone our cloak as well, to go an extra mile, and several other things.

    Very often, these difficult instructions are explained away. Specifically, I generally hear the comment that God does not really mean that we should give away what we have to others. I appreciate where this comment comes from. It would be irresponsible for us not to provide first for our families. However, I think that in so quickly explaining away these instructions we reveal our own fears and do not partake fully of the gospel.

    I propose that the principle that should separate our church from an organization that models wholesome community behavior from a church with a divine message is belief that God will provide. It is only by gaining first a testimony that God will bless us that we can have the faith to share our abundance with others and to do what God requires.

    We work tremendously hard. We hear everyday the message that we do not have enough or that we can easily lose what we have. It is tempting to construe God in the image of these messages—as a being who requires that we earn his blessings. In such a context, it is a tremendous act of faith to believe that God will provide for our needs. Yet, it is only by truly believing that he will provide that we can have the courage to take the risks and to do the acts he requires that seem tremendously hard.

  2. Natalie, thank you for this–it is am excellent addition and clarification to what I am trying most, which is that Jesus is supposed to make us uncomfortable, and we ate NOT supposed to domesticated his words until they fit into the world view we already have.

  3. Natalie B. says:

    On further reflection, I’d replace “I propose that the principle that should separate our church from an organization that models wholesome community behavior from a church with a divine message is belief that God will provide” with “I propose that a principle that should separate the mere daily living of religious values from belief in a concept of the divine is faith that God will provide for our needs.”

  4. Natalie B. says:

    Michael, excellent blog post. I’m actually taking the position that Jesus does NOT mean to make us uncomfortable with these instructions (interpreted literally). We are in fact uncomfortable. But were we to truly believe (which we usually don’t), we would not be uncomfortable because we’d take as seriously the admonitions to give our belongings away the accompanying promises that we would be blessed and provided for.

    This topic has been on my mind a lot of late, because I’ve noticed that many of my choices are motivated by fear of not having enough. This frequently prevents me from attending to the non-financial needs of those around me. Thanks again for the great post!

  5. I didn’t think of this parable when these situations came up in my life, but now that you mention it, these fit the topic.

    A few years ago, after a divorce, I was unemployed and living off a savings account and child support while trying (unsuccessfully) to sell my house. I was praying a lot about the economic challenges we were facing. I got a prompting to dip into my savings account and give $1000 to a neighbor who was facing a big legal bill in a child custody battle. So I followed the prompting. I’ve never once felt bad about following that prompting, and things have worked out for us financially.

    Also, when I was praying about my bad (temple) marriage, I got a strong prompting to divorce. The bishop sent us to a marriage counselor, who convinced me to give hubby another chance. I felt terrible, like I was in a dark whirlwind of confusion. I prayed and asked what was going on. It was a pretty clear answer (though not in words): “I told you to divorce him and you’re disobeying, so this is a stupor of thought. It’s him or me.” I picked God and filed for divorce. With 20/20 hindsight, that was the right thing to do. I’m not saying divorce is good, but in my specific situation with very clear direction from the spirit, it was the right thing to do. Sometimes you do have to choose between God and a family relationship.

    Anyway, there are a couple of anecdotes about getting promptings that line up with the principles taught in that parable. I don’t tell those stories to people, so I hope I don’t regret posting this.

  6. For me the most intriguing and haunting aspects of this passage are (1) that in beholding the young man Jesus loves him, and (2) that the young man lacks one thing only, the willingness to give up everything. Everything we possess reduces to a single impediment or lack.

  7. Mike H. says:

    I’ve also been thinking about this, as well. Both helping the poor & living the Law of Consecration come into play in that incident in Mark.

    Yes, I also hear that scripture explained away quickly, along with Mosiah 4:16-19. Often comes the reply to these scriptures: “I’m not a beggar, for look at all the goods I’ve earned. The fact I have so many material goods proves that I *must* be righteous.”

    As a Fast Offerings Clerk in the past, I saw that some members do really want to help others, but, others refuse to give, feeling that the poor must be lazy, or, the Government will keep the poor fed & clothed. I’ve heard other members talk about they want the greenest front lawn, or best golf game, but, don’t ask them to consecrate by working at a Bishop’s Storehouse, or other service project. Some members feel like there’s a funnel on roofs of Temples, where the names of people to have their work done just drop from Heaven, ignoring that someone has to do the basic Family History research, to generate those Temple File names.

  8. One thing I think about, but am too nervous to say in class whenever we talk about the Rich Young Man:

    Mark doesn’t actually say that the Rich Young Man didn’t follow Jesus’ instructions. Yes, he went away sad. But maybe he was sad because he was on his way to go give away all his things to the poor. And maybe he did it, even though it made him sad, and he joined Jesus and the disciples and eventually found greater joy in his new life than he would have gotten from his things. The verses in Mark don’t preclude the possibility that that’s how it happened. In fact, I’m inclined to think that if he didn’t intend to follow Jesus’ instructions, he wouldn’t have been so sad.

    It’s a possibility that’s important to me because I think that, as much as we are supposed to live the Gospel joyfully, and as much as the Christian life generally is a joyful life, sometimes the Lord requires sacrifices of us that make us sad, and we make them anyway, and being sad about those sacrifices doesn’t make us disobedient. Knowing that the Lord will make it up to us doesn’t necessarily make us any less sad. And being sad is not a sin or a sign of disobedience.

  9. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Please, please say that in class, Carole. I hope you would be happy with the response.

  10. Sidebottom says:

    The ‘eye of the needle’=’gate in Jerusalem’ bit is a remarkably resilient fabrication – it predates the Restoration by a few hundred years but still shows up in our Sunday meetings.

  11. Ryan Mullen says:

    Michael, Natalie B,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this line of Jesus’ teachings. His instructions (descriptions?) to give to the poor have been on my mind this year as we’ve read the New Testament precisely because I do not give this freely. I am further troubled that Jesus’ proffered reassurance to “Behold the fowls of the air” (Matt 6:26) and “consider the lilies of the field” (6:28) does not imply that God will meet my individual needs. Yes, the fowls and lilies continue to thrive as a species, but any individual bird or flower does not seem particularly cared for. What do you think Jesus is trying to convey with these examples?

  12. Kevin Winters says:

    As best I can tell, these things are asking us to ask tough questions: we think we can’t give, but we go out to eat regularly, we have homes that are too big, we have too much stuff, we are too comfortable, we have the luxury of getting “comfort food” when we’re stressed, etc., but right now there are millions without homes or livelihoods, (literally) starving, lonely, downtrodden. And so many of them are in third world countries where our $100 monthly allowance for luxuries would do *a lot* of good! But we can’t give…or we hide behind “I give to my Church”, as if the Church is the only worthy organization for our charity. Or the Church gives comparatively nominal aid to those who lost their homes in natural disasters while it spends millions each year on upkeep of humongous temples and meeting houses. Or the more wealthy among us have multiple homes throughout the country and build elevators for our cars and fly on private jets and rationalize that, because we give more than others in sheer number, therefore we have fulfilled out quota of charity.

    These proscriptions or descriptions or whatever you want to call them brings the suffering of the world into view, making us realize that we can *always* do more…but we don’t. In fact, we don’t even do half of what we could do while still being able to amply support ourselves and our families. In short, we ignore “true religion”…and so we go away sad, or we engage in all these mental gymnastics in order to remove ourselves from the discomfort of *really* feeling our privilege, or having deep and genuine empathy and compassion for the immense suffering of others as we pontificate on our computers and travel in our climate controlled vehicles and live in our big houses and play on our XBoxes and Play Stations, etc. Because if we did that we might just have to change…

  13. And I should add that I struggle with that, and have been especially lately with all the events at home and abroad…

  14. Kevin Winterse says:

    And I should add that I struggle with that, and have been especially lately with all the events at home and abroad…

    P.S. Please delete the above comment. Using an old account and need to change my info on it.

  15. Naismith says:

    “As a Fast Offerings Clerk in the past, I saw that some members do really want to help others, but, others refuse to give,…”

    Please understand that not all of us send our offerings through the local ward.

    For years I have been paying our tithes and offerings directly to church HQ, because they are the only ones who can accept gifts of appreciated mutual fund shares. It makes me sad to think that some clerk is judging us because they never see an envelope from us.

  16. Well, that concern should quickly dissipate as the Church rolls out its online payment system this year, Naismith.

  17. “Well, that concern should quickly dissipate as the Church rolls out its online payment system this year, Naismith.”

    Not likely, Amy. We’ve had online donation payments in New Zealand for number of years now. This is how it works here: When a member pays online, the information regarding the payment is sent to MLS financial system of the ward to which the member belongs. So clerks and bishopric members can continue to see how much members contribute and which members do not contribute.

    It makes sense that the Church would do it this way, since it’s generally seen as a good thing to let bishops access to who in the branch is paying what.

  18. Suleyman says:

    “It makes me sad to think that some clerk is judging us because they never see an envelope from us.”

    Most clerks are savvy enough to realize that they are only seeing part of the picture. It is not our job to judge, it is serving the Lord through accurate record-keeping and assisting the bishopric in promptly responding to people’s requests and needs. What I do witness, and which frequently leaves me stunned, is the overwhelming generosity and willingness to sacrifice across the entire socio-economic spectrum of church membership. There are humble, quiet people in my ward who without any sort of acclaim are silently sacrificing and helping so many in need. The hardest part of confidentiality isn’t telling who doesn’t pay, because we really aren’t sure. The hardest part is not telling others about the angels in our midst.

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