A month ago, I was contemplating the differences between African and American culture. I now have spent six months in the USA with my wife, after having been immersed in life on the African Continent for a year and a half without returning home. Most people would consider it an understatement to say that “going without” is a major part of rural African life. Everyday commodities such as internet, electricity, modern plumbing, and clean water are often scarce or completely absent. Life in general requires sacrifice and a lot of physical effort for every day.
In the midst of the challenges of the day to day, I was always amazed at the joy and energy that my dear brothers, sisters, and family displayed in my now beloved home of South Sudan. Laughter and good-natured humor could be heard in the midst of digging under the blazing sun or in a conversation with someone suffering with a multi-seasonal malaria. The hard, but simple life brought a natural appreciation for the seemingly small gifts. There were a lot less distractions and, with so little that was actually in your control, depending and trusting on God seemed to come with less resistance.
Returning, I couldn’t help but compare the breakneck pace of our modern society and was overwhelmed. The distractions and complexity of life were a mountain, compared to my daily routine of preaching on the radio, handwashing my clothes, and carrying cooking/bathing water for my wife from the borehole. The Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons often highlight the busyness that we can get caught up in. As I looked around me, I was shocked by how much the details of life were often taking priority from our very walk with Jesus. The observation that hit me was that Jesus often becomes an accessory in our lives. There are many things in our lives, even good things, that become top importance and often take first place over drawing close to our Lord Jesus through prayer, reading the word, and serving others.
Now, apart from God’s grace, this would be an angry diatribe from a self-righteous missionary against the evils of American society, but the Lord kindly turned my finger directly back to me. I was seeing the diverted focus of others around me, until God quietly asked me a simple question:
“What are you doing right now?”
I looked down at my running shoes as they pounded the pavement and noticed that I was breathing hard as I pushed out the last few miles of a long run. On most days it would take a pretty large chain to keep me away from my daily morning exercise routine. In that moment I had to admit (with some cringing) that I was religiously devoted to my physical fitness and the time spent in the lap of my heavenly father was often lop-sided in its shortness. My satisfaction was in what I could make myself to be, not in my identity as a child of God through what Jesus Christ had done on my behalf.
I would often read the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:7-8:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”
For many years I have reflected on this scripture and desired that this would be true of me. I had mistakenly thought that good parts of my life were counted as “rubbish”, but in that humble moment I was able to see where my allegiance truly was and in many ways my walk with the Lord was subconsciously an add-on.
This is not a western or cultural problem, but a universal human problem. We all get our attention divided by things that we think will make us happy, forgetting the True Source of our happiness. It is just as true in the craziness of the Christmas rush in America, as it is in a family harvesting sweet potatoes in rural South Sudan or Uganda.
Certainly, illegal drug and alcohol abuse is wreaking havoc in lives all over the world and I have seen the collateral damage first hand in S. Sudan. However, the good things of this life, such as family, ministry, and good health, can be equally effective in turning our focus away from our Savior Lord Jesus as our life and source of everything.
If you are anything like me, you may feel a growing sense of inadequacy. It seems impossible to keep Jesus as the focus and purpose of life and not a “multi-vitamin” or accessory for a happy life. Sin and my flesh wages a war inside me on a daily basis (Romans 7:21-23) and I find myself focusing on what doesn’t matter and not turning to what should be the center of my attention (Romans 7:18-19). We know that the purpose of a believer’s life is that Jesus be glorified in every action and word (1 Peter 4:11) and when we fall short, there is hope!
For those who have been called by Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). We can be overjoyed over how Paul continues in Philippians 3:9-11:
“and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Our ability to make Jesus our life comes through The Life which poured out His very blood for us. We have the Lamb of God’s righteousness and it is this unstoppable power that is working within us. Making our spiritual priorities right does NOT start by promising ourselves that we will stop our earthly affections on the spot and only get satisfied through Christ. Instead, it requires confessing our total inability and asking Jesus to do what we cannot do. Our faith and trust rests in the one who conquered sin and death and not in our own will power.
The changes of our heart and the allegiances we make will not change overnight. The first time I saw that physical fitness had become an ultimate thing was in 2010 and it has been an almost daily struggle since then. I may not fully surrender this overemphasis and false satisfaction until I finally am physically held in my dear Savior’s arms, but I know He is walking with me every step of the way. On a daily basis I try to remember to ask the Lord for what specific actions I can take to put Him first in that day and pray for the power to follow through.
When I get discouraged and see my idols take control for the thousandth time, I remember these words:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)
“He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” 2 Corinthians 1:10