Put God first. It’s a refrain that echoes in my memories of youth groups, retreats, safe-for-the-whole-family radio, pulpit rantings, and my journal entries repenting of placing God second.
You would think that if God wanted to be first place in our lives, He would be a fiercer competitor. You would think that if God wanted to hear, “Congratulations, you win! You get first place!” that He would be better at this competition. I mean, He’s God. We shouldn’t have to shove Him into the lead or give Him an advantage.
While this phrase is well-intentioned, meant to encourage people to evaluate their values and how they spend their time and money, it’s damaging the way we think about how God interacts with us.
The problem with putting God first is that it puts God in a ranking system. It puts Him in a system where He has to get ahead somehow–the God who said the first shall be last. We are saying that God–the one whose son washed grime and donkey feces off his friends’ feet, ate with the lowest ranking members of society, remained friends with the very man who would bring about his death, and bled out on a piece of wood–wants to win our human systems and be number one.
It’s understandable for us to think of God in this way. We live in a capitalist culture. We see honor in and give respect to those in first place. First placers are winners. Second placers are the best losers. So trying to place God in our systems of thinking is the natural result of living in a culture where the consumer has the power, the advertisements bombard consumers daily to influence their purchases, the one with the most money is the best, the nature of competition is that it drives up the standards of products, and the fittest survive. But this is not Kingdom thinking.
In the Kingdom, those who bully their way into deals do not win. Consumption is not mindless or a passive accumulation. Those in competition do not become better–they actually die of exhaustion and psychopathy. The least fit–the children, the orphans, the widows, the homeless, the mentally ill, the outcasts–are the ones who survive.
God doesn’t operate in the world’s systems. He is not a capitalist or a socialist or a libertarian. He is a subversive hippie, an anarchic leader, a paradox. He doesn’t play Caesar’s games or jump through Pharisaical hoops. He doesn’t demand that we follow Him. He doesn’t demand first place because He doesn’t compete.
The consequence of placing God first is that we become neurotic, paranoid statisticians, constantly evaluating our decisions to make sure they reflect that God is in first place of our lives, and beating ourselves up that He’s not, unaware that He is not anyone’s first place. Because what does that even mean.
God is the King of an upside down Kingdom, one that doesn’t make sense in the systems and governments we know. God cannot be found on the winner’s pedestal because He is in Creation filling the fields with flowers and blowing like the wind. He is in the flavors of the food at our table and the laughter of those around our table. He meets us in the mirror in the mornings, in our flowerbeds, in our bedtime stories, in our standstill traffic.
Though achievement and productivity are the stimulants that keep us running for worthiness, we have to set those ideas aside when it comes to the Sovereign God interacting with us. God’s story is not a linear ascent to the top.
He doesn’t want to be first. He wants to be with us.