Friday, July 23, 2010

First Things First

As some of you know, it was my study of the Greatest and Second Greatest commandments (as laid out by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40), that spurred me on to start this blog. If you haven't read those two original posts (first, and second), I'd encourage you to do so. For this post, it will be particularly helpful to read the second, as it's in that context that the following quotes from C. S. Lewis make sense.

But just in case you don't want to click over, I'll reproduce a relevant portion of that post here. In studying how it is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, I looked at how the nature of (1) The Father's love, (2) the love Jesus showed while He was on earth, and (3) the love believers are commanded to show are all summed up in the concept of benefit. The Father loves by benefiting (Rom 5:8), Jesus loved by benefiting (Mt 9:18-35, Mk 6:30-34, Lk 22:49, etc.), and we are commanded to love by benefiting (Lk 6:27-31; Jas 2:14-17; 1Jn 3:17-18).

But when I asked how it is that I am to benefit my neighbor, I kept running up against this concept in the Bible that I fulfill the Second Greatest Commandment by pursuing -- not it -- but the First. How do I love my neighbor as myself? I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Principally, I get that from 1 John 5:2: By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.

But this principle of "You get Secondary Things by pursuing First Things first" is confirmed in many other passages of Scripture as well. From that post, slightly modified:
  • Matthew 6:33 - Considering the Greatest Commandments as commandments required to be obeyed, Jesus says just to seek first the kingdom and His righteousness. Be consumed with loving God with all that you are. And all other things – which are all summed up in “Love your neighbor as yourself” – will be added unto as you just seek Him first.
  • Leviticus 19:14, 32; 25:43 - As a grounding for commands to practically benefit their neighbor, God continually says to Israel, “You shall revere your God.” Reverence for God is the basis for loving one’s neighbor. You will get the Secondary Things if you pursue the First Things.
  • Luke 10:38-42 - Martha is worried about many secondary things. Only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, as she's chosen to pursue First Things first.
  • Colossians 3:1-4 - Here we are commanded to be so consumed with heavenly things because that is where Christ is. And if you look at the context, it is this command to seek First Things first that is the ground for all of the practical directives on how to love each other from Colossians 3:12 all the way to the end of the body of the letter in Colossians 4:6.
  • Psalm 27:4 - When David declares that the beauty of God is the one thing in his life that demands his affection and allegiance, I am benefited -- I am loved -- by David’s singularity of focus. I see his all-consuming desire to just behold the beauty of God, and I am thereby helped to see God more clearly, treasure Him more fully, and enjoy Him more fully. And that is my greatest benefit! To know God! So it can properly be said that David loves me by displaying to me his love for God. He accomplishes love for his neighbor, a Secondary Thing, by pursuing First Things first.
Now, with all that in mind, I came across a couple of C. S. Lewis quotes the other day that speak to this very same issue, and I was greatly benefited by seeing how his thoughts, independent from my own, affirmed this very doctrine that I am teaching: that we love -- or benefit -- our neighbor most when we love God most. They are from multiple sources.
From a 1952 letter: “When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

From God in the Dock, pp. 278-281: “The longer I looked into it the more I came to suspect that I was perceiving a universal law...the woman who makes a dog the center of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all his power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman – glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? [Implied: You are disappointed.] Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good [instead of] a great, or a partial good [instead of] a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.

Apparently the world is made that way... You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. From which it would follow that the question, What things are first? is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone... if we do not know, then the first and only truly practical thing is to set about finding out.”

From Mere Christianity, pp.134-135: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.

It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more – food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilization [love our neighbor, care for the least of these] as long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

He's saying precisely what Paul says in Colossians 3:1-4:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

We are to set our minds on the things above, and not on the things on earth, because that is where Christ is. And our life is in Him. Do you want to love people? Good! Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you will love your neighbor as yourself. Pursue First Things first, and the Secondary Things will be "added unto you."

Many folks balk at this notion. One application in particular that I'd like to make, though, is to those who call themselves "missional," and sound the call for the Church's role in achieving social justice. They call attention to the fact that the eternal state will be enjoyed here on a renewed earth by Christians with glorified physical bodies -- that Heaven won't be our disembodied spirits in a ghost world. And based on this they conclude that God is concerned not only about the spiritual but the physical. And so we should be concerned not just about the spiritual, but the physical. As such, the preservation of the environment, social structures, and fallen human culture is erroneously thrust to the forefront of the Church's mission.

Well, it’s true that He is coming to redeem this earth. But if we follow that line of reasoning, we will be seeking to achieve secondary goals -- some of them great, Biblical, necessary goals, but secondary goals -- by pursuing them first, rather than by pursuing First Things first and seeing the second things "thrown in," as Lewis says. We'll never save society as long as society is our main object." And as Paul says, our 'setting-our-mind' energy is to be focused entirely on Christ. When He’s here, then we can set our minds on the things that are on earth because He will be on earth. But until then, we set our minds on things above because that’s where He is. Oh we most certainly run this race, but we fix our eyes on Jesus as we run this race (Heb 12:2)!

It’s exactly as Lewis, following the Apostle Paul, following Jesus, says it: the first thing is Christ. Seek Him first, and all these things will be added to you.

By this we know that we love the children of God,
when we love God
and observe His commandments.

- 1 John 5:2 -

(Click here for a follow-up post.)

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