Putting First Things First
Management guru Stephen Covey became
known for his Seven Habits of Highly Effective
stated that effective people have a knack of “Putting First Things
First.” For Covey this stretched well beyond the ability to set up
a simple nuts and bolts To Be Done List. He has a very effective
illustration that uses small pebbles and large rocks. Covey takes a
container and fills it about 3/4 full of small pebbles. He then
challenges someone who is attending his conference to try to put the
set of large rocks into the container. The person will try to jam the
larger rocks into the pebbles. He or she will only succeed in putting
one of two of the rocks into the container. The person usually tries
to rearrange the pebbles, again with only limited success. Once the
person acknowledges that they cannot do it, Covey will successfully
use a paradigm shift by beginning with the larger rocks then pouring
the smaller rocks around them.
claims that most people first fill their lives with a lot of little
tasks or activities. People then try to jam the more important tasks
around all these less important tasks. However, the less important
tasks prevent us from accomplishing the more important ones.
is not only good advice for managing your time but it is also makes
for sound theological reflection. Life is filled with challenging
theological and philosophical questions. Why does God allow evil? How
did God create the world? Is there life beyond our galaxy? What
happens after death? Will time as we know it ever end? Do dogs go to
heaven? Are there aliens on other planets? Did Jesus cry as a baby?
When did Jesus know that he was the Messiah? What did the manna that
God provided for the people in the wilderness taste like? Did Adam
have a belly button?
easily get side tracked in our spiritual life and in our discussions
with others. We could spend an excessive amount of time worrying
about peripheral topics and spend too little time on the more
important matter of the faith. We must learn to put first things
first in our theology as well are in our personal and professional
lives. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul indicated
that he never lost sight of the most important theological issue. The
apostle to the Gentiles had spent a great deal of time discussing
several problems in the church—hero worship, insisting on our
freedom to do as we please, spiritual gifts, sexuality, worship and
other topics. He is coming to the end of this letter and he is
introducing his most important topic—resurrection and life after
death. This is a critical topic for Paul. A person's eternal destiny
is critical. Paul believes that there are no back doors. Resurrection
and eternal life with Christ are not automatic. They are only for a
few. Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians are part of the
emphasizes several points. First, we are only saved thorough our
faith in one gospel. Today we live in an age of pluralism. We are
constantly told that people have the freedom to believe anything that
they want, there are many roads to God, people will take different
paths in their spiritual quest. Every religion has at its core a set
of beliefs that are common with other faiths: a belief in God and a
set of moral and ethical principles that instruct the devotee to
treat others with compassion and care. Paul tells the Corinthians
that they are saved only through one gospel, the one that he preached
to them. And they are only saved if they hold fast.
phrase is very difficult to understand. It seems to go against others
sayings of Paul. In Romans Paul tells the believers that nothing can
separate them from the love of God.
For I am convinced that neither
death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor
the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything
else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of
God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
4 For he chose us in
him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his
sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through
who has saved us and called us
to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of
his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus
before the beginning of time,
2 Timothy 1:9
Yet Paul also appears to hint that salvation is
conditional upon the sincerity and perseverance of the believer.
Once you were
alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your
evil behavior. 22
But now he has
reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present
you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23
you continue in your faith,
established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.
Even Jesus includes this
conditional warning in his instructions to his disciples. He is
sending them out in pairs and he warns them of the persecution that
they will encounter. He warns them that only those who stand firm
will be saved.
betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel
against their parents and have them put to death. 22
All men will hate
you because of me, but he
who stands firm to the end will be saved.
John Calvin provides helpful insight
on the passage. He explains that Paul is reproving their carelessness
and fickleness toward the faith. Shallowness for Calvin was merely an
indication that the person never really was saved.
The second point that Paul
makes is the theme of this sermon—this gospel is the most important
thing on which you can believe. I am not sure that adequately conveys
the significance of Paul's teaching. In surveys people will often
indicate that they bring their children to church so that they
develop a good solid moral and ethical background. Paul considers
this secondary. He does not advocate faith in Christ because it has a
moral code that excels all other religions. He is not defending the
faith because it provides the most compassionate teaching on how we
are to interact with people in the community. Nor is he trying to
brainwash the Corinthian church into memorizing a strange and exotic
set of beliefs and doctrines. He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ
because it was true and therefore the most important thing the he
could share with them.
Paul did not risk his life to deliver
pithy sayings to inspire people. He did not endure imprisonment and
floggings to tell Christianized Aesop's fables. The message he
preached was true. It was interwoven throughout Biblical history.
Beginning with Adam and Eve God told the serpent that it would bruise
the heel of the messiah but the messiah would crush his head. God
then chose a people and called Abraham and Sarah to leave their
homeland and travel to a land that he would show them. Then God
raised up Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and into the promised
land. He also gave them the Law which pointed to the sacrificial role
of messiah. God took time to carefully chart out his plan through the
history of his people. This plan was recorded bit by bit in the
Scriptures of the Jewish people. This was not a make believe story
with a happy end. It is a story in which God's people suffer many
things but some how find a way to endure. Paul did not make up this
message. It was the story that he received from God and delivered to
the people of Corinth.
In my opinion we have relegated the
primary message of the gospel to a secondary role. We substitute
different versions of the gospel for the one that Paul considered of
first importance. We do this a number of ways and I admit that I am
just as guilty as any other preacher.
The first is, we preach about a God
who is our personal friend. The incarnation is an amazing doctrine.
The notion that God became man is unique from all other religions. We
preach about a God who took on human flesh so that he might know our
struggles, disappointments and heartache on a personal level. This is
all true but sometimes we forget that God was not born of a virgin to
be our personal friend. Jesus emptied himself and took on human flesh
to die. The fact that we can now approach him as our friend is
fantastic news but we must not let Jesus become too familiar. We must
not try to pull him down to our level.
Another way that pushes the primacy
of the gospel into a secondary role is through the self-help fix it
sermons. Of course we want to worship God but we also want a God who
will give us step-by-step instructions on home life. We expect our
religion to help us be a better housewife, a better father, a better
manager, or a better teacher. We want our religion to teach us how to
overcome feelings of anger, disappointment, and our uncontrolled
sexual desires. We turn the Bible into a how-to manual and read it
with a expecting it to help us solve difficulties in our personal
We also distort the gospel message
when we put too much of an emphasis on its moral code. Eugene
Peterson warns us that the Bible does not tell us “Live up to this
standard. It also does not tells “You must think like this” Paul
told the Corinthians a story. It was a story about God becoming
incarnate. It was a story about about man who sacrificed his life for
us. We should never “use” the biblical revelation for what we can
get out of it, Peterson states. We should never use it to add color
to our otherwise boring lives. In doing so God is no longer God,
Jesus is no longer Savior.
This does require something from us.
It calls us to learn the story, the whole story. To go back to the
opening lines of Genesis and really learn the story.