When You've Tried Everything and It's Not Working

“It’s not working, and I’ve tried everything.”

I said that. Again and again. Amazing, isn’t it? How our efforts can feel like every possible thing. It can sure seem as though we’ve exhausted our resources if we’re following the “rules” but not getting the results we’ve hoped for.

When we don’t achieve our desired outcomes, it can seem like something in the whole do-things-God’s-way thing isn’t working. And maybe we have tried #allthethings. But maybe we’re still missing something. Maybe it’s in setting something down, rather than picking up one more tool, that we’ll find what we’ve needed to be doing all along.

Our eyes are trained to read paragraphs as fairly complete ideas, right? So, it makes sense that if we pick up a Bible filled with paragraphs, we might think that one conveniently labeled heading and its preceding paragraph is a complete thought. And we might stop at the end of it and move on to what we assume is a separate thought in the next paragraph. The problem is that the Bible wasn’t originally written with our western-style line breaks, and if we don’t read through the lines and between them, we can easily miss the context around the words we’re seeing. And we very well may also miss the God who is speaking those words.

Isaiah 28 promises that we’ll do it--that people will see God’s Word this way. It’s been happening since long before a guy named Steve separated our Bibles into chapters. It tells of people for whom Scripture becomes, “Law after law, law after law, line after line, line after line, a little here, a little there,” (Isaiah 28:13). It becomes to us a formula, instead of a very present God’s very exhale.

Take Mark 10, for example. A teaching about divorce, the well-known “let the little children come to me” bit, the story of the rich young man who had all the stuff, a reminder that Jesus is going to die, and a commentary about a couple of presumptuous brothers. So many separate thoughts, right?

Wrong. Don’t let the paragraph headings fool you. Read through them.

Becky Bennett Bible Study Context Mark 10

In this beautiful chapter, there are seams that cannot be separated from one another. They hold each other together. Jesus is walking around with His disciples, teaching people, and having side conversations with the Twelve all along the way to help them understand how it all connects. Everything in this chapter is intentionally placed right here. Everything in the way God teaches us is intentionally placed right where it belongs.

Look closer.

It starts with Mark 10:1-12, “The Teaching About Divorce.” If you can ignore the heading, then go ahead and cross-reference back to Deuteronomy 24, which is what Jesus is pointing to here when He talks about Moses giving laws about divorce. And don’t stop after the first paragraph heading in Deuteronomy 24, either. Look at the whole chapter and you’ll see a theme: God looks out for the marginalized, the needy, the oppressed. The laws written here are not given because they inform us of God’s best way. They exist because we are hard-hearted (Mark 10:5) and God is making the most room for the best possible outcomes given the circumstances.

The law is merciful.

The law reveals our sin.

From the beginning, God made His intentions for us clear. If we had followed His way of love, we wouldn’t have any need for the law. The law doesn’t save us or make us better. It helps us to see how not to hurt other people. It spares people who are being hurt by others. It points us to our need for a Savior.

Ok. Now skip ahead a few paragraph headings to the Mark 10:17-31, the one with the Rich Young Man. This passage typically gets used as a prime example for why we shouldn’t care so much about our stuff. But again, look closer.

This man had an opportunity to recognize Jesus as God (verse 18), but instead, he focused on himself (verse 20) and totally missed the point.

Notice the portions of the Ten Commandments that Jesus mentions to this man are only those about our relationships with others. He strategically leaves out the first four commands that are directly speaking of our love and devotion to God alone (Deuteronomy 5:6-15). This could have been a great place for an earnest Deuteronomy-6-following-guy to interrupt Jesus and insist that He hadn’t just kept himself from adultery and cheating and stealing, but had poured out his heart to love God with his whole heart and soul and strength. Nope. The man doesn’t notice what Jesus omits.

What Jesus then tells him to do isn’t just to sell his belongings. He is telling him to lay down his idols, to lay down his “other lovers” (see Hosea 2), but He does it with grace and wisdom, leaving room for the man to think for himself and to take a good look at the state of his own heart. And He’s not doing it out of any kind of scorn or with any shame attached, either. He looks at the man and loves him. God Himself looks right at this person who is trying so hard to follow Him but is missing that it all comes down to love, and this compassionate God loves him even still. Then, Jesus adds the call to, “come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).

Jesus turns to His disciples to make a lesson out of it, and says that many who are first in the kingdom will be last and vice versa. First in the Kingdom = those who have the law and are following it to the letter and the line (Isaiah 28), but are missing God Himself. They are not loving Him and following Him. They are following their own way and their own god, just like we see the rich young man was.

And then, while this is all fresh in the disciples’ minds, Jesus brings in the part about authority in Mark 10:42-45. But keep the wheels turning: look how it connects back to Mark 10:1-12. Paul ties these thoughts together again in Ephesians 5:22-38. If you read all of these passages side-by-side, you’ll see a much bigger picture of God’s heart. The goal is not to have authority over others but is to serve them in love. The goal is to lay down your own life, not to build yourself up or to get to stand over someone else.

“For even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45).

The law isn’t about proving ourselves righteous. It reminds us of how self-focused we are and how much we need to love God and love others.

To follow Christ is to quit trying to prove or justify ourselves and to instead, lay ourselves down.

Let’s back up and look through all of Mark 10 now. We’ll add in the little paragraphs that we didn’t pull apart yet (because again, it’s far too easy to skip over important contextual elements when paragraph headings make portions of Scripture seem like they’re complete, stand-alone thoughts).

It starts with:

Mark 10:1-12, “The Teaching About Divorce”

The law was given to us in our sin. It is not a means to perfection. It reveals our selfishness and our need for a Savior.

God’s original intention for us was not and is not the law--it was the state of things in Eden.

We will miss God’s point if we are living bound to the law as a means to an end (Isaiah 28).

This passage goes STRAIGHT INTO:

Mark 10:13-16, “Let the Children Come to Me”

We must come to Christ like children. Make no mistake: children are not innocent or “blameless in regard to the law.” They are very selfish, and yet, they come to Jesus with dependence on Him.

Jesus is emphasizing how we need to come to him like children, in our sinful state and dependent on Him, not striving-for-perfection and dependent-on-a-list-of-laws-to-try-to-shape-and-fix-and-solve-our-world. Children trust Jesus, not the law.

This passage goes STRAIGHT INTO:

Mark 10:17-31, “The Rich Young Man”

We will miss God’s point when the law, to us, is self-serving and about proving ourselves righteous or proving ourselves to be enough.

The law serves as a reminder to us of how self-focused we are and how much we need to shift our focus to loving God and loving others.

To follow Christ is to quit trying to prove our justify ourselves and is to lay ourselves down. In love.

This passage goes STRAIGHT INTO:

Mark 10:32-32, “Jesus Foretells His Death”

He reminds His disciples that this is why He came--to lay Himself down in love and to make a way for us to actually be righteous and to actually get to live in a new kind of Eden.

This passage goes STRAIGHT INTO:

Mark 10:35-45, “The Request of James and John”

The goal is not to have authority or sway over others. The goal is to lay our lives down--to serve--not to be served.

My mind is blown by this kind of thing. There’s so much here and we’re not even scratching the surface. I don’t want to separate out small pieces of Scripture that seem like simple instructions for what to do in life and then miss God’s bigger picture of how to truly live.

So, when we feel like we’re following the “rules” but not getting the results we’re hoping for, it might be that we’re missing something. Maybe we’ve been trying to solve our problems by sticking out-of-context verses on like bandaids and formulas and to-do lists. Maybe we’ve actually rejected the Word for the sake of the law. Maybe we’re still focused on ourselves--on building and lifting ourselves up. What we really need to do is to focus on laying ourselves down and lifting God high and lifting up the other person or other people in our lives. That’s the model Jesus set for us.