Putting First Things First
By Brittney Westin —
If you’re like me, you struggle with sin. Sometimes in that struggle, we crave so badly for what we know will satisfy us only momentarily. Because that’s how sin works. It’s the wiggly worm that looks so appetizing to the fish. And so we bite. And at first, that bite is what we had hoped for, thrilling and satisfying. But it’s only when we try to swim away that we realize our prize is attached to a hook which is attached to a line which is held by a force we are powerless to swim away from.
One of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, illustrates this kind of deadly longing for satisfaction in the most heart wrenching way with a character named Brooks. Brooks is an old crook who has spent virtually his entire adult life behind bars. Eventually, after decades of life lived incarcerated, Brooks, now in his seventies, has been paroled. The movie shows him trying, and failing, to adjust to a world outside prison walls. After a few weeks, Brooks writes a letter to his buddies in prison saying, “Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway so they’d send me home.” Not surprisingly, Brooks ends up hanging himself in his halfway house.
Brooks is all of us, isn’t he? If we are Christians, we’ve been paroled through Christ but so often we still long for the security of our self-made prisons. Our sins can look so satisfying from the outside because they provide the illusion of comfort, even safety. And they can be tricky too because the thing we crave often isn’t itself sinful, but the longing for it that turns it into sin in our lives. John Piper reflects on this in his book, When I Don’t Desire God,
What do we make and what do we trust? Things. Toys. Technology. And so our hearts and our affections are formed by these things. They compress the void in our heart into shapes like toys. The result is that we are easily moved and excited by things—computers, cars, appliances, entertainment media. They seem to fit the shapes in our hearts. They feel good in the tiny spaces they have made. But in this readiness to receive pleasure from things, we are ill-shaped for Christ. He seems unreal, unattractive. The eyes of our hearts grow dull (58).
So what are we to do? If sin is so enticing and the devil so sneaky, how can we possibly expect to prevail? Well, we don’t. The Lord will on our behalf, but we do have a role to play. Thankfully, it is a small one in comparison to what Christ has done, for when we’ve taken the bait or slipped our head in the noose, all we have to do is cry out and call upon the name of the Lord who will fight for us (Deut. 20:4). Sometimes, I’ve become so apathetic in my sin that this is all I can do. Thankfully, God is merciful and loves a contrite heart, so He will accept my feeble attempt and, in His good time, pull me out of the pit I’ve dug for myself (Ps. 40, 1-3).
If there is a mantra I live by, it is this quote from C.S. Lewis written in a letter to a friend of his, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” This is a truth that has helped guide my thoughts almost on a daily basis since I first read it, for it follows so exactly the words of Matthew, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (6:33).
Certainly, we know what things Lewis is referring to as “second things.” They are as different as we are. They are the (often times good) things we crave instead of God Himself. Maybe it’s pleasure, and so we find ourselves longing for the next vacation or binge watching the next Netflix show. Maybe it’s security, so we refuse to give generously or work harder to put more money in the bank. Maybe it’s beauty, so we tirelessly keep up with the latest trends or obsess over the perfect selfie. Maybe it’s prestige, so we desire for others to know our intellect and the things we have accomplished. Maybe it’s a sense of self-worth, so we obsess over the ways our children reflect ourselves and search for ways to be relevant and accepted among our peers.
But what are the “first things”? I would argue the first things can be boiled down to one thing: The enjoyment of God above all else. The reason we were created is to glorify God, so what better thing to make your life’s goal than to enjoy Him beyond anything else? “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone…whom I created for my glory” (Isa 43:6-7). Piper has written extensively on this truth and writes, “That is why we exist—to see, and rejoice in, and reflect the value of the glory of God” (59). If we do that, if we find joy in God first, we get everything else added. We find in our enjoyment of Him pleasure (Ps. 16:11), security (Phil. 4:19), beauty (2 Corinth. 3:18), prestige (Eph. 1:4), self-worth (Eph. 2:10), and so much more.
We even sing old hymns about it: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, / Look full in His wonderful face; / And the things of earth will grow strangely dim / In the light of His glory and grace.” The more we enjoy God, the more the things we manipulate to get the feelings we desire will become, themselves, less desirable. Netflix is entertaining, but it becomes less enticing; money is useful, but it becomes less powerful; trends are fun but they become less alluring, knowledge is good, but it becomes less essential. And in time, these things can go back to taking their proper place in our lives and become what they were intended for all along: gifts from God.
The enjoyment of God is not an option for the Christian. It’s not okay to say I follow God and even obey Him but do not find joy in Him. If our purpose for existence is to bring God glory, then we must enjoy Him (Phil. 4:4, Ps. 37:4; 32:11; 16:11). But what about when we just don’t? I’ve already mentioned that I’m no stranger to apathy. When I dig that pit for myself (and make no mistake, it is usually always my own doing) it’s challenging to even pray, let alone muster up joy. But just as joy is a command for us, it is also a gift (Matt. 19:24, John 6:44, 65). We are commanded to rejoice in the Lord, but in the seeking, He is the one who gifts it. It is not something we have the power to generate on our own. That truth itself should be a joyful one.
As we make a decision to pursue joy in the Lord, as we desire to put this ultimate first thing first, our heavenly Father will not only provide us joy in His timing but, out of His great love for us, He will lavish us with second things as well. Galatians 5:22 is a good example of a few more of these. And as this process unfolds in our lives, may we be able to say as St. Augustine did, “How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose…! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place…”
Lemmel, Helen Howarth. “The Heavenly Vision.” Glad Songs. 1922.
Lewis, C.S.. “First and Second Things.” God in the Dock. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970.
Piper, John. When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. Crossway Books, 2004.