by Todd Littleton
How do we set our priorities in order?
Christian couples sit through pre-marital counseling. They are advised to set priorities for their marriage, their family, their future. Many will hear the tried list of priorities without much explanation: God, family, others, self. Any one of these may become an idol if the pursuit of one undermines what is prior. But, just what is prior?
Small cities make decisions about what matters most. If road conditions rise to the level of an important infrastructure need, money will be budgeted for this purpose. Most often, these funds come from another area, so to fail to allocate money for roads is to declare something else as a greater priority. It would be rare, indeed, to have enough resources to meet every need. What matters most?
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard explicated the Sermon on the Mount to the conclusion that learning to value others would result in a “community of prayerful love.” Missing the gospel for the gospel of sin management resulted in the lack of both prayer and love. Sometimes priorities are dependent upon one another.
Everyone sets priorities—intentionally or unintentionally. Couples, cities, and communities reveal what is important when they express their respective priorities. What if our understanding of God could impact our world more profoundly, on all levels, if we got this right? What if we took a second look at God’s revelation to human beings and learned that love isn’t just another attribute. Instead, love must be first.
The Scriptures reveal certain themes related to God’s activity in and with the world. These came to be described as attributes—actions or attitudes characteristic of the revealed God. Many of us learned these attributes of God as a means to knowledge. We wanted to know something about God. But what if we took the time to know God, Godself, filtering these attributes through the life of Jesus, the Christ. Tripp Fuller simplifies this notion by asserting that God has to be at least as nice as Jesus.
It is startling to realize that wrath and love often occupy the same plane when the list of divine attributes is given. Love does not sit atop the list. Could it be that the loving-kindness of God that leads to repentance is simply one attribute among many? Jesus de-centered the powers of the world by centering on the God who so loved the world. How is it, then, that those who inherit that great tradition often view love as ordinary or merely one part of who God is?
Thomas J. Oord challenges the former articulations of divine action by calling attention to what must be prior: love. Love is not one attribute among many. Instead, love is the priority that frames all other attributes. Take, for instance, the fixation on the power of God. Many modern notions of power describe a love that is in service to power. Oord paints a different picture, one of power in service to love. It is the Jesus Story.
Love as the first priority applies to the essential nature of God. Oord describes an understanding of God asserting that if God was capable of being unloving, God would cease to be God. Put differently, when we tell someone God is love, we say that God relentlessly pursues all with the goal of universal well being. God persuades in such a way that God encourages all of creation to be self-giving rather than self-asserting. God’s loving relationship to all things is prior: love itself is prior to all attributes.
The interest of this essay is to contend that a human understanding that love is prior to all priorities sets the world up for life of a different sort. Couples, cities, and communities simply provide a framework for thinking about how first priority love might form human decisions differently than the traditional, or current, view that the most important attribute of God is power.
With this in mind, Maybe we would find a different starting point with those young couples coming for pre-marital counseling. Rather than asking them to map out a ten year plan, or negotiating between their different hobbies and pastimes, we could ask them to commit first to love, in all things. Love should not only be a priority somewhere on the list.
What if Christian involvement in politics, down to the city that is looking to set its infrastructure priorities, first asked, “What is the most loving thing I could do?” Mapping the needs of the city, taking the most loving action into consideration, may bring a community to focus on everyone’s needs rather than the needs of just a few.
Consider our churches, those communities of faith. What impact would they have in the world if their first course of action centered on what is most loving rather than what is most holy? One may discover that the most holy thing to do would also be the most loving thing conceived.
“God’s ways are not our ways” is a phrase often used to help human beings accept mystery. What if, instead, this statement could be used to draw our attention to the call to love first?