Most people do not journey very far in their spiritual lives, not because they are afraid of challenge or sacrifice, rather they do not sojourn because they are afraid of what they will uncover about themselves.  The old adage is true:  Adversity does not build character, it reveals character. 

In 1978 Jack Gantos created a favorite literary character that has charmed children for years.  His name is Rotten Ralph.  He is an obnoxious large red cat owned by a sweetly naive young Sarah.  When Jack began creating adventures for Rotten Ralph and Sarah, the plot ended with Sarah always loving her cat, Rotten Ralph, no matter his crime.  Rarely did Rotten Ralph have self awareness about the effect of his antics until book number eleven.  In Rotten Ralph Helps Out, Ralph discovers that his shenanigans are hindering Sarah’s Egyptian homework project.  It’s frustrating for poor Ralph because this time he really wants to assist, yet his way of doing things always have an adverse effect.  At one point in the reading, I wondered if Ralph was upset because he could not help Sarah or because he realized how rotten he really was.

That self discovery is exactly what causes good people to turn away from a conflict that may grow them emotionally and spiritually.  What if all the bad things I think about myself turn out to be true?  Worse yet, what if there is more bad stuff than I realize?  What if I AM ROTTEN RALPH with NO Sarah to love me?  The fear evoked by these internal questions brings compromise.

In Mark 10, Jesus interacts with the rich young ruler, who professes to be godly in deed and action.  Jesus challenges this young man to give up his wealth by sharing it with the poor and becoming a disciple.  The story is a bit of a letdown because the young man walks away.  I believe the young ruler exits quickly because he is in shock.  He has believed that God has favored him because of his wealth. (After all, Father Abraham was rich.)  This made him a shoe in for heaven, much less the acceptance of this Rabbi before him.  Yet Jesus throws out and invitation that challenges the one thing that defines his personhood.  He discovers that he is not as godly as he thinks.  He does love something more than God; wealth and the power that comes with it.  He intelligently wove his love of money into his religion; after all he did tithe.  The Gospel states that Jesus “loved” him.  And Jesus loved him by revealing his character in a mirror of self sacrifice.  I suppose I would retreat in horror too.

Rotten Ralph and the rich young ruler seem to have plotted similar paths.  Rotten Ralph does find redemption.  After destroying Sarah’s final finished project, he becomes a last minute project himself.  Sarah transforms him into an Egyptian sphinx, winning a good grade.

The gospel story does not give us much hope for the Rich Young Ruler because the story ends abruptly.  Yet legend does abound.  Some tales are told that Mark, the author of this gospel, is the Rich Young Ruler.  Only in this account (verses other gospels) does the writer note that Jesus “loved” the Rich Young Ruler.  Some think this personal footnote is the author’s significant hint.  There is a stronger argument from culture and history that place Barnabas as the Rich Young Ruler.  Whatever the legend (or the truth), it gives us hope that the Rich Young Ruler did struggle with his wealth addiction, overcome it and become a follower of Jesus.  The beginning of the recovery was shock and retreat.  This young man discovered who he really was through the eyes of the divine.

Those who seek to spiritual growth will be challenged by the gospel time and time again.  A reasonable reaction to these challenges is shock and retreat.  It’s uncomfortable.  And, after all, we are human.  But just as Jesus “loved” the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus loves us….even in our retreat.  Accepting the dreaded retreat as a step toward growth, instead of a shameful failure is the attitude needed to allow Jesus to love us.  It is the love of Christ and propels us to return and grow.

There is a Rotten Ralph and Sarah inside all of us.  Our spiritual growth stops when our “Sarah” punishes our “Rotten Ralph”.  Ralph won’t venture far when he doesn’t feel safe.  Internally, when our “Sarah” accepts and affirms the rottenness of our inner “Ralph”, we are ready to go back to Jesus.  Sarah knows she can’t fix him.  But it’s not her job!

Sometimes the most Christ-like thing we can do is love ourselves.  In other words allow our internal “Sarah” to be like Jesus and love our “Rotten Ralphs”. 

Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character.  Be in conflict.  Love what you find about yourself to be true and let Jesus do the rest.

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