I regret reading all kinds of kudos that Denzell Washington has been getting on Facebook recently for telling graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans: “Put God first.”
Denzell is one of my favorite actors. But remarks like his are often made by people who haven’t thought them through — who just toss out these easy slogans.
I can’t think of a more harmful thing to tell young people. “Put God first.” I hear it all the time from preachers and from sports stars and from people on Facebook.
The misleading nature of the remark is right up there with one I heard from a minister telling a college audience, “I love God more than I love my wife.”
It’s right up there with all of the cliché remarks by sports figures like Vince Lombardi saying, The most important things in life are “God, family and football” or Tony Pena, “God, family and baseball.”
Here’s the problem:
Life is not lived in neatly separated strata:
God up there
family on the next lower level
vocation on the next lower level.
They are all connected — laterally. That is, they all come into play at the same time. What a person does for one’s family and in one’s vocation shows the presence of God in one’s life.
They can’t be separated — God first, family second, anything else third.
When people TRY to separate them by “putting God first,” disaster likely follows.
When Ted Williams was growing up, his mother was an evangelist for the Salvation Army. The household was totally neglected. Neglected were not only relationships but the physical condition of the home. When baseball scouts came over to Ted’s home when he was a teenager, he would be embarrassed that they would see a couch so ratty that the springs could be seen.
Decades later, when Ted was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he didn’t want his parents to attend! His mother had “put God first” to the neglect of her son. The father was also a no-show. Indeed, the person Ted chose to introduce him at the Hall of Fame ceremony was neither his mother nor his father — but his high school baseball coach.
Every so often in the news, we read about a kid who is found to be starving in one’s own house even though the parents have money to buy food. The parents, however, had set aside the money “for God.” They were “putting God first,” donating their pledge to their congregation.
Vince Lombardi talked so much about “putting God first” — he would attend Mass every morning. But he neglected his family. His wife felt so “out of the loop” in his life, she turned to alcohol. The children were terrified of the father. His anger carried over from the football field, leaving his kids in a state of petrified conduct. During the season, they would avoid the father from Mondays to Wednesdays. By Thursdays, he had become civil enough to talk to. His daughter felt so neglected, she engaged in an eating disorder. His son (if you see him on TV) is a nervous wreck, blinking hard continually.
Lombardi also was awfully abusive to Green Bay Packer employees, whom he thought he could bellow at as if they were dolts. One time, he excoriated the Lambeau Field groundskeeper in front of the entire team during practice. Later, Lombardi saw the groundskeeper in private. He offered an apology. The groundskeeper exploded: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to accept your apology in PRIVATE! You chew me out in front of the entire team and then want to apologize to me in PRIVATE?!”
“Putting God first” is easy to say, popular to say — but impossible to do. What we do for God cannot be separated from what how we treat people.
I heard a famous preacher say, “If you have pledged money to the church, no matter what other unexpected expenses come up [health, unemployment, children’s needs, etc.], you keep donating to the church exactly the amount that you pledged.” That is portrayed as faithfulness, “putting God first.”
It’s the exact opposite of what Jesus tells us. He says if you go to your place of worship — but have been harboring a dispute with your brother — FORGET the sacrifice at the altar — LEAVE it — instead, go first and repair the relationship. (Matthew 5:24)
He mocks the misguided devotion of those who diligently measure out one-tenth of their possession of herbs and spices on delicate scales — as their tithe to God, “putting God first” — but who cheat their employees by underpaying them. (Luke 11:42)
We show our devotion to God by our devotion to people. The last line of Les Miserables says it perfectly: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
We show our devotion to God by our devotion to godly values. For example, there are two ways to get out of debt: honestly vs. dishonestly. Putting God first decides which way we go.
When young men are partying, looking for an opportunity with a young woman, even when she’s drunk, there are two ways to proceed: respecting the young woman, watching over her vs. taking advantage under the guise of “having a good time.” Putting God first determines which way we go.
But the idea of “putting God first” as some kind of detached act separated from all that’s around us — that’s as big a misconception as believers can have.
The minister who said, “I love God more than I love my wife” — I wanted to pose a situation for him. Let’s say his wife is five months pregnant, and they’re driving to church on a Sunday morning. Suddenly, the wife gasps, clutches her abdomen in sharp pain. What would the husband do? Say, “Sorry, dear, we have to put God first,” and keep driving to the church?