Who's On First?

Mar 25, 2010 |David Barshinger

My approach to God ultimately shapes my approach to other people and to this temporal world.  

As the saying goes, technology's great — when it works.

But when my laptop won't connect to the wireless network, I want the techies just to give me a quick fix. No jargon. No monologue about the intricate mechanics of wireless technology. Tell me only what I need to know to get it to work. Get me back online. And fast.

I think I get annoyed more with the interruption than with the computer problem itself. The computer is a tool for me to accomplish my own goals, so I care less about the machine than what I can do with it. I want someone to remove the interruption so I can get on with my important work.

Sometimes I treat life issues like computer problems. Conflict strains a relationship. A besetting sin sidetracks my spiritual growth. A medical bill in the mail sours my day. And I just want someone — God — to take care of the interruptions. And fast.

Not that I care most about the other person or about dealing with my own sin. I just want to get back to my important work.

Quick-fix thinking tempts me to treat Christianity like it's solely a hands-on religion, to tune in only to the practical parts of the sermon, to grasp after quick tips so I can get back online spiritually and relationally.

But when it comes to tackling tough questions in our lives, the quick answer isn't always the best.

Keeping the Core

Learning how to put our faith into practice is, of course, crucial. Scripture teaches us how to deal with everyday questions such as money, family, work, and food, and it also lays out what is morally expected of those who follow Christ — such as staying sexually pure, protecting human life, and respecting others' property.

But Scripture also reveals a lot about God, and that theology forms the foundation of how we arrive at practical answers to life's questions.

Shortcuts, while tempting, can cause me to miss my intended destination entirely. When I emphasize answering practical questions without taking time to ground them in orthodox theology, I'm left with a stripped-down Christianity. Without its core doctrines, Christianity begins to mirror the culture more than the Scripture and stops being Christian at all.

That brand of so-called "Christianity" is available today. But in trying to be relevant and useful, it actually loses its usefulness and potency altogether. Advice about money reduces to capitalism in religious language. Relationship tips boil down to pop psychology.

But we don't need the soul of the culture enfleshed in religious language; we need the soul of Christianity fleshed out in the culture.

The Biblical Pattern

While I tend to focus on my own practical concerns, the Scriptures tell us to start with the divine. My approach to God ultimately shapes my approach to other people and to this temporal world.

In the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), for instance, the first four commandments all address how we relate to God. Foremost is the command of fidelity: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exod 20:3). Who am I devoted to? If God alone is my king, I am his subject, committed to following his decrees. Wrestling first with this question guides me in answering every other question I face. The first table of the law goes on to address idolatry, reverence for God's name and being, and a regular pattern of worshipping the Lord.

After instructing us how to relate rightly to God, the Ten Commandments teach us how to relate with each other, addressing family relations, human life, sex, personal property, justice and truth, and wrongful desires. Very earthy stuff! But these issues are all placed in the second table of the law, the last six commandments. The ordering is intentional and unmistakable.

Jesus Christ affirmed the order during his earthly ministry. When asked what is the great commandment in the Law, Jesus replied,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 22:37–40)

Notice that Christ prioritizes love for God. That comes first. The reason I focus first on loving God is because it is impossible to sever my love for people from my love for God.

For example, if I only ask how I can love my wife without asking how I am to love God, I am prone to self-centeredness. I want to know what my wife will give me. Sure, I'll be nice to her, but only if I get what I want in return. But the sacrificial example of Christ shows me how I too am to give up my life for my wife even to my own harm, as Eph. 5:25–33 illustrates. A man's love for Christ should change how he loves his wife.

We see this pattern elsewhere in Christ's teaching. When the disciples wanted to learn how to pray, Jesus taught them what we today call the Lord's Prayer. Again, the earthy issues of daily food, interpersonal conflict, and temptations are addressed, but these three petitions only make up half the prayer — the second half.

The Lord's Prayer begins not with our needs and concerns, but with God (Matt 6:9). We start by recognizing who God is, a holy God who reigns in heaven — whom we can call Father! The second petition narrows not on my aims, but on God's: "Your kingdom come" (Matt 6:10). And the third petition calls for God's will, not mine, to be done (Matt 6:10).

When I pray this pattern with God first, it places my human concerns — like daily bread and conflicts at work — in the perspective of God's power and kingdom purposes. I can't skip over the first half of the prayer to the second. I only gain the proper view of my personal petitions when I first relate rightly to God.

The biblical pattern calls us not to worry about food, clothing, and temporal matters, but rather to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," and then, "all these things will be added to you" (Matt 6:33).

Making It Practical

It's important to reiterate that addressing practical questions isn't trivial. Faith in God is never intended to stay under the steeple or in the study. It's supposed to invade every part of our lives. My relationship with God must connect with my daily experience.

But in order to make that connection, I must ground the practical in theology. How do we build that foundation?

Cultivate rhythms that nurture theological development. To answer practical questions, I need to first foster a deeper understanding of God, which comes through patterns I establish over time. Spiritual disciplines, such as listening to the preached Word of God, studying the Scriptures, and praying habitually, provide means for laying a solid Christian foundation.

The key here is discipline. Only through faithful practice over time will I see how starting with God transforms every area of my life.

Concentrate the mind on God. For starters, this means tuning into the whole sermon, even when I'm tempted to nod off. But it also means I need to fill my mind with foundational truths about God throughout the week, not just on Sunday.

Sometimes when I go for a run, I listen to MP3 messages from pastors like Alistair Begg or James MacDonald who seek to ground the Christian life in theology. And Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson offer a helpful introduction to the value of theology in their book, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God. As we concentrate our minds on God, we must continually think through how theology informs daily life choices.

Solid Rock or Sinking Sand

Jesus once told a story of two men who built houses. The wise man built his house on the foundation of the rock, while the fool built his house on the sand. The sage's house withstood the storms that arose, but the fool lost it all — and "great was the fall" (Matt 7:24–27).

This world is stormy, and my approach to the concerns I face are largely determined by the foundation of my life. Without a solid rock, I live in danger of a great fall.

Doing good deeds or managing finances well aren't the rock; they're part of the house. The rock is Christ, who literally fleshed out God. He is the living example of applying theological truth to everyday life. As I establish my foundation on Him, I can rightly connect divine truth with human life.

Copyright 2010 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.

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