Note: This post is part of a series about building a personal relationship with God by reading the parables of Jesus. You can browse the entire series here

    I love playing video games with my son, and lately our go-to favorites have been Minecraft and Fortnite.

    Video games like these make sense to me because there are clear “rules” I can follow to stay alive and win. There is always a solution or answer; if I just follow the rules I’ll do well.

    Unfortunately for me, this same way of thinking doesn’t always apply to other important areas of my life, like building friendships. Friendships are emotional, and they don’t follow the same linear path as getting better at video games.

    I have tried many times to figure out and follow the “rules” of friendship, but have come up short because friendship has more to do with heart—liking, caring about, and loving people—than figuring out a strategy.

    The same is true when it comes to building a friendship with God. It is very easy to turn Christianity into a set of rules instead of building our relationship with God:

    And so the Lord says, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.

    Isaiah 29:13 NLT

    God wants our hearts, and he doesn’t want us to turn our relationship with him into a bunch of empty rules. In my experience, when we see only rules instead of seeing God, we’ll react in one of three ways:

    1. We rebel against the burden of following all these rules and reject God and Christianity completely. 
    2. We chase after “being good” or “looking good” by trying to follow every rule perfectly.
    3. We quit because we don’t believe we can ever be “good” enough.

    In each of these three reactions, we miss out on what God really wants from us: a relationship. 

    The rich young ruler is a guy in the Bible who only saw rules instead of a relationship with God. His story is actually not a parable, but we included it in our series on “Making God Personal” because rule-following is such a significant obstacle to having a real and personal relationship with God. This story gives us great insight into why we make rules, and how we can break free from them to build a relationship with God.

    Jesus loved the rich young ruler enough to tell him the truth about his rules, offering him a way out of rule-following by asking him to make a decision to be close to him. 

    We can learn from this story how to stop seeing rules and start seeing God as a relationship. 

    Pause and reflect:

    • What are some signs someone is more focused on rules than relationships?
    • What is my attitude toward rules? How does that affect my view of God?

    Relationships are about love, but rules are about me

    As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’ ”

    “Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.

    Mark 10:17-20 NLT

    The rich young ruler approached Jesus to ask a question, as many other people had been doing during this time. At first, he seemed to be motivated to be close to Jesus (he ran to him). He showed respect to Jesus (he knelt down and called him “Good Teacher”). 

    Then he dove into a question that wasn’t about how to have a relationship with God, but about how to get to heaven. He was not actually looking for a relationship, but how to get something he wanted.

    By contrast, some people in the Bible who heard Jesus were inspired to just spend time with him, not to try to get something from him. This is the heart we see in the first disciples, who became some of Jesus’ closest friends:

    The following day John was again standing with two of his disciples. As Jesus walked by, John looked at him and declared, “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” When John’s two disciples heard this, they followed Jesus.

    The following day John was again standing with two of his disciples. As Jesus walked by, John looked at him and declared, “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” When John’s two disciples heard this, they followed Jesus.

    Jesus looked around and saw them following. “What do you want?” he asked them. They replied, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

    “Come and see,” he said. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him to the place where he was staying, and they remained with him the rest of the day.

    John 1:35-39 NLT

    The rich young ruler wanted to know the formula or route to get to heaven. He primarily wanted to know the rules he would need to follow to get what he wanted, not to get to know God or be close to God.

    In high school, I had a friend named Matt whose parents would always give him extra money, send him on trips with friends, and allow him more freedom than most other parents I knew. I remember feeling like I wanted to go places with him because if we went out for food, he would most likely be generous and buy lunch for me too. 

    I treated Matt like the rich young ruler treated Jesus; the truth was, I was not interested in really being Matt’s friend, but in what I could get from him. Because my motives were selfish, I couldn’t actually care about Matt.

    He wanted to know the rules he would need to follow to get what he wanted, not to get to know God or be close to God.

    Just like the rich young ruler, we can approach God just to get what we want, not to build a close friendship with him. When we approach our relationship with God with selfish motives, trying to figure out how to get the things we want, we will find ourselves making a lot of rules. We’ll start thinking that if we do good things, like read the Bible or pray, we should get the things we want from God. 

    If you’re someone who has been trying to build a relationship with God by doing everything perfectly, here are a few questions to reflect on to evaluate your motivations for coming to God:

    1. Am I looking for a change in my life?
    2. Am I looking for better friendships than I currently have?
    3. Am I looking to live a good life?
    4. Am I curious to know more about God? Why does he do what he does? How can he love the way he does?
    5. Am I aware of and grateful for ways God has been there for me in my life so far?
    6. Am I interested in learning about God’s purpose for me and how he wants to be a part of my life?

    Questions 1-3 are good things, but they are not really about building a relationship with God. God can provide these things we desire, but if all we want is a better life for ourselves we will miss out on sharing life with God. We will turn our relationship with him into a quest to do everything right so that we get what we want. Questions 4-6 are about God and show a motivation to build a closer relationship with hIm.

    Pause and reflect: 

    • What am I looking for when I approach Jesus: getting to know him, or figuring out what I have to do to get what I want?

    Relationships are emotional, but rules are not

    Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. 

    Mark 10:21-22 NLT

    Jesus loved people despite their response, and he always tried to meet people where they were at. This guy spoke a language of rules, specifically his great performance of following those rules (“I’ve obeyed all these commandments”). 

    Jesus understood how this man thought and used performance language (“There is still one thing you haven’t done”) to teach him about the importance of relationships. He wasn’t giving the man another rule to follow; he was teaching him to change his priorities. Then Jesus offered him a relationship. Jesus was willing to tell him the truth, but in a way the man could understand. 

    So how did the man respond to Jesus’ love? With a lot of emotion (disappointment and sadness). 

    Avoiding emotions by making rules 

    Giving up his wealth seemed to be very disappointing news to this young man; he was so sad about it that he didn’t even acknowledge Jesus’s personal invitation to come follow him.

    Why was he sad? He was known as the “rich young ruler,” so maybe he was sad that his identity would be in a follower of Jesus and not in being rich, young, and good at enforcing rules.

    Maybe he felt that Jesus was giving him yet another rule, and this rule just felt like too much for him to follow, so he walked away. Those of us who turn away from God because we don’t want to “follow rules” can probably relate to this part.

    He was so sad about giving up his wealth that he didn’t even acknowledge Jesus’s personal invitation to come follow him.

    The rich young ruler seemed to only see what he was going to lose, not what he was going to gain. When we resist “rules” from God, it’s sometimes because we don’t trust that God’s plans are actually better than anything we could come up with on our own. 

    I don’t think anyone really enjoys following a bunch of rules, so why do we do it? Rules don’t involve emotions, while relationships are filled with emotions because they require caring about what someone else feels. On his own, the rich young ruler could puff himself up with good behavior and wealth. Hearing what Jesus really thought and felt made the rich young ruler sad (“his face fell”).

    Read more: 4 Signs That Rules have Replaced God In Your Life

    Relationships can bring pain, fear, and other uncomfortable feelings, which is a big reason that making rules for ourselves to follow can be quicker and easier than connecting with people. But relationships also bring fulfilling emotions too—like love, security, and joy.

    The truth is that the rich young ruler’s wealth and good behavior didn’t really satisfy him; if they had, he wouldn’t have run up to Jesus asking what else he needed to do. He clearly felt like something was missing.

    Everyone longs for love that never fails. It is better to be poor than to be a liar.

    Proverbs 19:22 NIrV

    Just as this Scripture says, what everyone really wants is to have deep relationships filled with real love. No matter what wealth or reputation we gain in life, nothing else will satisfy our need for this love and why God wants us to focus on relationships instead of rules.

    Relationships are rewarding, while rules are not 

    When I make a pursuit of God about rules, it is really about me and my performance, sort of like taking a class. If I get a C, I think I just need to try harder or I can tell myself I need to do better. If I get an A, I get to feel good about myself. This is all about me and no one else.

    However, pursuing God is really a relationship. Doing “well” means I care about God, what he feels, and what he cares about. When I make a decision that affects God, I have to recognize whether he is happy or disappointed about it. Because it is a relationship, we can affect God and he affects us. That is what makes it emotional, but also why it is rewarding, inspiring, and freeing. We can be accepted for who we really are, not for our rule-following performance.

    Pause and reflect: 

    • What do I think about the rich young man’s response to Jesus? 
    • What are some things I cling to, like the rich young ruler clung to wealth?
    • How would I feel if I were asked to give up what I cling to? 

    Stop seeing rules, and start seeing relationship

    If you are like me, you can relate to this rich young man. So how do we change our approach to God and life? Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples after the rich young ruler left.

    Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” 

    The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: “You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.” That set the disciples back on their heels. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked. Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.”

    Mark 10:23, 26-27 MSG

    Jesus knew the ruler was not alone in needing help to understand the importance of building a relationship with God over following rules. The disciples were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. We can look at people with wealth or who are seemingly “good” as having it together or are blessed by God. But the truth is, they may be just better at following the rules but not in building relationships, including with God.

    Rules can feel impossible to follow perfectly, especially when we are aware of our weaknesses. That is actually a good thing. It can make us humble and see what Jesus taught here: that we can all do it, if we “let God do it.” If you’re someone who has felt hesitant to be a Christian or pursue God because you don’t think you can follow all the rules, this part of the story can bring you a lot of encouragement. 

    Rules can feel impossible to follow perfectly, especially when we are aware of our weaknesses.

    Jesus made the point that the more we have, the more we rely on ourselves and the harder it can be to see relationships. We can get the wrong impression that we can get by with our own intelligence, athletic ability, money, et cetera. We may think that we can be good enough on our own. We don’t want to let God influence us or have an affect on us.

    I was lucky in college to have some very good friends, and one in particular would loan me his car whenever I wanted. In fact, he gave me a key of my own. There were some unsaid rules that we agreed on, like letting him know whenever I borrowed it. 

    One night, I broke that rule and went out. The car broke down, and I left it there for a few days. It ended up getting towed and impounded. Not only did I mess up the car, and cost myself hundreds of dollars, but I hurt my friend’s trust. I felt like the worst friend in the world. 

    My friend expressed his disappointment, but also was willing to forgive me, despite the personal challenges my mistakes had caused him. This experience taught me something powerful about relationships: I had messed up big time, and the only thing that made it better was the relationship, not anything I could make up or pay back. 

    Listen: Forgiveness, Part One

    One of the things that helps us stop seeing rules and start seeing relationships is realizing we can’t keep all the rules anyway. The Bible teaches us that no one is truly “good” (Romans 3:23), and that our sinful nature makes us do wrong even when we really want to do right (Romans 7:14-25). 

    When we are honest with ourselves about our sins, motivations, and desires, we will realize that the only way we have a chance at having a close relationship with God is by God deciding to overlook our mistakes. 

    This is actually why God sent Jesus and why Jesus died on the cross. God knew that we could not make ourselves completely good and pure, so Jesus did it for us, freeing us from everything we’ve done wrong in the past and everything we will do in the future:

    So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

    Ephesians 1:6-8 NLT

    Being a Christian is not about following a bunch of rules, but about responding to and appreciating God’s incredible kindness to us through Jesus. 

    Pause and reflect: 

    • What are some ways I rely on myself or my abilities instead of relying on God? What areas do I need God’s help?
    • How do I feel about knowing that Jesus came to free me up, not to give me more rules to follow?

    Wrapping up

    No matter where we are in your relationship with God today, we can all change. The important step is identifying how we see rules with God and people instead of relationships. Take time today and in the days to come to answer these questions and grow closer in your relationship with God:

    • Am I more focused on rules or relationships?
    • In what ways have I been approaching God by following rules?
    • How can I change my mind and approach God as a relationship?

    In addition to being a contributor to Deep Spirituality, Sean is our webmaster and general tech guru.

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