Question: "What does putting God first really mean?"
Answer: It is common to hear people say, “God first, family second, work third.” But what does it really mean to put God first? What does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5)? If we are to actually follow this command, what would our lives look like?
Think for a moment about the impossibility of this command and of the standard God sets for us. When we do not follow His commands, it is sin. And, if we’re honest, we know that there has never been a moment when any of us have completely followed this command. As believers, we all love God to some degree, but we never succeed in loving Him with all of our being at every moment, as the command suggests we should. In Jesus’ life, on the other hand, there was never a moment when He was not loving God with all of His being. The only way we can do what He did is to, in some sense, become completely like Him.
But being sinners, in and of ourselves, that is impossible. But the good news is that He has made possible the impossible. He has exchanged our sinfulness for His righteousness on the cross, making us completely new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17–21). Now we are able to love as He loves because we are now in Him. Therefore, our only hope to succeed in putting God first is to begin by trusting fully in His promise to cover our sinfulness with His righteous life (1 John 4:10).
Knowing that Jesus’ life was perfect in regard to putting God first, we should look at the way He lived His life and imitate Him, attempting to “walk in the manner that He walked” (1 John 2:6). Jesus’ life was characterized by submission to the Father’s will, service to others, and prayer. It is interesting to note that Jesus never pursued worldly ambition in any way and never pursued the glory of this world. He had every gift, talent, and ability to make Him the most famous and wealthiest man who ever lived. But there was only one goal that He considered worthy of His talents—the glory of the Father.
This should be an example to believers. The time, resources, energy, gifts, and knowledge of God that we’ve been given should be used not to gain influence, make money, or fuel pride, but instead to multiply glory for the Kingdom (Matthew 25:14–30) and to save the souls of the lost (2 Corinthians 5:20) as we trust in God to protect us and provide for us (Matthew 6:31–33). As an example to those who believe throughout the ages, Jesus sought first the Kingdom of God, and laid down His life for His friends (John 10:11; 15:13). His life was a perfect picture of loving God with heart, soul, and strength, putting Him first.
It is also interesting to note that we never see Jesus expressing His love for God by singing praise to God or dancing for joy. That is not to say that Jesus was not joyful. He was joyful. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Furthermore, Jesus knew that His actions on earth would mean God’s glory and the joy of His people, and we are told in Hebrews 12:2 that as He went to the cross He anticipated great joy and was even motivated by it. But the snapshot of Jesus’ life that we see in the Bible—the snapshot that we must assume God wanted us to see and emulate (1 Peter 2:21)—is not primarily a picture of freedom and happiness and songs and laughter. In fact, it seems that Jesus’ love for God was played out in most often in hardship, tears, sorrows, trials, and ultimately a painful and horrific death.
Loving God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength is not an easy path (Luke 13:24). Yes, the life of a Christian is a life of joy, despite trials, and a life that anticipates great joy (2 Corinthians 7:4; Revelation 22:16–17). But we should not expect our life in this world to be easy or successful or fulfilling in a worldly sense. The world is at enmity with Christ and is therefore also at enmity with His followers (John 15:18–19). The world will tell us to be someone, to achieve, to live the good life in this world. All that is a lie. It does not bring fulfillment but only pain and disappointment to those who give their lives to it (1 Timothy 6:9–10).
Conversely, the life of a Christian should be characterized by moment-by-moment selfless service to God that flows from love for Him and His people. That is what it means to put God first. Any wealth that comes our way should be used to generously give (Mark 10:21), any success or influence or talents that we have should be used to multiply Christ’s influence (Matthew 25:14–30), and any strength or health we enjoy should be spent in His service (Philippians 2:14–17; Mark 8:35).