The Secret to a Great Life

Great Life Slide.002Snark Meter.005 There is a secret. It will change your life. And once you know it, you will never forget it.

I first realized I was “that guy” in our neighborhood at my daughter’s pirate-themed fifth birthday party. I suspect many youth ministry people grow up to become “that guy.” This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The years we spend active with teenagers develop a set of skills, that when exercised with small children, in particular, small children with overprotective parents, make us quite popular with those children and considerably less so with their parents.

We had recently moved from a street where we had the only children on the block to a neighborhood with at least 30 kids in our children’s age group. Much to our chagrin, every one of those kids and their keepers converged on our home for my daughter’s party-the parade from both directions was quite a sight. My wife quickly disappeared out the back to the store for twenty more hotdogs while I attempted to appear nonplussed at the incursion. One neighbor looked over my backyard and remarked flatly, “Disneyland wasn’t this crowded last summer.”

In less time than it took to light the candles on my five year old’s cake, I made a rookie mistake. While on grill duty I shouted, “Who wants the first hot dog?” It was like the scene from a movie. Time briefly went to slow motion as thirty over-eager kids dropped what they were doing, turned, and began to run toward me with arms in the air shouting, “I do!” Unfortunately, time shifted back to full speed as the horde accelerated toward the grill. Elbowing for position around the blazing grill, thirty kids shouted, “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

The other parents cringed, imagining gory injuries and expensive lawsuits.

As for me, the danger was lost in my glee at discovering I had the ability to incite an elfish riot. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the novelty of this newly discovered skill: “Who wants to hit the piñata first?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

“We are playing freeze tag. Who wants to be it first?”  “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

“Who wants the first cup cake?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

“Me first” is cute and funny with five-year olds…although apparently not as cute as I found it to be, since it would take the better part of a decade to convince my neighbors that I actually am a grown up. But regardless of how “me first” appears in a group of kindergarteners, looking out for numero uno is most un-adorable in adults.

“Me first” comes so easily, though. Self-protection is a powerful human motivator – perhaps the first hard-wired human inclination. “Me first” is, well, normal. The interesting thing is that when we follow what is “normal,” when we go “me first,” we don’t insure our thriving at all. We actually diminish ourselves. Rather than protect us, self-preservation, it turns out, shrinks our lives. And we end up with a life that inspires neither us, nor anyone else.

A good example of “me first” occurs in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel in an incident known as “the healing by the pool.” The short version is this: Traveling rabbi Jesus walks into town for a religious conference with his (at least) twelve students. With a seventy-mile journey on foot behind them, they head to the city well to cool off. Jesus wanders into the pool house, a place frequented by the sick and homeless. The water in the pool was actually the run-off from the pool Jesus belonged at, the nice folk’s pool, immediately uphill from this one. At the pool, Jesus runs into a crippled guy, apparently squatting on a prime panhandling location. The guy uses his rehearsed speech on Jesus who tells the handicapped man to get up and walk. This he does. (Jesus has this inexplicable ability to speak to disease and death and the weather and they obeyed him…and the witnesses report this with little commentary other than to make sure that we know that they didn’t understand it either at the time.)

Anyway, the man who hadn’t walked for nearly four decades gathers his stuff and leaves so quickly that he doesn’t get Jesus’ name. The man heads for the temple, the normal place one would go to re-enter society. On the way in, a group of pastors hassle the guy for carrying his stuff on the Sabbath – they want to theologize rather than thank God…religious people having problems is nothing new. These pastors want to know who is responsible for the “illegal” healing, but the newly mobile man cannot give a name since he never bothered to get it. Then Jesus finds the man again in the temple…don’t get me started on how weird it is that a man can receive the use of his legs and not stop to get the name of the person who healed him. Jesus travels with an entourage, meaning he isn’t exactly inconspicuous, but Jesus is the one who is interested in continuing the relationship, not the other way around. When Jesus finds the man, he tells him to “stop sinning.” We have no clearly stated reason as to what that was about, but the man, continuing his peculiar behavior, immediately goes back to the religious leaders and rats Jesus out. Then this man uses the legs Jesus healed to walk out of history, never to be heard from again.

Think about it: A guy gets healed…then just walks away. It sounds sort of “Me first!” doesn’t it?  

The religious leaders are worried about the theology of the event. “Me first!”  

And then the healed man turns over the name of his healer to the authorities. “Me first!”

There is no evidence that our unnamed man ever followed Jesus. No evidence of any heart-change to go with his change of mobility.  No evidence that he gave as much as a simple, “Thanks, bro.” There is no indication that he did anything other than use his legs to wander away. He simply did the “normal,” expected thing. The “me first” thing. The saddest part is what could have been had our man not been so self-absorbed. Jesus was about to commission eleven scared dudes to start a revolution of love, a revolution that would conquer the greatest empire the world had ever known in under 300 years, and our man could have been in on the ground floor.

Did you notice what happened? Both our man and the religious leaders turned a potentially world-altering event into something to be insulated against. They knew what most religious people eventually realize: If you let Jesus get too close, he will mess up your life. I think everyone in this story was trying to keep Jesus at arms length, lower the bar…make Jesus manageable. They defined Jesus down so that they could be religious enough but carefully maintain their position in the driver’s seat of life – you know, “Me first!”

CS Lewis said, “We are like kids in the slums content to make mud pies while a feast on holiday by the sea is being offered.” We simply lack vision for what our lives could be – we cannot see past “Me first!”

Have you noticed there are no great stories of “me first”? No fairy tales of self-preservation. No great myths of the self-serving. No super-heroes of the self-absorbed. That is because the secret of a great life is not “me first.” The secret to a great life is spelled m.e.t.h.i.r.d.

We learn this from Jesus who advised a seeker to “love God first and love your fellows as you love yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). Jesus, who was combining several earlier wisdom statements of Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 & Leviticus 19:18), apparently considered this “me third” business an important enough message that he said it more than once (Matthew 22:34-40) – something great teachers do with important lessons.

Why is it so important to love God first? First of all, Jesus is a God willing to step into where the world says he doesn’t belong…to set free captives too crippled to realize their bondage, who chases the wanderers and frees from both religiosity and secular selfishness-who brings mercy and redemption when no one was asking – O, what a Savior.

But even more, if the Jesus event is true, then to be on God’s mission, to be God first and other’s second is what you and I were made for. It is the key to finding our great “Why?”

So what of you?  

-Have you lowered the bar on your expectations of God?

-Have you forfeited divinely-given dreams of the impact your life might make for God?

What is normal…what is natural, is “me first.” But a great life, a really stellar life, one that you and others are inspired by is lived me third.

So love God first. Love others second. And for sure love “me.” Just love me third. 

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12 thoughts on “The Secret to a Great Life

  1. Hi Matt. I’ve been thinking what to comment here since I read this post yesterday, but I cannot think of anything worthwhile to contribute as you already say it so well. This is something, if I’m really honest, that I’m struggling with every day, both in my marriage and in my ministry/career life. Thank you for sharing this. I’d like to ask your permission to reblog this as well, as I think this message cannot be spread too widely.

  2. Reblogged this on if all else fails…use a hammer and commented:
    I tend not to post things of an overtly religious nature here as I realise many of the people who follow this blog is not religious and may even be anti-religious and I don’t believe in shoving the Bible down people’s throats. But you’re a fool if you argue the Bible is irrelevant and has nothing to say to our modern society. This post by Matt Marino is a prime example and I think a suitable read for thanksgiving. And, like Matt, I point my finger at me first when I read this…the only time when you’re allowed to do that, I think.

  3. I like the post but I wonder if Me third is the solution. I think that being faithful to ones various vocations is the answer to the me first syndrome. How would anyone ever become a pastor, artist, scholar etc if they put themselves last?

    • Hi Paul,
      You make a good point…one that i want to invite further dialogue on.

      I know young adults whose families manipulate them into serving the family, supporting them financially and emotionally…pressuring them to drop college to work three jobs.

      I am not advocating a failure to love ourselves, but a balance to a world that bombards is with thousands of not so subtle “it’s all about you” messages daily.

      Think about the questions young adults are asked (and have to ask themselves): What will you study? What do you want to so with your life? What are you passionate about? Who will you date? Marry? How many children will you have? They all have a not so subtle narcicizing effect. (I hereby tm my new word of the day).

      Extending adolescence into the thirties exacerbates this.

      So I absolutely agree with you that we need to live into our call (who God made us to be, doing what God made us to do)-but part of that calling is to live lives out of Jesus’ values (beatitude stuff), and Jesus’ priorities (God, then neighbor) in a missional great commission way (Matthew 28:19-20).

      Paul, your comment brings up a dozen questions for me about how set our vocations are, and how specific. How “in our sweet spot” we need to be in order to thrive and cause others around us to thrive? It is a fascinating question, isn’t it?

      What is your experience in these issues? Any wisdom for a fellow pilgrim trying to figure this out?

      • I’m no expert. Just a stay at home dad who is trying to learn how to be less me centered every day. Vocation as I understand it is the idea that all jobs unless outright sinful are pleasing to God. Pleasing because of christ death and resurrection. I am freed up to serve neighbor. A vocation isn’t just employment but any position you have in life. Parent, parishoner, voter are all vocations. Each one is designed to serve the neighbor. I guess we’re back to the me third thing lol. Do we need to be in our sweet spot in order to thrive or others to thrive? Maybe this is just my excuse but I think the more you search for your sweet spot or true purpose the more it eludes you. I have come to the conclusion that practicing virtue -faith hope love is more important than finding your true self.

        • Hi Paul, Thank you for sharing. I have seen many who are never satisfied compulsively trading one life in for another. It is a bit tragic. Surely a Micah 6:8 life (doing justice, having mercy and walking humbly with our God) is a beautiful thing. I don’t want to lose “Vocatio” though. Vocatio is a “calling” or “summons.” The idea historically was that God called and equipped people to do things they were gifted or suited towards by God himself, rather than merely working an occupation.

          My grandfather, an immigrant’s son was told he would be a lawyer. He wanted to be an engineer and build things. I always thought he was frustrated. I think this was not because he was not an honorable lawyer and judge, he was. But one time he spoke of regretting not being part of “building America” – he just was not doing what he dreamed of doing. I don’t think this is about compulsively trying to find oneself as much as walking toward what we know and find affirmed by those around us whom we trust.

          Thanks for engaging with this post. I was preaching to myself. 🙂

    • You also don’t have to pay OR get up early. Although we do have people who give to meet needs in the community…more than 50% of offerings went to meet the needs of people in our community last year. We have a fairly unique financial thing though: We serve as an expression of God’s love for us. Anyone who gets a check on our staff gets it based on need rather than task – the priest is a freebie, for example.

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