First Things First
I like the New Year because the turning of the calendar always presents a new set of opportunities. Maybe this year I’ll do something I’ve never done before. Maybe I’ll buy my wife a Valentine’s Day present (though in the past I have always resisted being told when and how to declare my affection). Maybe I’ll take a surprise vacation and go to some exotic place where I’ve never been, like Mexico City. Or maybe I’ll surprise myself and start writing another book.
Every new year is a clean page in our personal history books. It’s a time to build a new calendar of events and include those things that give meaning to life. Every new year, new month, new week, or new day should bring some joy because each is a new start.
Nevertheless, some people find new beginnings—especially the New Year’s season—depressing. That transition only means being another year older at a time when the years seem to have accelerated until they last about as long as a month used to last. Others feel ambivalent about the new year because when faced with a new beginning, they confuse opportunities with imperatives, and they don’t know what they should do first. Decision time always perplexes them.
Decisions, properly considered, require that one very carefully weigh all options and the consequences of his or her choices. People often fear that they are not thoroughly aware or mindful enough to make the proper choices. They have vague feelings of uneasiness and inner whisperings of warning that they are probably overlooking something. Some even labor under the false wisdom that it is better not to make choices than to choose wrongly, as if living with someone else’s wrong choices is better than living with their own.
At New Year’s time we are painfully confronted with difficult questions. What should be our order of events? What should be our priorities? When? Where? How should we set the order of events?
Bible teachers and others committed to teaching us how we should live have tried to compile lists of things for us to do and be, attitudes we ought to adopt, and actions we ought to take. While these lists can be very valuable in bringing order into our lives, the wrong priorities can bring chaos. Any priority list of attitudes, actions and contingencies must always be based on what ought to come before each one.
This is quite apparent in the physical world. In mixing a formula, certain volatile chemicals that could be a useful compound if added in one order, might create an explosion if added in another order. Again, the steps of a recipe, taken out of proper order, will probably result in something inedible. Imagine trying to bake a cake by putting the ingredients in the oven at 350 degrees before you’ve mixed them together, or taken the eggs out of their shells, or added the shortening.
Likewise, certain procedures could prove deadly unless one understood the essential order of things. No artillery instructor would ever give the command: Ready! Fire! Aim!” No one should ever try to drive an automobile without first switching on the ignition key. No one should ever try to make tea without first putting water in the tea kettle before putting it on the fire to heat.
The order in which things ought to be done is very important and sometimes can be very confusing to Christians. For example, a believer who decides that first he will tend to his financial security and afterwards develop his spiritual life is as ineffectual as a rifleman who shoots before taking aim. Equally ineffectual is the believer who agrees to work on his day of worship so he can earn enough money to pay off his recreational vehicle that will then enable him to spend weekends away from home. Or consider the error of parents who wait to give their children religious instruction until they “will be old enough to make up their own minds.” All of these are not merely procrastinators—they are people who set the wrong priorities.
A while back a certain teaching came out of left field and stood atop the pitcher’s mound. The pitch was to ministers: First comes God, then your family, then your ministry, then the public at large. Well, at least they got the first part of it very right, because according to Scripture we are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all other necessities will be added (Matthew 6:33).
The intangibles of life are not so easy to categorize. I have never gotten comfortable with that new-fangled word “prioritize,” because deciding what ought to be first is not always that simple. Suppose I put my family first. My wife asks me to do an errand, and in the course of doing that errand I realize that I must drive faster. I see a man crossing the street and figure there is only one chance in seventy-five that I will hit him by driving fast. Because I put my family first and I’m on an errand for them, does that justify my driving in such a way as to put someone else in jeopardy? I think not.
Or suppose you are invited to my house to help me celebrate an event in my life or your life or the life of one of the members of our families. My wife has prepared a wonderful celebration meal, and after you arrive and we greet one another we sit down at the table and thank God for the food. Just then the telephone rings and I answer it. Knowing something about my lifestyle, my wife tells you to go ahead and eat because I might be on the phone for a while. And suppose that, indeed, after a while I return, hat and coat in hand, to say that there is an emergency in someone’s life and I must leave. Should I have told the caller, “You and your emergency are important, but not as important as my family and friends and our celebration, so if you’ll just wait, perhaps I’ll drop by for a few minutes after all of our guests leave?”
Somehow, I don’t think I would have a worthy ministry if that were my attitude. The same kind of commitment is expected of any professional, like a physician or an attorney or even a craftsman upon whom people depend, like a plumber. All of us have some kind of commitments we must place above our conventional enjoyment and personal convenience.
I am happy to say that through the years I have not had to miss too many family celebrations because of my commitment to respond immediately in that kind of emergency. Occasionally I did find myself away from my wife and children at times when I would rather have been with them, but my duty to my ministry required it. I expected them to understand, and I think they usually did.
I would not like to find myself in a position where I had to struggle constantly with difficult priority decisions, and I thank God that things don’t often happen that way. Usually, the Ruler of the Universe allows events and circumstances to come into our lives on a day-to-day basis in such a way that we can serve him and others and enjoy him and others without exclusions. If we seek to honor him first, the rest of our inner directives and personal sense of order will usually fall into place.
When I think about the New Year, my personal plan is always the same. I have no long list of priorities. I take them as God plans them and as they come. I think I have as much personal enjoyment in life as most others, even though my recreation schedule tends to be planned on a momentary basis. I have only one item of priority in my life, and it is the same every year and every day: “Seek the Lord and his righteousness.” The consequences of following that priority are always the same: “…and all these things shall be added unto you.” That way, circumstances are added to my life in an order in which I can best handle them. I think that this year, as in the past, is going to be a good one. With God leading the way, how can it be otherwise?