When Having It All Is Not Enough
April 7, 1991
Do you recognize the name Lee Atwater? If you know American politics, especially the politics of the 1980s, then you certainly know who he is. Lee Atwater is the amazing man who almost singlehandedly engineered the election of George Bush as the President of the United States in 1988. That is not simply my opinion, but is the considered judgment of both Republicans and Democrats. He was the man who made Willie Horton a household name. He is the man who told George Bush, “You can talk all you want about this kinder and gentler stuff but it’s not going to get you any votes.”
Lee Atwater is remembered as the modern day father of negative campaigning. No, he isn’t the man who started it. But I think he is the man who popularized it in the last decade. He’s the man who made it most successful on a national scale. I think it’s fair to say that Lee Atwater fully earned his reputation as “the bad boy of American politics.” To his opponents he was a mean-spirited, arrogant egotist. Even his friends considered him something of a lovable scoundrel.
By his own admission, he had two goals in life. One was to be a successful manager of a Presidential campaign. The second was to be the leader of a national political party. He accomplished both by the time he was 39 years old. Having successfully managed the candidacy of George Bush in 1988, he reached his second goal when the President-elect named him the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Certainly Lee Atwater was one of the most respected and feared political operatives in America.
Tumbling From the Top
At the age of 39 he was on top of the world. Then out of nowhere he developed a massive brain tumor. He was treated and instead of getting better, he got worse. And worse and worse. In February Life magazine published an article in which he evaluates his life in light of his terminal illness. And these are the words of Lee Atwater:
The eighties were about acquiring–acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with a friend? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul. (p. 67)
Lee Atwater–A man who had it all and when he got it all he discovered it wasn’t enough.
But there’s more. Did you see Time Magazine this week? The cover says it all: “The Simple Life–Rejecting the Ratrace, Americans Get Back to Basics.” On page 58, the cover story is subtitled, “Goodbye to having it all. Tired of trendiness and materialism, Americans are rediscovering the joys of home life, basic values and things that last.”
After a ten-year bender of gaudy dreams and godless consumerism, Americans are starting to trade down. They want to reduce their attachments to status symbols, fast-track careers and great expectations of Having It All. Upscale is out; downscale is in. Yuppies are an ancient civilization. Flaunting money is considered gauche: If you’ve got it, please keep it to yourself–or give it away!
It is the story of an entire generation that has been made to believe that the real key to life is how much you can get and how fast you can get it. And it is the story of a generation gone bankrupt. A generation that has discovered that having it all is not enough.
Driving With the Wrong Map
Somewhere I picked up a cartoon that shows a man driving in his car. He’s going down the expressway. And it says, “At twenty, I couldn’t wait to get on the road. At thirty, I learned how to go from zero to 60 in eight seconds. At forty I found that I’d been holding the map upside down and at fifty, I discovered I had the wrong map altogether.”
That’s the story of an entire generation. My generation. The baby boomers. We were told, “Get up early, work hard, climb to the top, step on people if you have to, look out for number one, do it now.” Then when we got going about 150 miles an hour, we found out, to our utter dismay, the map was upside down. What we were looking for was in exactly the opposite direction.
Having it all is not enough.
The Rich Young Yuppie
Once there was a young man with big dreams about the future. He was twenty or twenty five or he may have been thirty but not any older than that. He was a tiger, a go-getter, a young man on the way to the top. He was a young man who had made his money in real estate, which is one of the best ways to make money if you know what you’re doing. (It’s also a good way to lose it if you don’t.) He knew what he was doing. Limited partnerships. Condos. Syndications. Buy low, sell high. Turn swamp land into high-rise apartments. He made a lot of money at a very young age. And he had risen to the top of his corporation. And he still felt empty.
One day that young man went to see a man who was a carpenter from Galilee, a man named Jesus. This young man, at the top of his game, with all the money you could want, a man who had it all, felt empty and unfulfilled. And he went to Jesus with a question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The conversation that he had with Jesus of Nazareth evidently made a tremendous impact on the early church because it was repeated not once, not twice but three times in Matthew and Mark and Luke.
Here is his story as paraphrased by Dr. Terry Strandt:
Now a young entrepreneur came up to Donald Trump and asked him, “What must I do to achieve lifelong happiness?” And Donald replied, “Why do you ask me about happiness? The only thing worth living for in life is financial security, so obey the market commandments.”
“Which ones?” the young entrepreneur asked. “Don’t buy in a bull market, always borrow more than you invest, and diversify,” Donald replied. “All these things I have done,” the aspiring billionaire replied, “What do I still lack?” “Go and sell you boyhood farm, mortgage your mother’s condo, and invest your life savings into high-yield bonds. Then buy a new BMW and come, follow my example!”
And the young entrepreneur hurried off to his broker, rejoicing, thinking that he had found the secret to lifelong happiness. Then Donald said to his secretary, “Call my lawyer and have him buy this young entrepreneur’s boyhood farm, his mother’s condo, and sell him some high-yield bonds from my bankrupt high-rise development, for I am never happy until I’ve got one more dollar!”
And Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
A Man We Can All Admire
I submit to you that there is a great deal to admire about this young man. I think he was a man of good moral character. I think you can only admire his determination to have obeyed the law of God to the best of his ability. I think you would admire his courage in coming to Jesus. I think you would admire his humility in admitting his needs. And I certainly think you would admire him for his aggressiveness. For it was his aggressiveness that had gotten him where he was in life.
There’s more. He asked the right question for the right reason and he comes to the right person. He’s saying, “Lord, tell me what you want me to do. If you’ll tell me, I’ll do it.” He was like a lot of the Jewish people in the first century who believed that after they had obeyed the laws and commandments of God that there was still one thing–one great and good and righteous and virtuous thing–if they could only find out what it was and if they could only do it, it would guarantee them entrance into heaven. And that young man, sensing a lack in his life, comes to Jesus wanting to know what is the one thing that he needs to do which will gain him entrance into heaven.
Well, the young man asking the question was wrong on two counts. Number one, he was wrong to think that there was something he could do to gain entrance into heaven. And number two he was wrong to think he could do it if only he knew it.
“Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?”
So he comes to the Lord Jesus with this crucial question. And Jesus gives him an answer which has confused people over the generations. The question seems simple enough –”What must I do to inherit eternal life?”– but when you read the story and when you read what Jesus says back to him, it appears that either Jesus doesn’t understand the question, or Jesus doesn’t know the answer to the question, or Jesus just doesn’t want to give him a straight answer.
When you read the question and read the answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question and the answer really go together. Verse 18 gives us the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Verse 19 gives us Jesus’ answer: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Now that statement, besides being confusing and seemingly irrelevant, has confused people into thinking that perhaps Jesus means something like, “God is good, and you shouldn’t call me good because I am not really God.” As a matter of fact, that’s precisely the reverse of what Jesus means to say. Jesus is taking the word “good” literally. The young man had called him, “Good teacher.” He said it as a way of being respectful, but he wasn’t really thinking of the meaning of the word.
Jesus understands that all true goodness comes from God. He’s saying, “When you call me good, do you really know what you’re saying? If I am good in the ultimate sense, it’s because I am not merely a good person, it’s because I am God in human flesh.” And so, when Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?” he’s asking the question, “Do you really know who you are talking to? And do you really know what you are saying?”
The “Big Ten”
Before the young man can even make an answer to that point, Jesus just plunges right on. He says, “You know the commandments” (he means the Ten Commandments): “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and your mother.” That’s another part of the story that seems a little bit irrelevant to us. This fellow wants to know how to get to heaven. In response, Jesus first engages him in what appears to be an abstract theological discussion, and then he brings up the Ten Commandments.
What’s really going on here? Well, this fellow who came to Jesus, this first century yuppie, what he wanted is what so many people today want. He wanted a list. “Give me a list of the things I need to do to make sure I go to heaven. Give me a list and I will check it off. Do this, this, this, this. When I get to the bottom of the list I’ll know that I’m going to go to heaven.” So Jesus says, “Fine. If you want a list, I’ll give you a list. Here’s my list. It’s called the Ten Commandments. Why don’t you just try keeping those for a while?”
Notice that Jesus does not quote from the first part of the Ten Commandments. He quotes only from the second part of the Ten Commandments. Do you remember the two parts? One part is the vertical –”Thou shalt have no other Gods before me, no idols, do not take my name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy.” Those commandments all deal with man’s relationship to God. The other six commandments are horizontal–dealing with man’s relationship to his fellow man. “Thou shalt not murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife,” and so on. Jesus doesn’t quote from the first part at all. He quotes from the second part because that’s where this man had his problem.
He says, “Look, you want a list. Here’s my list. Keep the Ten Commandments. If you keep the Ten Commandments perfectly when you get to the end you will be okay.” And look what the fellow says, “All these things I have kept since I was a boy.” Now that might have been the most sincere statement in the world but let me tell you it is possible to be sincerely wrong and this poor fellow was sincerely wrong. If anyone says, “I have perfectly kept the Ten Commandments from the beginning of my life until now,” you automatically know two things about that person: Number one, they don’t know anything about the real meaning of the Ten Commandments and Number two, they really don’t know anything about themselves. They are deceived.
That brings us back to the deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments, which Jesus explained in Matthew 5. When the Bible says,”You shall not murder,” it’s not just talking about taking a gun and putting it to somebody’s head. Jesus said if you have an angry thought against your brother, if you are bitter against that brother, just that thought itself is murder in your mind. So even though you are smiling on the outside, on the inside you have broken the Sixth Commandment because you are filled with hatred and bitterness. Remember what Jesus said about adultery. Even to look on another person, to lust after them, is breaking the commandment against adultery even though you never jump in bed with somebody else who is not your husband or your wife. You can break the Seventh Commandment in your mind while being pure on the outside.
It’s What You Lack That Counts
Jesus is saying to this young man, “You look good on the outside but on the inside you’re not as good as you think you are.” This fellows says, “Well, I have kept all those commandments to the best of my ability. I’ve not broken any of them.” Then Jesus drops the bombshell. He says, “Okay, fellow, you think you’re so good, you’re not as good as you think you are. One thing you lack.” Now that statement got his attention, because if there is anything a go-getter likes, it’s a challenge. “What do you mean? I’ve got money. I’ve got position. I’m well respected. I’m honest. I’m hard working. I keep the commandments.” And Jesus said, “One thing you lack.”
Boy, that must have floored him. It’s sort of like saying to a boxer, “You’re the greatest 14-round boxer in the world.” Unfortunately, boxing matches go fifteen rounds. And you keep getting knocked out in the fifteenth round. It’s like saying to an artist, “You’re real good at what you do except you’re not real good with the color blue. In fact, your blue stinks.”
When it comes to going to heaven, it’s not what you’ve got that counts, it’s what you lack. Do you understand that? When we’re talking about going to heaven, it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you lack. And Jesus is saying, “You think you’re so hot. You think you’ve got life all together. One thing you lack.” What do you think it is? Jesus says something to him that we would never say to somebody we were trying to lead to Christ. I’ll bet you’ve never said what Jesus said here to someone you were trying to bring into the Kingdom of God. Look what Jesus said, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Circle those verbs. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. Wow! How would you like it if we made that a requirement for church membership? Jesus said to this fellow, “If you want to go to heaven this is what you’ve got to do. Sell. Give. Come and follow.” If we said that at Calvary, we’d empty out the church pretty fast, I’d imagine.
Strangled By Money
Let’s be honest. These are scary words. So let me tell you this. This is the only time in the New Testament that Jesus ever said that to anybody as a condition of eternal life. This is the only time in the New Testament that anybody was told to sell all that they had, give it to the poor and then come and follow Jesus. But why did he say it to this fellow? Because that’s where this fellow had the problem. This fellow who looked so good on the outside, this first century yuppie, on the inside was totally controlled by the love of money. Jesus was saying to this fine-looking, upstanding, good, young citizen, “If you want to be my follower, you’re going to have to break the hold of money on your life.”
For this man, money was not just an object or a thing. Money had become his God. And Jesus knew it. He is touching this man at the point of his need. And he’s saying, “You’re going to have to give up your idolatry of money before you can be my disciple.” And my brothers and my sisters, that principle is as true today as it was 2000 years ago. And because it is true today, we need to say it again in Oak Park and River Forest where we love money, where we worship the things that money can buy, where we are trying so desperately to get to the top of the ladder.
It’s true, isn’t it, that money can choke out the things of God? There are a great many Christians who love Jesus when they make fifteen thousand dollars a year. Fewer who love him when they make thirty thousand. Fewer still who love him when they make fifty thousand. Fewer still who love him when they make one hundred and fifty thousand. Fewer yet who love him when they make half a million dollars a year. There are a great many Christians who would become deeply committed to Jesus Christ again, if only they would go broke. Go home and think about that.
I’m not saying we have to do literally what Jesus said here. I’m saying the principle is true. You cannot love money and be his disciple. You cannot. He set the rules down two thousand years ago. That’s just the way it is.
No Special Deals
You know what the most hopeful thing in this story is to me? In verse 23 Luke tells us that “When he heard this, he became very sad because he was a man of great wealth.” The words of Jesus hit home to him. He knew exactly what Jesus was saying. By the way, I believe this is the only case in the New Testament where somebody came to Jesus and Jesus gave them the truth and let him leave and walk away. This man just walked away. Sorrowful and sad. Jesus didn’t come after him and say, “Let me lower the price. Let me make a deal with you so you can be my follower.” He just told him the way it was and the man walked away.
You know what we say. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor just so long as you have a lot of money. Jesus knew the way we were. That’s why he said in Luke 18, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.” Have you ever heard anybody explain by saying that the eye of the needle represents some kind of tiny passageway into the city of Jerusalem and you had to kneel down to go through it? Don’t believe that. That’s not true. When he says the eye of a needle, he means the eye of a needle. Like the needle you do sewing with. When he says camel, he means a great big old smelly ugly camel that you ride across the desert . He says, “Look at a camel and the eye of a needle. It is easier to get this ugly camel through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.”
“I Don’t Need Jesus”
Why? Because rich people trust in their riches. It’s easy for a poor person to get saved because a poor person says, “If Jesus doesn’t come through for me, I’m sunk.” A rich man says, “If Jesus doesn’t come through for me, that’s okay. I’ve got my pension. I’ve got my stocks and bonds. I’ve got my options. I’ve got my golden parachute. I’ve got my safety net. If he doesn’t come through it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty much taking care of things myself.”
It’s impossible, Jesus says, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And you ask the same question the disciples said, “Who then can be saved?” The answer comes in verse 27: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” The message being this: Even rich people can be saved if they will give up their trust in their riches. But that is the thing that makes rich people feel so secure. Feel so much in control. And the message is, yes, they can be saved but they’ve got to stop trusting in their riches and they’ve got to start trusting in Jesus Christ and him alone.
“Life and Death Are Serious. Money Isn’t.”
Bill Self was a pastor for many years down in a big Baptist church in Atlanta. He tells the story of his best friend whose son was killed in the crash of an F-14 airplane. His friend said to him, “Bill, once you lose your son, you find out that there is no such thing as serious money. Life and death are serious, money is not.” (Investment Vision, April/May, 1991, p. 62). Tax time has rolled around. Have you turned in your income tax yet? Neither have I. But I’m going to do it this week. It’s amazing, isn’t it, when we do our income tax and look at all those forms–Schedule A, B, C, D, E, G, Supplemental Income, Rental Income, Farm Income, Depreciation and all the rest. We punch in all the numbers and when we’re finished, we figure out the bottom line. Isn’t it human nature to evaluate how we did last year according to the bottom line of our tax return?
Let me tell you something, my friend. When you stand before your Creator, he’s not going to judge 1990 according to your 1040 Long Form. He’s going to look for something much more substantial than that.
Ray Simons and Janet McNicholas
It was Pascal who said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum inside the heart of every person.” If you don’t fill that vacuum with God you will fill it with something else. And when you do, you will find out what that rich young man found out years ago. You can have it all but it’s still not enough. “One thing you lack.”
You’ve heard it from me. I want you to hear it from someone else. From some friends who found out the truth. You can have it all and it’s still not enough. Listen please, to Ray Simons and Janet McNicholas.
Janet: I was born into an Irish Catholic family on the south side of Chicago. I was, and still am, the eldest of four girls–Janet, Judy, Jean and Jane. I’m not sure why, but very early on in my life I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do when I grew up. And from very early on I began to believe three things about myself.
The first thing that I believed, very strongly, about myself was that I would have some kind of interesting job or career. That I would be something when I grew up–a teacher, or a doctor, or something like that.
The second thing I believed about myself was that something special was going to happen to me in my life. I didn’t know what it would be or when it would happen. I guess I always thought it would be related to my career because I spent so much time thinking and planning about what I would be when I grew up. But I really didn’t know. Just something special.
The third thing that I believed about myself, was that I probably would never get married. I think in part because of all my career plans, but for some other reasons as well.
In any case, I started college absolutely certain that I wanted a career, but I was still unsure about what exactly that career would be. And then in my second year of college I made two really big decisions. One was related to my career. The first was that I decided to marry Ray Simons. Ray coming into my life was a complete surprise to everyone including me, since, as I said, I thought I was never going to get married. But I have to say, as I’ve said throughout these past nearly 20 years, that my decision to marry Ray at the age of 19 was one of the two best decisions I’ve made in my life so far. The second decision I made at the age of 19 was to change my major from Languages and the Arts to Science and Math. It was a very big switch for me but I found I really enjoyed science and I was challenged by it, and I eventually went on to get my Master’s and my Ph.D. in science and then I worked for several years as a research scientist.
At the end of all this time, and even during this time, despite everything that I had –a great husband, an interesting career, a great education, a wonderful family and some very good friends–really everything that I had dreamed of and more–I wasn’t satisfied. I cannot really describe to you the emptiness that I felt inside, although I had achieved the educational and career goals that I had planned for myself. I often wondered if I would ever really be satisfied with what I had or with what I had done and if I would ever have a sense of peace in my life.
Ray: I was born in Connecticut and raised in New York. I was the second oldest of six children–four boys and two girls. We were a very happy family but when I was fourteen my father died. It wasn’t really sudden. He was very sick for years, but it still came as a shock and a hard reality. My mom was on her own to raise the six of us. The oldest of us was fifteen and the youngest was four.
Money was really tight and as a result I developed a very strong desire for financial security. At seventeen, I left New York to go to college in Chicago, here at ITT. I thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer. But after two years of goofing around, I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to be. So I decided to leave school and go to work. One thing I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do was to get married. But then I met Janet. We fell in love very quickly and were married six months later.
Janet and I grew up together and finished our educations together. While Janet went to school full time and worked part time, I worked full time to support us and went to school at night for eight years. It took four years to finish college and four years to complete law school.
My primary concern was financial success and security. My goals were to have a meaningful job and a good salary that would give me the financial security that I believed was most important.
Both Janet and I began to put our careers first. It wasn’t too long before I had achieved my financial and career goals. I was successful by all human standards. But in spite of all I had achieved, I knew something was missing. Financial success didn’t give me the security and peace that I had expected. I began to realize that even with a good job, a good income and a great wife, a good family and friends, that something was missing.
Janet: One summer while I was still working in a lab doing research I began to notice that one guy in the lab, his name was Jim, was really so different from everyone else in the lab. Oh, in a way he was just like everyone else. He was just as smart. And he moved just as fast. And we all really moved fast in that lab. But, he was still very different. He just seemed to have something special about him. It was a certain peace and a confidence that nobody else in the lab seemed to have. I definitely wanted and had been searching for the kind of peace he had. So I gradually began asking him questions about what it was that made him so different. What gave him that apparent peace? And one day, looking me straight in the eye, he said, “Janet, I know this may sound strange to you but it’s because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.” And I can remember saying to him, yes, it really did sound strange to me. And I can say that I never had anyone say anything like that to me before.
Jim and I continued to talk and he encouraged me to start reading the Bible. Actually, Ray and I began reading the Bible together. And in our typical academic fashion we began by buying five or six different translations and paraphrases, reading them side by side, verse by verse, beginning in the gospel of John as my friend, Jim, had recommended and then continuing through various books in the New Testament. Over several months of reading the Bible I began to understand that no matter how good I thought I was in my own eyes or in the world’s eyes, for my education and accomplishments, that in God’s eyes I was a sinner. But I also began to understand in a very personal way that this man Jesus Christ had died and risen for me to pay the penalty for my sins. During that time I prayed and asked Christ to come into my heart and life. And I decided to turn my life over to him.
With that decision, the decision to accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, and to begin a personal relationship with him, two things happened. First, I realized very quickly that this was the special thing that was going to happen to me in my life. This was what I had been waiting for for so long. And the second thing that happened, and again fairly quickly, was that I truly felt a sense of peace that I had never felt before.
Ray: After Janet committed her life to Christ I continued to read the Bible and watch her very carefully. Several months later I prayed and asked Christ to forgive me and to take over my life too. With that decision nearly eight years ago, I realized my security is not in financial or career success, my security is in Jesus Christ.
Janet: Hardly a day has gone by in these past nearly eight years that Ray and I haven’t thanked God that after he had given each of us everything that we had ever wanted and more, he then gave each of us the only thing that we really needed, his Son Jesus Christ.
Pascal said, “There’s a God-shaped vacuum inside every human heart.” Since nature abhors a vacuum, if you don’t fill it with God, you’ll fill it with money or career, power, prestige, sex, or whatever you think you can find in this world. You will not be satisfied. And it will be said of you as was said of the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack.” That one thing being a living, dynamic, life-transforming relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Scoundrel’s Salvation
Here’s the good news. What happened to Ray and Janet can happen to you this morning. What happened to Lee Atwater can happen to you. I didn’t finish his story, did I?
Scoundrel. The meanest man in American politics. Cut down at the age of 40. Terrible brain tumor. He died on Good Friday. But these were his words last November, “I have found Jesus Christ. It’s that simple. He has made a difference and I am glad I found him while there is still time. The things that once counted in my life–power, fame and glory–no longer have meaning. I don’t hate anybody anymore. For the first time in my life, I don’t hate anybody. I have nothing but good feelings toward people. There’s just no point in fighting and feuding.”
I come to two conclusions and then I am through. Number one. As long as you make money and the things money can buy the measure of your life, you will be empty and unfulfilled.
Number two. Whenever you stop trusting in money and the things that money can buy and turn your life over to Jesus Christ, then and only then will your heart be satisfied.
The one thing you lack, God offers to you right now. The one thing you need is yours for the asking. If you have discovered that having it all is not enough, then please consider something that money can’t buy. Would you like a life -transforming relationship with Jesus Christ? It’s yours for the asking. Open your heart to him and he will come in.
Father, you have promised bread for the hungry and rest for the weary. May those who hunger be filled with the Bread of Life. And may the weary find the rest that only Jesus can give. Forgive us for loving money so much that we have had no room for you. Grant that we might realize our deepest need so that you can provide for us the “one thing” we lack. In Jesus name, Amen.