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First and Second Things

In the Olympics as in life, coming in second is nice, but it’s nothing like being first. We remember gold medalists but quickly forget who took the silver. Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights speaks for all those whothink first is best when he says, “If you ain’t first you’re last.”

If there’s an exception to this “It’s Best to Be First” principle, it’s one made popular by the outstanding “I Am Second” campaign—currently featuring Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton—where the message echoes the ubiquitous HE>i slogan from a clothing brand based on the Bible verse John 3:30: “HE (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.”

Which is why it’s puzzling that so many of us who call ourselves Christians put second (that would be us) ahead of first (that would be God). To be fair, it’s not like we think we’re more important or better than God, but that doesn't stop us from taking a shot at first place. So we trumpet a passion we have for a cause and make that our first priority. You know, good causes like caring for the poor, helping the disadvantaged, giving voice to marginalized voices, those sorts of things.

Make no mistake, these are good things. The Bible tells us to “defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17), to help “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and to care for “widows and orphans” (James 1:27). All of these and more are covered in the “Love your neighbor as yourself” command that Jesus gives to the lawyer who asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” (Matthew 27:36-40).

Of course, if you read that passage, you will see that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is just half of the “greatest commandment.” In fact, it’s the second half of the command, designated by Jesus as the second greatest commandment. According to Jesus, the first greatest commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

No Christian familiar with the Scriptures would argue this point. Yet in practice we often put the second commandment ahead of the first because it is tangible, while the first commandment is ethereal. Even more, we think the best way to demonstrate our love for God (the first thing) is by loving our neighbor (the second thing). There’s just one problem with this hypothesis: it doesn’t work.

In a cozy essay titled, “First and Second Things,” C.S. Lewis discusses a “universal law” in this matter of first and second. Here it is:

Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made. (God in the Dock, p. 280)

When you put second things first, you essentially sacrifice the “total good” in favor of the “partial good.” And when that happens, you ultimately lose the partial good you worked so hard to get.

In other words, says Lewis, "You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." Loving your neighbor will be effective and satisfying only to the degree that it is second to the first thing—loving God.

So Ricky Bobby is wrong and HE>i has it right. We really are second and all the good things we want to do for God have to stand in line behind our love for God. Only then will the partial good we want be any good at all.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.