Playing Games with God
Chapter 11

The Priorities Game

by Robert M. Smith

Living Water at the Oasis
Living Water at the Oasis

Playing Games with God
Chapter 11
The Priorities Game
by Robert M. Smith

Man has found that there is much to do on this earth and we have the book of Ecclesiastes to support that claim. Ecclesiastes also maintains that life is complete vanity if, in this life, we dedicate ourselves to finding fulfillment from this material universe alone. In a Christian setting commitment is to be channeled Godward even when it may be commitment to a cause, to an event or to a job. This, however, is not always so. We must therefore examine this situation.

Devotion above and beyond the call of duty is both admirable and commendable but there are times when it is out of place priority-wise. The man who works night and day at his job is a rare and precious commodity. His on-the-job-life radiates loyalty, dedication and reliability. However, that man may be utterly foolish at the same time if his family is suffering by his absence. Even beyond the family, that man has responsibilities toward God that he must be sure to keep at the top of his list (Lk 14:26-27). If his spiritual life or his marital life is on the rocks his devotion to his work and his employer is completely worthless because his priorities are wrong. Additionally, by approaching his job with the wrong attitude his priorities can, once again, be wrong, whether he has extracurricular responsibilities or not; his priorities within the job can get mixed up. He could love his job because it gives him tremendous satisfaction and because it is an important position amongst his peers ... thus enters pride. He could love his job because it provides him with all the financial prosperity he craves ... thus enters materialism. He could love his job because it takes him away from the other side of life and allows him to be "king" in his own domain ... thus enters escapism and irresponsibility. If these things are so, how must we view our secular jobs?

On the one hand, 2 Thess 3:6-15 tells us that idleness is very wrong. It is neither proper nor Scriptural to shun work. In fact, Paul writes elsewhere that if one is too lazy to work for the benefit of his own family he is demonstrating that he is not a follower of Christ and is to be considered even worse than an infidel or an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8), for even the unregenerate recognize the primacy of caring and providing for their dependents. On the other hand, Paul is not condoning the attitude that a job is "everything", even when he states " ... but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you," (2 Thess 3:8 NKJV). The context of this passage strongly suggests that he, Silvanus and Timothy laboured at a trade by working into the night as well as during the day in order to assist their hosts and finance the gospel. Herein he had placed his work for the Lord and his consideration for others above his own financial needs and desires. He mentioned this in his writings to the Corinthian church as well (1 Cor 9:8-18). Paul, within this context, also promoted work in order to avoid temptations like those of being "busybodies" or "gossips" (2 Thess 3:11). I realize that the sin of "gossiping" is not considered much in our day but in order to think biblically about it one must see it from God's eyes: it is listed in Rom 1:28-32 as improper conduct, along with such things as "murder", "haters of God", "faithless" and "ruthless"! Paul goes on to say that those who do such things deserve to die! Not exactly trivial, right?

Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit also recommends – in fact he goes even further by demanding three times ["we command and exhort" verses 6, 10 and 12] – that one should also work to avoid "idleness" (v 11, RSV). This exhortation is likely given in response to the proverbial instruction of the Old Testament – Prov 6:6-11; Prov 24:30-34. And yet, even with this super-charged warning ringing loud and clear at the Thessalonians, he does not say that one should fall in love with a job anymore than he would say that one should fall in love with money (1 Tim 6:5-10).

In other Scriptural references we can readily comprehend Paul's work ethic (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1). He looks upon any job as if he were working directly for our Lord Jesus Christ. It is also interesting to note that he also cautions masters, foremen, supervisors, managers, owners and employers to serve their employees and subordinates as if they were the Lord Jesus also: "Masters do the same to them ..." (Eph 6:9a). Imagine how quickly and easily this would eliminate the strife aroused by unions and the responses to unions. It does not suggest and should not be used to reinforce, however, the subjective demands of making one's job the most significant thing in life. Do not forget that it was the Spirit-led Paul who also wrote that "elders" and "deacons" must be married to only one wife (1 Tim 3:2 & 12) thus removing any support for being "married" to one's job! And since the list of qualifications for these leadership positions, in the pastoral epistles, are something that all of us must aspire to, those stipulations actually pertain to every one of us.

Resorting to the strength of Matt 6:21 ["For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."] should expel any remaining doubt about the importance of one's job. My job can stand between God and myself in many ways if we misinterpret its true position on the scale of importance.

Misplaced priority can also come in the form of political involvements. It is possible to claim to work for or against some political issue on behalf of Jesus Christ our Lord when, in truth, we may simply be trying to take care of ourselves first. It, consequently, becomes so easy to engross one's self in the issues of the day with Christian intervention in the political arena being so current and so acceptable at the moment. Christians are now trying to learn more about nonviolent civil disobedience, more about the "ins and outs" of the political process while we learn less about the Bible, less about Jesus Christ, less about His work, and less about correct doctrine. There is much too much time being given to Caesar and this unwarranted political attention can lead to a most deadly spiritual stupor for we will have fallen into a trap that Thomas Brackett Reed had astutely warned about in his speech to the House of Representatives in 1886: "One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation."

Although we feel that there are many issues that need full-time or constant attention, we do not find this to be so in the early New Testament church, which is our prime example of Christian community. The injustices perpetrated upon the church and the society as a whole far exceed anything that we endure at present and yet we have no mandate through New Testament documentation to make political involvement a priority. On the other hand, we can read about things like the martyrdom of James and the imprisonment of Peter in Acts 12:1-17 and come to some valid conclusions. Conclusions that apply to this passage and others like Acts 13:48-52; Acts 14:19-23; Acts 16:19-34; and Acts 17:1-19.

The arrests and executions of Christians by Herod were strictly socio/politico moves. These procedures placed him in a favourable light among the Jews (Acts 12:2). It certainly must have seemed obvious that Herod had a gruesome plan for Peter as Acts 12:4 suggests ["So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover." NKJV]; the reference to the Passover linking Peter's death to the crucifixion of Jesus. This was intended to be a repeat performance. Though the anticipation of this would have been quite high among the Jews the Christians realized that something must be done ... and speedily. The authorities were attacking the leaders of this new faith movement and unless something dynamic, dramatic, significant and impressive were to be done the New Testament believers in Jerusalem could easily lose all of their "shepherds" soon. Should they appeal to an official or appoint a man who is sympathetic to their cause into the government? Should they impress the society round about, and possibly the government dignitaries, with a large protest march on city hall or the nation's capital? Should they boycott specific businesses that were in favour of the Jewish and Roman persecutions? Maybe they could acquire the best lawyer in Israel to jam up the courts and legislatures till they thought of an even better plan? Perhaps their best option would be to swamp the media with "bad press" so that more tender-hearted citizens could be influenced to take their side?

In Acts 12:5 we find that the Christians of that time had a different plan ... they prayed earnestly for Peter. Instead of leaping forward into the political fray and battling it out in mouth to mouth combat they took their problem to God. And look at the answer that God gave! In Acts 12:6-17 an astonishing miracle is described with the human [and humourous] factor of Peter being left knocking at the door (verses 13-16) as evidence that this is indeed a very true and real account. It did not, however, appear to be too funny for Herod and his guards. So dramatic and so astounding a rescue was this that we have no mention of Herod and his troops ever trying to imprison Peter again. Herod put those soldiers to death – a common practice for failure – and then he fled to the coast for some serious reflection I would imagine (Acts 12:18-19). It is very important to note that Herod never came back to Jerusalem. That's how thoroughly God takes care of a problem.

After looking at this incident, what, therefore, works better: man's solution or God's? God is not hereby telling us to do nothing when political and governmental injustices take place but He is indicating that entering the political arena is not the secret to success here. Just as a Christian is not to return evil for evil or hate for hate (Rom 12:17; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9), he does not have to plunge into politics in order to turn it around. Immersion in the political process will often lead to being absorbed by a given problem instead of answering or solving it. But lobbying, in our day, has been elevated to the top of the list of Christian priorities because we overestimate our own comfort levels at the expense of true issues that are most often handled by close interpersonal relationships: "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." (Jas 1:27 and cf Acts 6:1NKJV)

Further in this consideration are the social preoccupations that can take over the lives of believers. Many are out to tell the world that they have a freedom to do anything in this world and in this life because of the liberty they have obtained through Christ. They see no danger in becoming a true friend of a worldly standard. Of all the misplaced priorities this one is, perhaps, the easiest to recognize and yet the most common to enter into because of what Jesus had called the "cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches" (Matt 13:22; Mk 4:19). Far too many North American Christians believe that it is their "right" to obtain prosperity and it is their "right" to submerse themselves in worldly pursuits. But the Bible is so definitive in its estimation of this situation that ignorance is no excuse and pure sinful desire is exposed. Jas 4:4; 1 Jn 2:15-17; Rom 12:2; Jn 15:18-19 and Jn 17:13-19 join in condemning a standard that parallels the world's. They call Christians to be consecrated to the Word of God, to Christ's work and to God's will. Consequently we should be uncomfortable with the low standard of the world because we have something better. It should be easy, even when working in this world, to detect its standard and that it should have no attraction to a follower of Christ.

To simply legalize everything out of one's life for fear that it denotes a love of this world is not to be our caution here, however. When we are warned about becoming "friends of the world" we are not being told to cease activity in this world. One can go to a hockey game and actually enjoy it [Paul noted "Olympic" competitions and, based on his understanding of them, obviously witnessed them], one can attend the screening of a good movie without jeopardizing his salvation, it is even acceptable to play golf with friends – something that I am most grateful for, because the incorporation of the world's standard – Godlessness; self-indulgence; justification of evils; the primacy of self-determination – are the real issues. C. S. Lewis provided a most necessary balance to the unhealthy preoccupations of both libertines and legalists when he wrote, " ... it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His church, and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourished. The solution of this paradox is, of course, well known to you. 'Whether ye eat or drink or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.'

All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials."[1]

A final priority – but only the last in this chapter; not in life – is in the field of entertainment, any form of which has the potential to overwhelm our lives and nullify our use to God. We could be so engulfed in being a superstar sports-addict that nothing else matters; we could et so involved with television programs that our entire lives are regulated by the TV schedule; we could be so wrapped up in modern music trends that we know and care nothing about the real world; we could be so caught up in the maze of video games that there truly is nothing of value to us other than virtual reality; we could be so lost in this field that, even if we wanted out, we may not be able to find the exit. This is the ultimate in filling one's life with anything and everything but God. Yet we should be told about this drain on human souls, if we do not comprehend it already. It is the weakest spiritual link of all time for by it and through it comes every conceivable moral disease, ready and capable of devouring every practitioner. The slightest degree of thought applied to the dangers of these pursuits can easily expose the poverty of lives that are not only obsessed with them but the poverty of the lives of those who produce them. How many human "train wrecks" must we witness before we realize that celebrity and "stardom" are not worth emulating and that the fruit of their labours is often questionable at best and downright demonic at worst.

Oh how I'd love to simply list the strong and passionate words of great authors in an effort to dispel the malaise of misplaced priorities in our time. If only they could not merely be read but be heeded I would gladly step aside for the moment and let them exercise their God-given talents. These quotes have impacted my life and I trust that they shall do the same for you.

From Malcolm Muggeridge:

"Can this really be what life is about, as the media insist? This interminable soap opera going on from century to century, from era to era, whose old discarded sets and props litter the earth? Surely not. Was it to provide a location for so repetitive and ribald a performance that the universe was created and man came into existence? I can't believe it. If this were all, then the cynics, the hedonists, and the suicides would be right. The most we can hope for from life is some passing amusement, some gratification of our senses, and death. But it's not all.

Thanks to the great mercy and marvel of the Incarnation, the cosmic scene is resolved into a human drama. God reaches down to relate Himself to man, and man reaches up to relate himself to God. Time looks into eternity and eternity into time, making now always and always now. Everything is transformed by this sublime drama of the Incarnation, God's special parable for fallen man in a fallen world."[2]

"As I look back I realize that the only times I have been happy have been in simplicity and austerity; a little white room with a chair and a table, fruit and rice on a green leaf, a barrack hut or a tent – such circumstances bring their own ecstasy, and You within reach, or at any rate hailing distance. What insanity, then, to bury one's head in the trough; to glut the senses and inflate the ego to monstrous proportions, thereby ensuring that You are inexorably lost to view!"[3]

"The absurdities of the kingdom of heaven, as conceived in the minds of simple believers, are obvious enough – pearly gates, angelic choirs, golden crowns and shining raiment. But what are we to think of the sheer imbecility of the kingdom of heaven on earth, as envisaged and recommended by the most authoritative and powerful voices of our time? Wealth increasing for evermore, and its beneficiaries, rich in hire-purchase, stupefied with the telly and with sex, comprehensively educated, told by Professor Hoyle how the world began and by Bertrand Russell how it will end; venturing forth on the broad highways, three lanes a side, with lay-bys to rest in and birth pills to keep them intacta, if not virgo, blood spattering the tarmac as an extra thrill; heaven lying about them in the supermarket, the rainbow ending in the nearest bingo hall, leisure burgeoning out in multitudinous shining aerials rising like dreaming spires into the sky; happiness in as many colours as there are pills – green and yellow and blue and red and shining white; many mansions, mansions of light and chromium, climbing ever upwards. This kingdom, surely, can only be for posterity an unending source of wry derision – always assuming there is to be any posterity. The backdrop, after all, is the mushroom cloud; as the Gadarene herd frisk and frolic they draw ever nearer to the cliff's precipitous edge."[4]

From Os Guinness:

"It should be underscored again that America's crisis of cultural authority does not stem from either the political order or the economic order. While it influences them both in the end, it stems from the moral and cultural order. The latter includes the family, churches and synagogues, schools, the universities, the press and the media, the arts at large, the entertainment world, and the whole world of leisure."[5]

"America is moving fast from the old idea that everything means something to the new idea that nothing means anything."[6]

"... the euphoric mood of the forties and fifties tended to conceal certain developments and problems that went largely unnoticed and unresolved. Chief among these on the social level were the huge migration of blacks and poor whites from the South to the North in the 1940s, the beginning of the population bulge or 'baby boom', and the culturally explosive introduction of television. (In 1948 only 3 percent of Americans owned a television set. By 1960, 88 percent did.) Such developments were critical to the cultural revolution in the sixties.

On the ideological level, time revealed the shallowness and inauthenticity of the so-called religious revival and the nature of the new postwar ideology and morality. What did its brimming faith and positive thinking amount to? Little more than desire plus a culturally conditioned cheerful optimism. What was the value of the religious inspirational self-help books? Behind all their repetitious banality they were hyped-up common sense for the discontented, the 'secular prayer books of a therapeutic era' that debased religion into 'God's psychiatry.'

What in the end was the 'revival'? Much of it, said such critics as Peter Berger in analyses whose correctness proved all too plain, added up to little more than 'the noise of solemn assemblies' and a 'second Children's Crusade.' How strong really were the attitudes to right and wrong? Affluence, John Steinbeck wrote in a passionate letter to Adlai Stevenson, meant that 'a creeping, all-pervading nerve gas of immorality starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices, both corporate and governmental.'"[7]

"The high levels of prosperity in the sixties led in turn to two major consequences. On the one hand, they created extravagant expectations that were unrealistic as well as unprecedented. This problem still has wide-ranging implications today when many Americans expect too much of life, either in terms of personal fulfillment without hassles or international superiority without rivalry or resentment.

On the other hand, the new prosperity created immense social space for freedom and experiment, whether in political action or alternative life-styles. By 1968, the proportion of young people between eighteen and twenty-one who expected to enter full-time courses of higher education was close to 50 percent, compared with 10 percent in Britain and 13 percent in the USSR. By the same time, there were probably a quarter of a million full-time hippies in America, approximately three-quarters of whom came from middle-class or upper-class homes. Many who took this prosperity for granted never realized how precarious it was and how privileged they were. Rarely has a nation been so flattered by its own success as to expect so much more than its generation's world could offer. The hapless Benjamin Spock and his permissive child-rearing were later blamed for too much. But as one observer wrote astutely, the counterculture was 'a revolt of the unoppressed,' a response not to constraint but to openness. It was a rich kids' radicalism."[8]

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.., New York, 2001, Page 54

[2] Malcolm Muggeridge, The end of Christendom, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1980, Page 51

[3] Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., Glasgow, 1969, Page 31

[4] Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., Glasgow, 1969, Page 57

[5] Os Guinness, The American Hour, The Free Press, MacMillan Inc., New York, 1993, Page 32

[6] Os Guinness, The American Hour, The Free Press, MacMillan Inc., New York, 1993, Page 70

[7] Os Guinness, The American Hour, The Free Press, MacMillan Inc., New York, 1993, Page 87

[8] Os Guinness, The American Hour, The Free Press, MacMillan Inc., New York, 1993, Page 98

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