A former colleague closed his letters and emails with the signature line, “Kingdom first!” It always called to my mind Jesus’ offer in Matt 6:33: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
Stephen Covey, in his classic “7 Habits,” demonstrated that the only way to protect our priorities from getting lost in “the thick of thin things” was to “put the big rocks in first.” Here’s a clever video.
In English “first” can be understood as a function of time, and of priority. Sometimes both. For example, if exercise is a priority, it might be a good idea to do it first thing in the morning.
The motto of my alma mater, The Stony Brook School, is “Character Before Career.” Most of her graduates have had successful, some stellar, careers in the world of business, science, law, medicine, education, the military and ministry; and I’m sure the character emphasis made a difference.
The secular world values and rewards character traits like honesty, integrity, and self-discipline that Stony Brook tried to instill. But I’ve been pondering, what if the motto were “Kingdom Before Career”? How would that have been incorporated into the curriculum and activities of a school? How would my student days have been different? Would that emphasis have altered the profile of our alumni? Would the world have been as welcoming of young men and women saturated in the values of the Kingdom? Would the world have been any different?
It’s fascinating to observe which Bible verses come to define the Christian life and identity. John 3:16 is certainly in anyone’s top five. We frequently identify people as “believers” or “non-believers.” Before the disciples and their converts took the name “Christian” they were called “followers of the way” in the book of Acts. One would assume that “followers” would also be “believers” and vice versa. Perhaps the terms are synonymous, but carry a different nuance, at least to me.
In Kenya church folks made a distinction between being “a Christian” and being “saved.” That is strange to our ears, but there one could be a Christian by virtue of baptism and church attendance and decent behavior. The title “saved” designated those who had been touched by the East Africa Revival and who lived and prayed and sang and testified in the manner of that revival.
Here is where I’ve been going: Is it possible to be “a Christian” or “saved” or a “believer” without being a “Kingdom seeker?” Or a “Kingdom first seeker”? I can speak for myself. I was baptized as an infant. I “asked Jesus into my heart” at age 5. I responded to many “altar calls” and made many “rededications.” I had a strong and temporarily transforming encounter with the Holy Spirit.
In retrospect I could see all of those experiences as species of “Kingdom seeking” or at least a hunger for God. But is this what Jesus meant when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom…”? What should we make of that word “first”? For what percentage of my life, even my life in ministry, has the Kingdom been truly my first priority? Only God knows for sure, but I have a pretty good idea. (And a pretty reliable gauge to measure it.)
There are wonderful promises attached to this invitation from Jesus. Jesus makes this offer in the context of anxiety about other things. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…. But, seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.” One of my students once asked me with great anxiety: “I’ve been seeking the Kingdom all my life, but where are the things?!” He never saw the irony because he had still not gotten the point.
When we stop to think about it, most of our anxiety is rooted in concern about things other than the Kingdom. We tend, like my student, to see Jesus’ statement as a key to unlocking material provisions–food, shelter, clothing. Then, with these in hand, we will be relieved of anxiety. Except there are never enough material possessions to calm an anxious heart. In fact, it usually works the other way.
Somehow, I don’t think this is what Jesus meant. He wasn’t interested in giving formulas for success and prosperity. He called people into a new world and a new consciousness characterized by peace. When we seek first the Kingdom we get the Kingdom, and having the Kingdom relativizes everything else Whatever we find we have of food, shelter, and clothing, (or popularity or friends or “success” or control or prestige or authority or… ) is more than enough.
Is it too much to say that anxiety is a symptom of a Kingdom deficiency?