The traditional way to think about priorities is to make a list of your responsibilities and tasks, then rank them from the most important to the least important. For years, this method has been useful in my personal and business life. It’s still useful for daily tasks, but as believers, we need a larger and more comprehensive view of priorities. We need to include our relational and spiritual life, and our view of priorities must be compatible with Scripture. As believers, Scripture instructs us to let the Holy Spirit order our life on a moment-by-moment basis. It’s called “walking in the Spirit”(Gal. 5:16), and while a task list can be helpful, the Holy Spirit knows better when one thing should take precedence over another. The following is a bit of personal history and a brief summary of my current view of priorities.
In my early years of following Jesus, I was challenged to establish my priorities based on questions like, “Does God have first place in your life or have you let lesser things creep in?” Some teachers used “the great commandment” as the basis of a correct priority list. Example: God first, neighbor second and your spouse and children are your closest neighbors. (Mat. 22:37-39) This sounded right, so I accepted it as the correct Biblical approach to priorities and decided to do whatever it takes to “put God first” in my life. So I used the following exercise and taught others to do it as well. Using two sheets of paper, I tore one of them into ten pieces and left the other one intact. On it, I created a list with numbers from 1 to 10. Then I wrote on each of the small pieces an important person, possession or activity in my life. I wound up with ten pieces of paper, each representing an important relationship, intent, or purpose in my life. Then I told myself, circumstances dictate that you must eliminate one of them from your life. At that point, it wasn’t too difficult to choose which one to eliminate. As I tore up that piece, I wrote its contents on the second piece of paper as number ten. Then I repeated the exercise by tearing up one piece of paper after another, creating a list in reverse order. The first few were relatively easy, but it became increasingly difficult as I got down to the last few. Like most people, this exercise produced a list that consisted of God 1st, wife, 2nd, children, 3rd, work, 4th, etc. It felt good to have God in first place above all of my other priorities. However, a nagging question remained; “That looks good on a list but how is it going to work in daily life?”
For me as well as most people, “putting God first” was a nebulous, vague cliché, so I tried to think about all the possibilities. Maybe it’s enough that I put Him first by having Him at the top of my priority list. Alternatively, it could mean the first thing I do daily is read the Bible and pray. How much time is enough to put Him first; 30 minutes…All day? Maybe it means that I think about God before any activity, like when I brush my teeth or answer emails. On the other hand, perhaps I’m supposed to think about God before every activity at work. Or could it mean, I shouldn’t talk to my wife until I’ve talked with God, or I can’t talk to my kids until I’ve talked with my wife? Then again, maybe it’s the amount of time we give God, but that’s problematic, because most people work at least eight hours and sleep eight hours, and that’s more time than we give God and family combined. Perhaps we need to sleep less and work fewer hours. That’s pretty silly because we must provide for the family. Some say it’s the quality of time that matters, but how does one accomplish that? Do you give your highest quality time to God and then a little less quality time with your spouse, then less to the family, then a little less to work, etc.? Or lastly, does it mean that I give myself time if there is any left over? These are all a bit absurd, but they illustrate how difficult it is to understand what it means to put God first.
As I wrestled with this question, I began to be conflicted by the fact that I used the term “Christ-centered” quite often while being a proponent of a sequential priority list. Then one day it dawned on me that my list of priorities was an acknowledgment that while God is the most important, He is simply one of my priorities. I immediately knew that wasn’t right so after a thorough investigation; I discovered that the Bible does not give a list of priorities. That caused me to give up on a static sequential priority list of first, second, third, etc. Now I think of myself as having God at the center of my life, which to me is what “Christ Centered” really means. This puts me more in harmony with reality because everyday life is dynamic, not linear. It can change dramatically in the blink of the eye. So let me share a different way to think about the important things in our life.
First a very condensed overview of how my view of priorities changed when I discovered how we’re designed to function. Every human being is made in the image of God, which means we are personal, self-determining, and have the ability to discern right from wrong, etc. Each of us was created as a unique unified whole person consisting of a body, soul, and spirit with each having a distinct function. Of course, our body is the home of our five senses through which we relate to the material world. Our soul is what we call our self, and the home of our personality. It consists of our mind, will, and emotions, and interacts with our body and spirit. The way that works is; our mind and emotions along with the body give input to our will, which is the decision maker about actions that we take.
At birth, our human spirit is at the center of our being and interacts with our soul. It gives input to our soul without overriding our will, but its influence leads us to live a self-directed life. At the same time, God’s Holy Spirit also speaks to our soul about our need for redemption. We are free to accept or reject His offer of forgiveness, but when a person does receive Jesus as Savior, their spirit is regenerated, and it becomes the dwelling place of God. (Col 1:27, Gal. 2:20) At conversion, our spirit is made new, but our soul and body are not yet redeemed. However, if we chose to cooperate with Him, He will begin a process called sanctification with the purpose of renewing our mind and emotions to be more like Jesus. And someday at the end of our human life, we will get a new body. God’s original design was that we would voluntarily surrender our spirit, soul, and body to Him because as our creator, He is the only one who knows what is best for us. Remember, both before and after salvation, God in His love gave us free will and allowed us to make decisions without overruling them. (Rev. 3:20)
Therefore, with this as background, we have a practical way to live with God at the center rather than giving him the top position among our many priorities. A mental picture might be useful for understanding how this can work. Visualize a circle similar to a wagon wheel. The exterior or edge of the circle can represent any given period of time, and from the center of the circle spokes go out to the edge. The area between each spoke represents an area of our life, like our occupation, spouse, children, friends, recreation, personal time, etc. Since we are at the center of this time circle, our will is responsible for decisions about the numerous possibilities. Our will has the possibility of being influenced by our mind, emotions or external input. Since God now resides at the very center of your life, it’s His desire for our will to choose to be directed by His Holy Spirit. When we cooperate, we exchange a static external list of priorities for a dynamic way of living, with the potential of God directing our decisions about every area of our life.
Living a perfectly balanced life is a myth because daily we face a multitude of options, responsibilities, and unexpected events. No one but God has the wisdom and foreknowledge to manage them, and even though we don’t do it perfectly, our goal is to let Him guide our choices and decisions. Each area of our life has periods when it takes precedence over others, and only God knows when an individual part of our life needs extra attention. Example: There are times when one child requires more attention than another, or a person’s health takes precedence over their marriage. At other times, it’s our work that takes an atypical amount of time and focus. Think of an accountant around tax time or a businessman starting a new business, and the following verse takes on new meaning. “For everything, there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ec. 3:1) Let me say it again for emphasis; each area of our life has periods when it takes precedence over other areas, so a static list simply won’t do. When God leads you to give an unusual amount of time to something, you are not neglecting Him because He is still at the center of your life, and your obedience is proof of that. He cares for your life and loved ones more than you do, so trust Him to lead you correctly.
What I am proposing is that we live each day with a moment-by-moment response to the CHECK and PROMPT of the Holy Spirit. It is helpful to use a list for small daily chores but we no longer need a list of life priorities, like we no longer need a list of laws, because we live under the new covenant, and are free to let Jesus direct our life. Living like this is so much more congruent with Scripture, that I’m convinced it’s the right way, and I encourage you to give it a try.