Keeping First the One Who Is First

Remembering how to put God first

Mark Galli is the former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine. He was previously an editor with Christian History and Leadership magazines and was a pastor for 10 years. Mark is the author of numerous books on prayer, preaching, and pastoral ministry. His latest book is When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for Our Future (Tyndale), on which this interview is based.

We Christians have become enamored with doing good things for God and less enamored with loving God in and for himself. I think one of the main temptations of the mission-minded is to believe it’s their job to make a difference in the world. One of the things that has to happen for that whole movement to actually have the energy to keep moving is to realize that our job is to be faithful to what God has called us to do, whether it transforms one life, or 10 lives, or the entire world. Our responsibility is to be faithful to the task God calls us to.

It’s just a good reminder how Jesus himself phrased the two great commandments: He said to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength, and to love your neighbor. But he doesn’t say to love your neighbor with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. He says that about God. It doesn’t mean ignore the neighbor. That’s the main thing that people are all anxious about. What about mission? No, you can’t ignore it, but this is about the first thing.

Christians in general, but especially evangelicals, are anxious about many things, and I think one of the reasons is we suddenly believe we’re in charge of the world and of outcomes. We’re not doing enough, or we’re worried somebody else is not doing enough. The source of that anxiety is a forgetfulness that there is Someone who is actually in charge of the universe, who’s driving the universe to a good end. So while we are rightfully concerned to love our neighbor and to make sure the welfare of our neighbor is in good condition, I think a Christian can always live with a sense of hope and joy in the midst of that, knowing God is in charge, not us.

How do we put God first? I think it’s crucial that we set aside time for prayer at least a couple times a day, where our day becomes punctuated with the idea that we are going to be consciously and specifically communing with God. The monastic habit is seven times a day. That’s going to be pretty hard for someone who is working in the world, but two to three times a day is doable: morning, maybe a brief time at noon, something in the evening. The prayer doesn’t even have to be long. I know I’m kind of a godless Christian when my heart feels resentful that I’m going to have to spend 10 minutes in prayer in the middle of the day. That tells me a whole bunch about where my heart is. But prayer does a great job of reminding you how God’s presence permeates all of creation, so that when you are serving the poor at a homeless shelter or giving food away at a food closet, the more we punctuate our days with prayer, the more likely we are to know his presence at that moment. The more we are just driving about and looking at the beautiful trees in our neighborhood, we will think about the glory of God and what a wonderful gift trees are to us. Prayer creates a kind of a God-consciousness that punctuates our entire day.

This isn’t to say that people should be thinking only about God day to day. I don’t want my airplane mechanic to be thinking about God when he’s getting a plane ready to take off. I want him thinking about airplane mechanics. But it does seem to me that for people who claim to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, that our day would be punctuated with gratefulness to God, with the remembrance of God, that he is the great engineer, for example, that helped people create these magnificent things called jetliners.

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I think church is where we should be focusing a great deal of our spiritual and active lives, but anybody who has worked in the church knows it can be so consumed with activity. There are so many great programs churches manage. It’s easy to become burned out because it becomes all about activity and less about the Person for whom we’re ultimately doing the activity.

Church leaders are in a difficult situation. On one hand, they do love their people and want them to blossom spiritually. But they also need these people to help manage the life of the church. There’s a lot of work involved in helping a church do its worship and ministry, so the temptation is to ask people to do one more thing. To go one extra mile. They’ll do it because they love you and they love Jesus, but as any pastor knows, sometimes church volunteers feel exploited because of that, and they get resentful and angry. So a pastor has to really work hard at making sure he’s not overworking his people, that he’s really concerned not just about their work in the church but about the state of their souls.

I think we can also get off track as we aim to become more spiritual. Think about the Spiritual Disciplines movement, begun with Richard Foster and Dallas Willard most recently in the Protestant world. We start the spiritual disciplines because we want to have a more intimate knowledge of God, which is wonderful. But pretty soon there is a little voice in our head that makes us think it’s about becoming a spiritual person. Well, no offense, but God doesn’t give a darn whether you’re a spiritual person or not. He wants you to be a person who knows him and loves him and seeks him. That means that one will continue to pursue those spiritual disciplines during periods that are really dry. God knows that for most of is, it’s going to take a long time for that to mature and develop. I think a perfectly honest and appropriate prayer is to say, God, I have to admit, I don’t really love you right now, so help me learn to love you. And I think he accepts that. He accepts anybody who turns, no matter how paltry their language or desire.

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Church leaders need to be appropriately vulnerable and talk about their own struggles in this manner. Obviously as the leader, there are things you should share and things you should not share. People don’t want their leaders to be overly vulnerable. They do want someone they can admire, someone they can look up to. They also want to know that that person they’re admiring and looking up to is a human being trying to work out their salvation in fear and trembling like them as well.

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