GOD COMES FIRST
My daughter, Anna, has discovered something about me she doesn’t like. Truth be told, I’m not sure how she arrived at the conclusion nor even why her mind works the way it does. But she’s discovered a horrifying reality about her dad: I love God more than anything.
That, in and of itself, doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it even seems quite noble. But my daughter is no slouch and she’s come to realize that if I love God more than anything – or anyone – then that must mean that I love God more than her.
I’m not in the business of ranking my loves. I don’t have a list somewhere that places Anna and Jake and Carmel just above my friends and slightly further above my Gibson Les Paul. My daughter does, however, and will often rank her toys and her friends depending on her moods. I’ve tried to help her see past this kind of love – especially when she feels less loved because I love God. I have told her repeatedly that it is precisely because I love God so very much that I am able to love her that much more.
But she’s not buying it.
I hope that, in time, Anna will come to understand the truth of those words. My love for God is the fuel for loving everyone else. The more I love Him, the more I love her. I want her to love Him more, so she better knows and understands His love and is filled and defined by that love.
Jesus, in this episode, demonstrates that he loves the Father more than anything and, as a result, has prioritized his Father’s business above every other concern. Jesus is single-minded in his devotion, almost baffled by his parents’ concerns, and (in the universal manner of both zealots and adolescents) gently scolds them for not knowing this automatically.
This episode in the Temple is only the first of several in which Jesus prioritizes love for God over every other love. Later in his adult ministry, Christ often spoke of the unparalleled love his followers must have for his Father:
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (see Matthew 10.34, 37)
Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?...whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. (see Matthew 12.48-50)
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind…(see Luke 10.27)
But Christ doesn’t leave these words alone. He clarifies and accompanies them with encouragement and promise. He makes it clear that the reason our allegiance to God must come before all other allegiances is that it will last and ultimately validate all other allegiances:
Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
I know Anna doesn’t understand this now, but I hope that she will understand it later just as I never fully understood the choices my parents made when I was young but now much more greatly appreciate them.
For example, my dad (a pastor) was often criticized in our church and refused to fight back. He was sometimes criticized for his leadership style, and sometimes for his teaching style, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Maybe we had a really contentious church when I was younger, but I tend to think it’s just the nature of the business that people get worked up and say mean things because they care so much about their spirituality. Any perceived threat is seen as something having far-reaching repercussions and they don’t have the necessary skills to deal with their emotions properly. Anyway, the point is, my dad never fought back.
One time, I had been on an overseas trip and I had been badly hurt by some of the leaders (one in particular). Afraid to take their criticisms to my dad, they chose instead to treat me to their accusations, claiming that dad was wholly evil and it was his fault that God’s will wasn’t being done or some such nonsense. As a young kid, that hurt me so badly. I told dad all about it in the car on the way home from the airport. I wanted him to pull the car over and drive to the leader’s house and scream at him. But dad refused to do that. After some time, he had a private, calm, conversation with the leader in question and challenged him on his behavior, but it was never the thrashing I thought should have happened.
As a kid, I wondered why my dad would allow me to be hurt by this leader and not defend or avenge me. Dad told me it’s because he understood that that wasn’t what God wanted from him. God didn’t want him to take vengeance, or to give himself permission to hurt someone else in return for injuring his son.
There was a gospel message in there somewhere, but I didn’t recognize it until many years later, when that leader (long since gone from our church) asked permission to confess to our congregation on a Sunday morning. He publicly repented and publicly affirmed dad in his leadership. There was a great reconciliation between this leader and our church, this leader and dad, and this leader and myself (he also sought my forgiveness privately).
None of that would have happened had dad put my need for angry revenge ahead of God’s desire for calm confrontation and reconciliation. And because dad loved God more than me, I got to see reconciliation instead of martyrdom, victimization, or a deepening rift among our church leadership.
Hopefully Anna will someday get a front-row view of the privilege of her father’s love for the Father. I hope that she will follow my example, and cultivate that love in her own spirit, so that she can know the joy of putting God first and reaping the just rewards for her commitment to Him.