I know English is the international language of business, and I don’t mean to denigrate my mother tongue, but it’s pretty imprecise at times, you know? We often use the same words to mean many different things, leading to all types of confusion.
Take the word “love.” We use that word to say “I love my kids”, “I love the Dallas Cowboys or the Grace Cougars”, and “I love Blue Bell Java Jolt ice cream” (You should try it!), but we probably mean three different things when we use that same word in those three different contexts.
Love is also difficult to define. We all say we know it when we see it, but can you define it? We’ve all heard the expression “the heart wants what it wants,” meaning that when you want something for emotional reasons, such as when you are romantically or physically attracted to someone, then no amount of logic or reason can dissuade you. In other words, you can’t use reason to argue against a decision that has been made for emotional reasons. But, is that the same thing as love?
There are lots of things that are hearts want that we know aren’t good for us. Most of these are actually good things (like the aforementioned Java Jolt, or more seriously, certain people or habits), but not good when we use them too much, or we use them when it isn’t the right time, or we obsess about them, or we spend everything (money, time, energy) in pursuit of them. They become our first love, our most important love, those things that are most important to us, whether we would admit it or not. Our love may be a desire to succeed at something, or a desire for someone, or even just to be loved or liked by our friends, or our boss, or even people in general, or to be known as a good business person or mom or golfer or just as a nice person, or something you may find yourself so attracted to you might, if you were honest, say you were addicted to it.
So, what is that thing for you? What is it that may or may not be a good thing, but that you would admit at times or always is most important, is first, consumes you in ways you know, if you think about it, might even be unhealthy for you?
In John 3, Nicodemus wants to find out more about this Jesus he’s heard so much about. Unlike the other Pharisees, Nicodemus thinks Jesus may actually have the words of God. But, seeking to avoid detection from the other Pharisees, he visits Jesus at night:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless someone is born of water (from their mother, the flesh) and from the Spirit (baptized by the Holy Spirit), they can’t see the Kingdom of God, which Nicodemus knew meant Heaven, eternal life. Jesus says that this born again person, baptized by the Holy Spirit, becomes new. The Holy Spirit actually changes us, regenerates us, and gives us a new heart and a new mind.
We now want to do live differently than we did before. I remember when I first started actively chasing Jesus, and wanting to learn as much about Him as I could. Having a new heart led me to do things I’d never do otherwise. When I first started practicing law in Dallas or Tyler, if you had told me that I would be leading a Christian school, I would say you were out of your mind. I didn’t even like school, and I had spent too much time investing a career elsewhere. There’s no way I would have wanted to do that! But God changes our hearts, and gives us desires we never had before.
It doesn’t end there, however. Just because we now want those new things, it doesn’t mean we want them more than the things we wanted before. It doesn’t mean knowing God becomes our first love, more than the things we loved before, does it? In fact, life now becomes a struggle for us, a heart battle between those things we know are best for us and those things we might know are not. Because the heart wants what it wants.
The late Tim Keller described this struggle metaphorically: your faith is playing as a background track to your life, important and definitely something clearly audible. Nevertheless, that other love–being wanted by those around you, or loved by that other person, or that thing you may be addicted to–is playing on the giant screen of your life, so it seemingly dominates and overwhelms the background track. Whatever is on the big screen is your first love.
The problem with something other than God being on that screen, being our first love, is our original source code. We were created by God and for God, and those things for which God gave us a new heart to be the first things, our first loves, the thing on that big screen, the main deal. And, nothing else can ever truly fill that screen in the right way. It’s exhausting to us and crippling to others to try to put other people, or things, or politics, or hobbies, or anything else up there–it actually does violence to those things, people, and to us.
The solution to this inner turmoil is what St. Augustine, who lived over 1,000 years ago, called “rightly-ordered loves.” When I love God first and foremost, when He is on that big screen, I can then love other things and people the way they were meant to be loved. Maybe I don’t even love things at all, but instead recognize them as simply tools to be used to love other people. I can also love others unselfishly, not trying to manipulate them to get what they can’t give me anyway, instead loving them the way they were meant to be loved.
When you think about the anxiety and situational depression most people feel, it’s related to disordered loves. We’re trying to acquire that something we love that isn’t God, but that is on the big video screen of our life, our first love, and we can never get it, or if we do we realize it doesn’t give us what we thought we wanted from it deep down. We’re trying to get that person to love or like us, and they never love us or include us. Even worse, maybe they do, and we realize they aren’t what we wanted after all, that we’re still missing something. They’re not what we really needed, maybe they’re not really even good for us. That makes us sad and lonely, feeling empty and rejected.
Can we really love God first? We can if we understand love. Real, actual love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not primarily a feeling or an emotion. It is a decision, a willful act. Love is the intentional decision to be all for another, to say I am 100 percent on your team. I am for you, even when it causes me sacrifice, or suffering, or service. Love is measured not by what it receives, but by what it gives. Love receives everything in return because it gives everything first. Anyone who has a child or a healthy marriage understands this, even when it’s sometimes harder to receive it than to give it.
So, with that definition of love–an intentional decision to be all for another–it’s actually possible to love God first. It’s actually possible to be all for him: to say “I am going to be for you and spend time with you every day, consciously make that happen, because I know that’s how I become for you. I’m going to understand you by being in your Word, because that’s the major way I hear from you, and I’m going to talk to you and listen to you in prayer, and by doing all these things it will change my heart.”
To truly love someone requires that intentional act, shaping your heart to love another. Deciding you will, and then doing it. And, the great thing about loving God first is that doing so puts us right in the path of the Holy Spirit, who changes our desires to become all those things we really wanted to be when God gave us a new heart.
Making Jesus your first love is possible right now through repentance. Repentance is turning back, it’s making the decision that Jesus will be your first love, that he will be on the big screen running front and center in your life, and everything else will be only background track- not unimportant, but less important than what is going on out front. Those spiritual disciplines, things like prayer, and solitude and silence, and Bible study, and meditation on the word, and worship are the ways I train my heart to keep Jesus there, to keep him front and center.
The enemy of our souls wants to keep Jesus off that center screen, and he will use several tools, like distraction (“look over here instead, this is way more interesting”), or guilt (“What about that thing you’ve done last week, or last month, or five minutes ago?”), or shame (“God’s not going to love or forgive you, you’re dirty, you’re gross”) to keep God from being out front and center, the first love. A good friend reminded me that the verse from James I quoted last week: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.,” is preceded by the exhortation to “Submit to God.” That’s a good callout. Only when our loves are rightly-ordered, when we have made the intentional decision to be all for God as he is all for us, can we be ready to resist, to beat our enemy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only then are we really Battle Tested.