I tell my congregation all the time that the place for God is not at the top of your priority list, it is at the center of your life. You may think these are just two different ways of saying basically the same thing, but they are drastically different. In fact the difference between these two points of view highlights the importance of language in shaping how we think. Let’s look carefully at both for a moment.
Priority lists are made up of separate things
Priority lists are always — well, prioritized. That means that one thing comes “before” another thing. This assumes that the things themselves are basically unrelated. For example:
1. Pick up milk
2. Drop off shirts at dry cleaner
3. Go to the post office
4. Buy flowers for my wife
5. Put on new light faceplates
6. Clean the garage
Priority lists are excellent for tasks. I may have the list above numbered the way I do because I want to start at the place that is furthest away, end up closest to my home, and then finish tasks around the house the rest of the day. In that case, this list would make perfect sense. Though I need to do all of these things, doing one of them doesn’t usually depend on whether, and how well, I do any of the others. This is because they are separate. Another way of showing separateness is this way:
Goal — Write book
1. Buy a book on how to write a good book proposal
2. Research the market to see what other books are already written on my topic
3. Do my book proposal
4. Write two sample chapters
5. Find an agent
6. Deliver proposal to agent
This would allow me to do first what must be done first so that I can move on to what needs to be done second. I must do this second before I can move on to what comes third. Here I do one task and can then basically forget about it and move on to the next one. They are sequential, but still fairly separate.
Priority lists force us to live artificially
But neither of the above fits how the major parts of our lives actually work. We can’t use priority lists with our lives because the different roles in our lives are not just what we do, they comprise who we are. As a father, I do the act of fathering, but father is also who I am. So is husband. So are teacher and pastor and counselor and writer and child of God and friend.
The list below, which people make so often, if only in their minds, simply does not make sense:
1. God comes first.
2. Family comes second.
3. Work comes third.
4. Hobbies come fourth.
This list cannot ever bring real clarity and order to my life for two reasons. First, it forces me to feel like I have to pretend that I love God more than I love my wife and children. I do not. And no one else does either. (But since we haven’t had any other language for relationships other than priority language, we feel guilty admitting it.) Nor do I love my family more than I love my work. Nor do I love my work more than I love my hobbies. Speaking this way doesn’t even make any sense. That’s not how human beings are put together. The second reason a priority list can’t bring clarity to my life is that relationships are all interconnected. If you put your relationships into list form, how you are doing at one point on the list likely affects how you are doing at other points up and down the list. You can never “cross one off” and be done with it like you can a task or real priority list. It is because of the interconnectedness of our relationships that they all affect one another.
The way better alternative
So let me show you a much more helpful way of thinking.
While it is not true that I love God more than I love my family, it is true is that God is closest to the core of my being. So I love my family (and congregation and clients and students and friends) with love that comes from God. While it is not true that I love my family “more” than I love my work, my family is closer to my heart — closer to the core of my being. These roles cannot be, and should not be, separated. When we attempt to separate them we do violence to ourselves and force ourselves to live inauthentically.
One way you can always know if you are thinking clearly is by asking yourself if the implications of how you think force you to diminish or damage yourself. The “prioritized” way of thinking about the major parts of our lives just doesn’t work, and it just makes us feel guilty. Not valid, legitimate guilt, but the kind of guilt God should surely feel for not being able to make a rock bigger than he can lift. Of course the challenge is nonsense and of course even God can’t contradict himself; and in the same way, you cannot measure the vitality of your commitments with a priority list.
God doesn’t belong at the top of your priority list. He belongs at the center of your life. We’ll never understand how God is working in our lives as long as we insist on trying to measure distance in ounces.