Have you ever had the experience of discovering a detail you’ve never noticed before while reading a story you’re very familiar with? I had that experience last week as I read about Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10:17-31. It’s a story I’ve read many times. A man approaches Jesus and asks him how to inherit eternal life. Jesus surprisingly responds by quoting the second half of God’s law delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. Technically, eternal life would be his if he kept God’s law. The man responds by affirming that he’s always kept these laws since he was a child.
Interestingly, Jesus never mentioned the final commandment about coveting, and that just so happened to be this man’s biggest problem. Mark writes, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me’” (10:21). The man walked away sorrowfully because he loved his possessions. Jesus doesn’t offer himself to those who love anything more than him. To have Jesus, we must be alright with having only Jesus. Jesus will not play second fiddle to anyone or anything else.
Did you notice those two words in Mark’s account above? Jesus “loved him.” That’s the part I had never noticed before. Jesus was about to tell this man the hardest truth he had ever heard in his life, a truth so difficult that it would result in him walking away from eternal life. Why did Jesus share such difficult words? Because he loved him. Authentic love always speaks the truth. When people genuinely love other people, they tell them the truth even if the truth may hurt their feelings.
I believe this is an important insight in a world that increasingly associates hurt feelings with hate. In their 2018 bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt connected childhood educational trends to the lessening of free speech on college campuses. While college campuses used to be places to debate important topics from different viewpoints, these authors discovered a disturbing trend of labeling disagreement as psychologically damaging. To present an alternative perspective on a given topic, for example, may be perceived as hate speech. To disagree with someone is to violate them.
We need Jesus’ connection between truth and love as a corrective to a generation that values feelings above all. Erroneously, we believe that how one feels is a trustworthy guide to reality, and as a result, we place a high premium on preserving pleasant feelings. When preserving positive feelings is the highest priority, however, truth is often the first casualty. We will lie to one another if it means good vibes.
This tendency has been disastrous for childrearing. Our generation constantly lies to children to preserve positive feelings. We inflate their greatness and overly praise accomplishments out of proportion to what the accomplishment deserves. We tell them that they can do anything they want in life and that anything unpleasant or difficult needs to be eliminated. We work to shield them from disappointment and seek to micromanage their experiences to ensure the maximum level of positivity. But these trends are not preparing them for life in the real world.
Obviously, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction. I’ve known people who hear this call to tell the truth as permission to be a jerk. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. The motive for truth-telling must always be the ultimate good of the person. We tell the truth because we know that the truth is the only way they can be set free (John 8:32). We tell the truth because we know that lies do not ultimately benefit.
We don’t live in a world that values truth. We watch daily as our elected officials blatantly lie toward pragmatic aims. Media deliberately distorts reality to stoke fears and keep viewers glued to advertisement-funded programs. You won’t always be rewarded for truth-telling, but that’s not why we’re called to do it. We tell the truth because the God in whose image we’ve been created never lies. We tell the truth because one day the world will be set right in Christ and truth will reign forever. We tell the truth because the truth is the only way to true human flourishing.