Most often, when we debate the Bible, we make secondary things primary. When we love our opinions, perspectives, or judgments at the expense of loving people, we are at risk for not loving people at all. C. S. Lewis put it like this, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things. . . . You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can only get second things by putting first things first.”
So what are “first things”? The apostle Paul answers this for us in his letter to new believers in Corinth:
You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple; first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified. . . .
. . . your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else.
1 Corinthians 2:1-6
In other words, as a Christian, my priority is not what I believe about politics, parenting, or other people. My highest calling is to camp out by the Door—to stay close to Jesus. That isn’t evidenced by a quick sound bite on social media. Following Jesus is the messy, difficult, and heart-wrenching path of offering grace in every conversation.
How committed are we to killing hostility in conversations about things we are really, really passionate about . . . but are secondary to the love story of God? When we interact with others to prove and protect secondary things, we may experience a false sense of security. We are safe within walls that allow us to be the judge, but we remain far from the Door where starving people huddle, hungry for grace.
I think the lesson of “first things” is the message of Jesus to the woman who couldn’t sit still because she was so busy getting it right. She was consumed with herself. She looked more competent and more in control than her sister, who lost herself at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word. Jesus reminded Martha—the one with the agenda, the woman of action, the one safe behind neat and tidy dividing lines—“Martha, Martha . . . you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed. Mary has chosen [who] is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42, niv).
Let’s be honest. We understand Martha. It’s easier to get busy with secondary things and build walls of hostility than it is to adamantly and unashamedly love the one who is the Door to the way back to belonging to one another. Consider the cancer that grows when we build walls of hostility—especially in our theology:
- If we believe someone has the “curse of Cain” (a terrible theology passionately debated 150 years ago to justify racism), it’s easier to make them our slaves.
- If we think someone is an inferior species (another theology millions died for in World War II), it’s easier to exterminate them.
- If we use health and wealth to prove we are chosen (a popular televised theology), it’s easier to keep our stuff in a world of poverty.
- If we are convinced some sins are worse than others (a theology that appeals to us all), it’s easier to exclude the alcoholic, immigrant, and transvestite from lunch after church.
But if all other people (according to common grace) are reflections of the image of God, with the fingerprints of his love all over their stories, everything changes. That’s the good news.
What we know of the Gospel can change our conversations—transforming them into conduits for Good News.
The Gospel affects our posture in conversations.
Years ago I spoke for a retreat at the St. Malo Retreat Center in Allenspark, Colorado. (I even slept in the bed a former Pope slept in while visiting Colorado years earlier!) One of the leaders from the center gave us a tour of the beautiful facility. In the Jesuit tradition, on almost every wall hung a crucifix. As we passed by one of those walls, the tour guide pointed at the vulnerable God, whose arms splayed open to all of us, and casually remarked, “That’s a strange way to run the universe.” Are our arms crossed, holding us apart from the world—or are they wide open to all?
The Gospel orders our place in the conversation.
We think creating dividing walls will keep us safe, but maybe those walls enslave us by keeping us from others. I have a friend who started a ministry to the homeless in Denver. He’s often asked to speak to groups about his ministry. He told me the question he’s asked most is about numbers: How many were saved? He always answers the same: “Only one I know of: me. God is saving me through this work. I am the one who needs him most.” His humble place in the story has opened the door (his ministry is actually called Open Door Ministries) to thousands of hurting people. Do we allow openings for others instead of jockeying for a place in the conversation?
The Gospel compels us to use words in our conversations—only if necessary.
We need to be real. Are we afraid to engage with others—all others—without the so-called protection of a wall? A wall of words proclaiming our rightness, our proof, our position? Healing conversations begin when we tear down the wall and get close to all kinds of people. In his wonderful book Scary Close, Donald Miller writes, “Love doesn’t control, and I suppose that’s why it’s the ultimate risk. In the end, we have to hope the person we’re giving our heart to won’t break it, and be willing to forgive them when they do, even as they will forgive us.” When we offer our hearts before we offer our opinion, words might not even be necessary. Offering our hearts means being willing to be vulnerable when we enter a conversation. Author and sociologist Brene Brown summarizes her definition of vulnerability:
Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.
Can we show up and be seen for who we really are for the sake of creating a space where others can belong, no matter who they are? That’s where we’ll find the ultimate victory.
Taken from Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another by Sharon Hersh. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
About the Author
Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs, a sought-after speaker, and the author of several books, including the acclaimed The Last Addiction: Why Self Help Is Not Enough, the popular Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love With Abandon, and the award-winning Mothering Without Guilt. Sharon lives in Lone Tree, Colorado and is finding freedom and adventure in the empty nest years. Sharon’s latest book, Belonging, releases from NavPress in August 2020.