The main thing in life, someone said, is to keep the main thing the main thing. Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.1 Albert Gray, a Prudential Life Insurance Company officer known nationwide as a writer and speaker, spent his life searching for the one common denominator that all successful people share. In 1940 he spoke about what he discovered in a major address that insurance professionals have been reading ever since.
He found that success did not depend on hard work, good fortune, or the gift of developing relationships, though all of those are important. The one thing more important than all the others was that successful people develop the habit of putting first things first. They clearly identify their priorities; they commit themselves to keeping them; and they organize their lives around them.
Every person who has ever been successful through the ages, Gray found, “formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.” Successful people don’t necessarily like doing those things either, but their dislike takes a back seat to the strength of their purpose.2
A business consultant who was moving into a new home had a great vision for the grounds, so he decided to hire a friend of his to do the landscaping. His friend had a doctorate in horticulture, and she was very bright and knowledgeable.
The homeowner was often away on business and kept emphasizing to his friend that she needed to create his gardens so they would require little or no maintenance on his part. He stressed the absolute necessity of automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices. He was always looking for ways to cut the amount of time he would need to spend taking care of things. Finally his friend stopped him and said, “I can see what you’re saying. But there’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further. If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden.”3
Every year, as Sheryl creates and recreates the gardens around our house, I learn that lesson again. There are some things in life – the most important things – I cannot delegate to others or put off to a later time. There is some work that, even if I don’t like doing it, even if I think I don’t have time for it, even if it seems inconvenient, I simply must do if the garden of my life is to flourish – work like keeping God the highest priority in my life. It’s a principle of life I ignore at my own risk.
So this lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? What must I do to assure that I have the abundant life you promise, the “more and better life than [I] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 The Message)? What must I do to have the life I’ve yearned for, the kind of life that seems so elusive in the ordinary busyness of this life? How can this garden of my life grow to fruition when the ground I till is full of stones and weeds and compacted soil (cf. Mark 4:1-9)?
And Jesus, who knows that the lawyer already knows the answer to his question, simply affirms what the lawyer – and everyone else, I think – already knows: The main thing in life is to keep the main thing the main thing. In every moment, work to keep life’s first priority first, and don’t let things that are first priority ever take a back seat to things that are second priority.
In the very first commandment, God says, “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). In one example after another throughout the scriptures, every time Israel turns to the worship of another god, there’s a price to pay: social disruption, economic failure, even defeat at the hands of foreign powers. And when they again make their relationship with the God of Abraham their first priority, their fortunes are restored.
All of us divide our loyalties among several or many gods. We trust in the power of money and find that the more of it we get, the more our troubles are the same. We trust in the power of our senses to give us pleasure and find that our senses grow dull and the emptiness remains. We trust the power of possessions to make life abundant and find we have accumulated many masters that possess us. We trust the power of activities to fill us with satisfaction or success and find that busyness may fill our calendars but does not necessarily fulfill our lives.
The power of the first commandment is that it calls us back to remember the main thing, what’s really and finally important in life, and it invites us to organize every part of our lives around that first priority. It calls us to keep first things first and to never let things that matter most be at the mercy of things that matter least.
Every day I wrestle with the choice between what’s more or less important. My hardest choices are not between right and wrong, good and bad, best and worst. My hardest choices are between good and better, and I struggle with the need to say “no” to some very good things so I can say “yes” to better things, and with often not knowing which is really better. And always the hardest part of making what I pray is the right choice is that I don’t know what’s going to come of it.
But somewhere in the distress of making those daily choices is my opportunity to be blessed. Blessed not because I will know I’ve made the right choice but because every choice is an opportunity to clarify God’s place in my life’s priorities and to act on my trust that God will guide me in making that choice and will use my faithfulness in choosing to create the outcome only God can know. All God asks, I believe, is that in every choice I keep God first in mind and in heart.
How do I or any of us gain the abundant life that exceeds our wildest dreams? Remember that God is jealous and will brook no competition in our relationship with the eternal. Simply or not-so-simply “love the Lord your God with all your heart,” Jesus said, “and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:27-28).
Love God with everything you have and everything you are, holding nothing back, keeping God first in your mind and heart, and value every other person – your familiar neighbor, the unfamiliar stranger, even your enemy – as much as you value yourself, and you’ll find you have the abundant life you’re looking for. What a Christmas gift that will be to unwrap this year.
notes — 1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German writer and statesman. ▪ 2. Albert E. N. Gray, “The Common Denominator of Success.” ▪ 3. Retold from Stephen R. Covey, et al, First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 77.