The question presumes that priorities shape the way we live—that some options are more important to us than others. A corollary for most people is that we can examine and change our priorities. So we ask, “what’s important here?” in order to consider our options.
Maybe our priorities do belong to us. Or, maybe they don’t.
I realize, of course, that the ability to define our own priorities is treated as a truism of life. I may, for instance, decide to abandon the immediate pleasure of drinking sugary drinks in favour of long-term health benefits. Or as I mature I may decide to take up fine arts and painting because I’ve begun to enjoy aesthetic creativity.
But it may be that this apparent freedom blocks our ability to see the bigger biblical reality. The Bible presumes a single guiding spirit to be at work in shaping our priorities—one Spirit is holy and his competitor is unholy (see Ephesians 2:1-3). One is from above; the other from below. One is Christ-focused; the other is self-focused.
This is a topic already traced on this site before now so I’ll just recall that the Bible sets out a binary opposition of “two masters” from beginning to end. And mastery by either of these two competing masters is spirit-derived.
And it’s in this context that Jesus called his disciples to an unlikely life: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Jesus is laying down a hard line: the cross was a hideous death device. So with this in mind think about whether you prefer choosing torture and death instead of comfort and security.
We might be able to conceive of the possibility as an “in theory it could happen” sort of prospect but I think most honest folks will agree that even Christians—often very discretely—treat Christ’s call to bear a cross daily as so much nonsense. Our real concern is to seek personal security and comfort. Yet the main ambitions of self-concern, no matter how innocuous, are not priorities for Christ.
The context for Christ’s view is based on his eternal experience of communing with the Father: he knows just one proper destiny. And every human is moving either toward him or away from him. So when we speak of priorities we need to remember that they exist in the context of reaching one destination or the other.
It also means that our apparent freedom only operates within the confines of our destiny. It’s a bit like a passenger on a cruise ship: when the ship is under way a given passenger has freedom within the available deck space but the ultimate option ends at the ship’s rails. The ship’s captain actually defines the direction and destination.
So the “really” in “what really matters” is a bottom line or boundary: something central to our identity has a final say in what’s acceptable or unacceptable. For most of us, as suggested above, the ultimate goal is our personal security. The “cruise ship” of life has a destination of personal welfare in view and any version of “God” needs to support that benefit.
It’s here that Paul followed Christ’s radical call when he announced, “I am crucified with Christ” living by “faith” in Christ. For him “what really matters” was to know Christ and to make him known. Paul teaches, then, that an ambition to please the Lord is the one great priority of life. All other ambitions belong to the “world” and the “flesh” in that their underlying devotion is to self and not to God.
A quick read-through of the Bible will underscore this theme. In Psalm 2, for instance, the dividing line between the nations that “rage” against God and a proper place with God is a desire to kiss the Son. In John 5 the religious scholars of Christ’s day were condemned—despite their Bible training—because “you don’t have the love of God in you.” And in John 8 a group of erstwhile believers in Jesus were exposed as frauds because they resisted key features of what Jesus was teaching. Jesus went right to the heart of the issue: “If God were your Father you would love me.”
Love is what matters most. And we love God as a response: he first loved us and we return that love. This is not to focus on love in itself, but to engage God’s love and to live with him as the ultimate object of our love.
The ungodly spirit gains control of the world by promoting self-concern in place of Christ-concern as the ultimate measure of life and meaning. Call it self-love. God, in response, sent the Son to die to that world and the Holy Spirit to woo us away from the ambitions that self-love offers.
In sum we learn that apart from him we can do nothing. And once his winsome love is present nothing else really matters.