First & Second Things

At Harvard, finals are always preceded by a week called “Reading Period,” which is basically just a free week for students to work on final papers, projects, and to study. I personally have a love-hate relationship with Reading Period; while I like the freedom of no classes or extracurriculars, having so much unscheduled time tends to bring out the worst of my efforts-based perfectionism. Emotionally, the week can be a struggle. There’s always that feeling that, when a day is completely unscheduled, I could technically be working the entire time. Part of me thinks that the definition of “doing my best” to honor God means maximizing every available hour to work.

Obviously, this kind of thinking is unsustainable and exhausting. The hours I don’t spend working end up becoming a source of guilt; I constantly feel like I need to justify my use of time to myself. I worry about whether or not God is honored by my decisions about how much I work. 

Amidst all of this, something I’ve been trying to remind myself is that what matters to God is not that we check the boxes of a clearly laid out definition of “hard work” but that, in any circumstance, we are faithful. Faithfulness encompasses a lot more than work; it also includes rest, relationships, and worship. 

How do we live this life of faithfulness?

In his essay entitled “First and Second Things,” C.S. Lewis reflected on what he saw as a universal law: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” This means that there are some things in life– second things– that can only proceed as a natural outgrowth of some other, more important first thing. To replace this first thing with a second thing will result in the loss of both; only the proper prioritization of first things above second things can yield them together. 

In slightly different terms: “…every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.”

This all may seem confusing in the abstract, but Lewis’s idea is incredibly relevant to understanding growth in faithfulness. 

In the Christian walk, a life of faithfulness is a “second thing.” A delight in God’s character and presence is a “first thing.” 

If we focus on a faithful lifestyle first, we risk losing out on both that second thing and the first thing– a delight in God. If we try to impose acts of obedience on ourselves out of obligation, we risk ending up in frustration and legalism down the road. When we try to embody external markers of faithfulness (hard work, love for others, etc.) without enjoying God first, we put ourselves on the treadmill of works and self-justification. Such an end state can be incredibly discouraging, for in it we have neither achieved sustainable faithfulness nor cultivated a deeper love for God. Put second things first, and we lose out on both the first and second thing. 

Only by first delighting in the Lord can a believer proceed to live in faithfulness. In an enjoyment of God’s character and proximity, knowledge of an obedient lifestyle will come naturally, for as we know God personally and grow in love for Him, the Holy Spirit works in us such that we desire and better understand faithfulness. Put first things first, and we will get both first and second things. 

A great example of these “first and second things” is the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-52:

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha’s actions are an example of prioritizing a second thing over a first thing. She is so concerned about fulfilling the external requirements of being a faithful hostess that she misses Jesus’ definition of faithfulness altogether. She is so preoccupied with preparations that she fails to see that to Jesus, faithfulness in that moment means simply listening at His feet. By placing her own conception of faithfulness first, Martha not only misses out on Jesus’ conception of faithfulness but also does not grow in love for Him.

Meanwhile, Mary prioritizes the first thing and acts upon her delight in Jesus’ presence. Out of this delight, she ends up naturally choosing the “good portion,” or Jesus’ definition of faithfulness. She thereby ends up having acted faithfully and with a deeper love for Jesus. 

How can you put delight in God as our “first thing”? How can we be more like Mary and less like Martha?

Continually remind yourself of the Gospel 

This not only involves familiarity with the Gospel as it reads in scripture, but also a deep understanding of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection affect every aspect of your life. One practice I’ve found immensely helpful is to “transpose” the Gospel into my current circumstances– to consider my current difficulties and then think about how great it is that because Jesus, the Son of God, died for my sins, I can live free and cared for. In my frustration with my questions about work ethic, this often involves reminding myself that nothing I do or don’t do can make God any less pleased with me, because when God sees me He sees Christ’s righteousness in me. 

When we remind ourselves of the Gospel, we will grow in our appreciation for Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and the love that motivated Him. The Gospel is the core of the Christian faith; remind yourself of it, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you how it applies to your current circumstances. 

Know the God you’re delighting in

Someone once told me that the Bible is God’s love letter to His people. Love letters are written not only for the purpose of demonstrating love to the recipient, but also to reveal insights about the writer. God has given 66 books that reveal His character and show how He relates to His children. Spend time in scripture and get to know the God who loves you; when you read scripture, you are literally reading revelation of the God of the Universe– who loves you! That’s pretty incredible, if you ask me.

Pray and invite God into your circumstances

A big part of knowing God involves seeing Him act in your life and gaining deeply personal experience of His faithfulness. Deep joy is found when you start to see that the God you read about in Scripture– the God who worked in the life of Abraham, David, Paul, and others– is working in your life as well. 

This experiential knowledge leads to transformation, and it requires that we actively lift up our circumstances, decisions, and requests to the Lord. In doing so, we posture our hearts to see His provision and answers as they appear in the day-to-day. The more we are acquainted with His work in our lives, the more we are able to understand and appreciate His character.

Ultimately, by knowing God deeply and personally– by seeing the Gospel in daily life, by learning about Him in scripture, by seeing Him work in response to prayer– our ability to delight in Him as our “first thing” will grow. And in this process of growth we can rest in the knowledge that only the Holy Spirit is able to bring about real transformation, and that He is good to do so.

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