There is an encouragement in the New Testament from the apostle John written to encourage believers to stay focused on what is important. He says, “Do not love the world, or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (I John 2:15).
I may be sharing too much of myself here, but it took me years before my first thought here was not something akin to, “sex, money, and power.” It is true that it is a short trip to get there, but to start there misses the point and stops us short of the depth of what John is saying. The principle is not only for Christians but has broader implications for our families and our nation.
Before he spoke of what has become a pietistic understanding he honored the beauty of the gifts of creation and “the things that are in the world.” They are good things, they are useful things — yes, even “sex, money, and power.” But these are not things to be loved. They are, rather, gifts and responsibilities that come as a result of loving God.
Augustine of Hippo explained it this way, “[It is] as if a bridegroom should make a ring for his bride, and she having received the ring, should love it more than she loves the bridegroom who made the ring for her; would not her soul be found guilty of adultery in the very gift of the bridegroom, albeit she did but love what the bridegroom gave her?”
When John Kennedy became President, the world was on the verge of nuclear war. There were other problems as well. In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, he laid out the problems we faced as a nation. Here is part of his address including one of his most memorable lines.
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe…
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”
This is an acknowledgement of the same principle that John addresses. If we only fall in love with the gifts, we can find ourselves living in contempt of that from which we have received. I have seen it in relationships of all kinds.
Ultimately the rest of our lives flow from the state of the health of our relationships. We must tend to them without regard to what we think we deserve. This is hard to do. However, if we do not — especially for believers’ relationship to God — we will fall prey to thinking we deserve good things for all the work we have put in. And this view will follow us into every part of our lives.
If we only love the things we get from God, or others, or our country, we will eventually be disappointed. We will eventually allow our thankfulness to turn to bitterness and blame when things do not go well. I love fresh vegetables — no, I love the garden and it yields fresh vegetables. I love the opportunities given to all (somewhat unevenly) in our nation — no, I love the nation and care for it and all its citizens, and it will yield opportunity. To accept gifts without responsibility or relationship is at best using others and is a form of prostitution, or in the terms of Augustine, the gifts become a form of adultery.
It is one thing to love and chase happiness or joy or any of those things John talks about (sex, money, power). It is quite another to tend carefully and love what is important, which is more likely to produce sustained satisfaction in life. Love the giver, not the gifts.