God first: The best excuse since ‘The woman you gave me made me do it’

J-O-Y, J-O-Y this shall surely be:
Jesus first
Yourself last
And Others in between.

I remember singing this song in Sunday School at a very young age and thinking that it was only natural for me to put Jesus first since he had given everything for me. Remember, this was all done from within the context of belief that my life was worthless and in me was no good to be found. Even with the redeeming power of Jesus, a human being was still said to be a worthless wretch, a ‘worm,’ nothing.

So this was the path to Joy: learn your priorities.

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I recall when one of my College mates got married, he had the intention (and believed he had a calling from God) to be a pastor and thought he had found the ideal pastor’s wife. On his wedding day he told his bride that God was first in his life and that meant she would always take second place to his ministry.

That marriage lasted less than a year.

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A few months ago I had a short chat with the head of a global missionary organisation. I appreciated his commitment to the work and what he and his mission had done through planting self-perpetuating and self-funding local churches around the world.

But when he spoke of the cost of mission work, it seemed the family made little difference. If a child died overseas because of lack of proper medical care while the parents were doing ‘God’s work,’ that was something to be proud of–a badge of honour to prove how God was first in everything. It was an example for the local ministers and congregations to follow.

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Another story caught my attention the other day of a young man, the son of a prominent Evangelist, who was now writing a book about his journey into atheism. One major theme encompasses his story: in his family, God was always first (‘God’ being his father’s evangelistic ministry). Dad was never home. Dad spent more time ‘winning souls’ than nurturing those in his own house.

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Isn’t it interesting to hear pastors, evangelists, Christian writers, leaders speak about putting God first and then equating this to giving to their particular ministry, mission or cause. In a local church this takes the form of showing up for every church activity 3 or 4 nights a week plus Sunday morning. To a televangelist, this could mean sacrificing that holiday, present or bill money to further their ‘outreach.’

My aunt was a dedicated follower of Jerry Falwell. As I recall, Falwell had a fundraising campaign sometime around 1980 in which he would send everyone who made a donation to his ministry a ‘Jesus First’ pin. My aunt sent in a donation for each of us so we would all have a ‘Jerry Jesus First’ pin to wear with pride.

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‘Put God first and your family will never suffer need.’

I familyam believing with more and more conviction every day that when you put your family first, you are putting God first. Your family has been entrusted to you by God. God does not desire to be worshiped or served at their expense.

Your family is your first ministry.

St Paul writes about this when he calls those who do not provide for their own family ‘worse than an unbeliever’ and says of these, ‘They have denied the faith.’

I believe this is more than simply a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs.

If you neglect your family, you are neglecting God.

I would go so far as to say that if you do not consider your own family as your first and foremost service to God, you are simply making excuses for your choice to be an absent father or mother.

I would be even bolder to declare that many in Christian ministry truly believe that, if they were not to ‘forsake all and follow Christ,’ they would find themselves in great judgement. Because of fear, they serve God to the detriment of their own household, believing the end justifies–requires–this. After all, saving someone’s soul for eternity is far more important than playing basketball with my son.

Perhaps, they have the mistaken notion that God will one day demand of them: ‘What have you done for me?’

And they, like Adam, hanging their head in shame, will reply, ‘The family you gave me, Lord–they kept me from pursuing whole-hearted service for you.’

And God will say to them: ‘The family I gave you–service to them was serving me.’

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.‘ (Matthew 25:40, NRSV)

Embracing Imperfection

One of the often-sung hymns in my early life was one entitled, ‘Yield Not to Temptation.’ The driven-in thought pattern which accompanied such singing went something like this:

‘You cannot be a good Christian if you sin.’

You cannot expect other people to want to become Christians if you don’t show you have victory over the world, the flesh and the devil.’ (or, ‘You can sin as much as you want, but don’t you dare let it be known.’)

‘Your number one aim in life is to avoid doing whatever may even appear to be evil so you can maintain a good testimony in the world.’

The words of the song provided the perfect backdrop for such a lifelong drama:

Yield not to temptation
For yielding is sin
Each victory will help you
Some other to win

Sin avoidance was the key to a successful and ‘victorious’ life, and, through this seemingly-successful life, others would be drawn to Christ.Sometimes God chooses to shine forgiveness and love through the broknness and imperfections in our life.*

Yet, the more I understand Jesus, and the more I am exposed to people who are sincere followers of his way, the more I see imperfection as being the cracks through which the love of God can shine–windows through which God’s forgiveness can be seen.

Richard Rohr writes of this ‘losing’ lifestyle thus:

One reason why I am so attracted to Jesus and then to Francis is that they found God in disorder, in imperfection, in the ordinary, and in the real world—not in any idealized concepts. They were more into losing than winning. But the ego does not like that, so we rearranged much of Christianity to fit our egoic pattern of achievement and climbing.

Isn’t it strange that Christians worship a God figure, Jesus, who appears to be clearly losing by every criterion imaginable? And then we spend so much time trying to “win,” succeed, and perform. We even call Jesus’ “losing” the very redemption of the world—yet we run from it. I think Christians have yet to learn the pattern of redemption. It is evil undone much more than evil ever perfectly avoided. It is disorder reconfigured in our hearts and minds—much more than demanding any perfect order to our universe.

St Paul well said, ‘[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.’ In our imperfection, in our humanity, in our losing, God’s grace–the one perfect constant in our life–is seen for what it truly is: fully unconditional, all-encompassing and imperfection-embracing love.

So I embrace my imperfection. It’s part of who I am as a human being. I will not and cannot be perfect. I cannot keep up a ‘victory’ front, appear to be squeaky-clean, look like Jesus. But I can trust, humbly live my life in my humanness, and believe that, through the imperfections, God’s glory will shine.

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* The irony of this scenario seemed to me to be that one would put on a facade so they would attract others to Jesus. The new convert then would be taight that they too must put on a similar appearance to draw in others into this vicious cycle of hypocrisy and deception. In hindsight, I should have seen how unlike Jesus this really was.

The Cost of New Life

wheat“Creativity and newness of life have a cost, and the cost is what appears to look like death. But really it is not. It is just letting go of one thing to make room for another thing. Loss is always perceived as an enemy or affliction, and looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve something more and something bigger. Some form of positive dying invariably allows us to be united with what is Larger Reality, but of course we never know that ahead of time.

“So if you spend your whole life avoiding dying, the spiritual teachers would say you will never get there. Meditate on the phrase Jesus gave us, ‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). That quotation is about as counterintuitive as you can get. Rationally I cannot prove that to you. You have to walk through it. You have to experience it to know that it is in fact true and true for you. Frankly, none of us go there until we are shoved.”

Richard Rohr