Seek First the Kingdom of God

Not all Christians experience the same quality of spiritual life.  For some, their lives are joyful, full of confidence, full of assurance of their acceptance and eventual reward, and full to overflowing with the Spirit of God, to the point that they feel compelled to give it away to those around them.

For others, life is more measured, perhaps a bit more stressful, containing more concern, at least to a degree, for some of the things in their lives, resulting in worry.  They are somewhat discouraged by the lack of spiritual “fruit” in their lives.  They want to love, and to serve and to experience the joy of the Lord.  But frustratingly, they just feel they’re stuck in a rut.

Why is the one life blessed so abundantly, while the other seems unfulfilled?

Before we explore this question, we should first agree that the motivation for growing in one’s spiritual life is not to feel better about oneself – edified, self-righteous.  It must be exclusively an enterprise born of the love of God, and a desire to be with Him more and more, sharing in His mind (1 Cor 2:16), sharing in His care for His Church (John 21:16), and sharing in extending His work (Lk 4:18-19).  Our perception of the strength of our relationship with the Lord is therefore useful as a diagnostic of the extent to which we are living as God intends for us to live – in His Kingdom.  It is certainly not a cause for guilt or shame or some perceived inferiority.  If we sense some weakness or lack, then we should set about cooperating with the Spirit, out of love for God, to correct its causes – surely not to edify ourselves.

Understanding how the Spirit of God works in the believer is essential. John 14:15-27, John 16:5-15, Rom 8:1-17, Eph 2:22.

We all know at least something about the Holy Spirit; we know that when we confess repentance, and trust in Christ for our lives, that His Spirit “indwells” us (Rom 8:9).  But if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that we don’t really understand how He works in us.  If we are to make any progress in experiencing the fullness of the life that God intends for us, we need to understand this most glorious gift. (Acts 2:38)

The first thing the Spirit does is lead us (Acts 8:29, 11:12, 16:7, 20:22).  I take it that this “leading” is a nudging or pulling of us in the direction He wants us to go.  Christ used the metaphor of being yoked to Him — to “take my yoke upon you” (Mt 11:29), implying that this was an invitation to go with Him in the direction He is going, and be used in the work He is doing.  The One He uses to communicate His direction in this work is His Spirit, with Whom we are encouraged to “keep in step” (Gal 5:16-26).

Now, if you act in faith to follow His leading, He grants you His grace to accomplish His purpose.  This is something you either could not naturally do at all, or would struggle through so pitifully as to miss the blessing that He was trying to impart. (Eph 2:10, Acts 4:33, 6:8, 14:3, Rom 1:5)

One’s spiritual life is only made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The quality of that spiritual life gets enhanced only by His work of grace.  But you can’t fully experience this blessing unless you intentionally persist in the vocation of dying to self and living to Christ.  This isn’t some mysticism; it is the teaching found throughout the Bible (Mt 6:33, Jude 1:17-21).  A big part of the “cost” of discipleship – of taking up one’s cross – is the systematic, day by day, minute by minute renunciation of our “old man’s” desire to maintain control (Eph 4:22).

As well, we may need to break out of the mental trap of fixating on “going to heaven”!  Heaven for you is not the purpose of your salvation.  So many of us have been bludgeoned by the contemporary church’s incessant message of “going to heaven” that grave damage, from neglect, has been done to the Bible’s true teaching. We’ve been told that if we believe in Christ, we’re in.  That’s it.  Nothing about living in and for Him (Phl 2:13).  And less about suffering for His name, as He suffered (Mt 5:11-12).

Salvation in the Lord calls us not to be “idle slaves”, sitting around waiting for heaven to happen, but to work of the Lord in His Kingdom. (Jn 14:12, Pr 24:16, Mt 24:45-47, Mt 25:14-21, Jn 12:26, 1 Cor 9:19, 1 Tim 4:6, 2 Tim 2:24-26, Ga 6:9, 2 Thes 3:13, Eph 5:15-16).  Yes, work of the Lord.

“What”, you may ask, “do you mean by work of the Lord”?  First, we have to understand that God doesn’t need any of our personal efforts – for anything (Acts 17:25).  He is the Lord and He is infinitely capable.  Work of the Lord is work done by Him through us.  The truth of the matter is that this work with Him in His Kingdom is a blessing that He’s hoping to bestow on you (Mt 25:23).  As in all things, He is the giver, and you are the (potential) recipient.

What He desires for you is that you allow His Spirit to work in and through you to accomplish His purposes in the world, as a spiritual offering of worship.  This means, at the very least, not elbowing the Spirit out of your way in an effort to retain control.  It means submission to the will of God.

Did you know that you can inhibit or even prevent the work the Spirit wants to accomplish through you – “quench” the Spirit?  Indeed you can (1 Thess 5:19).  God simply won’t operate by enlisting unwilling or just lethargic people to do things for Him they have no interest in doing.  This is the reason most of us find ourselves not used of Him more: we simply haven’t agreed with Him to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 6:33).

He has planned for you a lifetime of works that He would love to use you to accomplish (Eph 2:10) for His Kingdom.  But what He wants from you is not a tepid acquiescence of His plan, but an enthusiastic embracing of this “life in Christ”, where we, in faith, offer ourselves and He, in His mercy, accepts it with joy.

In “The Pursuit of God”, A.W. Tozer explains this:

One of the greatest hindrances to internal peace which the Christian encounters is the common habit of dividing our lives into two areas, the sacred and the secular.  As these areas are conceived to exist apart from each other and to be morally and spiritually incompatible, and as we are compelled by the necessities of living to be always crossing back and forth from the one to the other, our inner lives tend to break up so that we live a divided instead of a unified life.”

I would take Tozer’s observation a step further.  The reason that we continue to think and live in the secular world is because we are simply unwilling to give it up.  Seeing our daily lives in the world as an expression of Christ, as a vocation within the Kingdom of God that, as Paul says is “for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), is something many Christians have not offered as a sacrifice to their God.  He suffered excruciating mutilation and murder so that we could experience abundant life with Him (Jn 10:10).  It seems the very least we can do in gratitude is to offer our 24/7 lives back to Him to use as He sees fit.

If this is the desire of your heart but you have not yet been successful in yielding your whole life to Him, there are some attitudes of the heart that you can inspect in yourself and, if needed, work on.

For the Glory of God

First, we must understand that this is not a “self-help” exercise.  We are not trying to “improve” ourselves.  What we are trying to do, if anything, is remove ourselves, to get out of His way.

Any attempt to work with the Holy Spirit in cleansing our hearts has to be borne of a sincere motivation to honor God, not enhance ourselves (Mt 5:8).  Please, please, please, don’t play mind games with yourself here, hoping perhaps to claim some new piety.  If you’re seeking some payoff in your own life rather than glorifying the Creator of the universe — your Lord and master, then it is better for you to just stop here (Mt 23:27).

Forsake Possession

One of the biggest traps and failures leading to a secularly focused attitude is the idea of possession.  Everyone in the West is raised with this fundamental cultural truth: that “these things are mine, and those things belong to somebody else.”  As profound as the idea of property rights has been in the formation of what is now Western civilization, they are more profound as a corrosive acid eating away the message Jesus proclaimed, not because they are bad in and of themselves, but because they engender greed, jealousy, and idolatry in an already self-absorbed people.  Jesus, in the parable of the rich young ruler (Mk 10:21) indicates that before following Him, the man first needed to “sell all you have”.  What He was teaching was not that one needed to be possession-less, physically, to follow Him, but that he had to be possession-less in his heart.  In other words, he needed to forsake his possessions – their value to him, their meaning to him as a mark of status or worth, their claim on him to support and maintain them.  He needed to mentally put them aside in order that Christ could be paramount in his affections.

One simply can’t serve the idol of possessions, and also Christ (Heb 13:5).  That’s the message.

The good news is that if you ask the Spirit’s help in forsaking possessions He will honor that request in a heartbeat and begin the process of fundamentally changing your heart.  And when His work has set up in you, you will experience a tremendous sense of freedom.  And, it is quite likely that you will never feel more rich than when you finally understand that you have all there is to have in Jesus Christ.

Be Diligent

The nature of your action to dismantle your worldly attachments and biases must be persistent.  It is extremely important to understand that the unlearning of all of the natural and secular habits you have been trained in throughout your life isn’t a one-time activity.  It is very likely a life-long activity – a vocation, if you will, of continuous resistance.  It requires focused intentionality and persistence, if your efforts aren’t to be overtaken by the influences of the world, like the seed falling on soil choked with thorns in the parable of the soils (Mk 4:19-20).

Resistance to influences of the world can be learned and applied, just like any other skill.  It can be, and has to become as natural as eating or sleeping or commuting or any other routine.  If you let up, your adversary (actually Christ’s adversary), is ready to jump on that opportunity.

The Mind of Christ

Finally, one needs to develop the habit of thinking about things as God would consider them.  This too is a skill that can be learned.  But in order for your thinking to be accurate, you need to know what God thinks about many different situations.  This means that you have to be familiar with what He has told us about Himself in His scripture.

So quite obviously, the way you enable this “God-consciousness”, vs your natural “self-consciousness”, is to study His scriptures so that you develop a founded understanding of how God would think about each situation you confront.

Without providing a lot of “how” explanation, Paul exhorts us in Colossians 3:1-2:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

The method by which this is possible is committing the teachings of scripture to your memory.  This doesn’t mean that you have to know exactly where some verse is in the Bible (although that degree of familiarity is extremely valuable), or its exact wording, only that it exists, and what its message is.

As you fill your memory with more and more of these truths, they become more and more available to your mind, allowing you to more readily apply them in interpreting how you should act – what is in God’s interest — in various situations.

But the overarching character of God-consciousness is that not only must you have available to your mind the words and the teachings of God, but you must intentionally defeat your natural tendency to react to things in your life based only on your self-conscious instincts to make yourself feel or look good, or feel “comfortable”.  Paul called this “the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  This takes intensive effort and practice, which is 100% in your control.

And in this effort our foremost goal is to allow the Spirit of God to direct and animate our actions (Phl 2:13).  Dallas Willard was fond of describing the goal of leading the Spirit-led life as:

living your life as Christ would live your life, if He were you[i].

Paul knew all about this effort to live in and for Christ.  In 1 Timothy 4 he encourages Timothy this way:

7But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline (some translations say “train“) yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

Defeating your innate drive to maintain control of your life takes discipline — training[ii].  The more you can defeat the persistent insistence of your self-interest to act for you in place of the Spirit, the more successful you will be in being led by the Spirit.


To summarize, God has purchased for us a new life.  The Bible literally overflows with this news.  But we have to “put it on” (Rom 13:14, Ga 3:27, Eph 4:24, Col 3:10-14).  What is involved is the training of ourselves in new, God-conscious ways of approaching our daily activities, and unlearning our old, self-conscious ways of approaching them.

The Holy Spirit assures us that this transformation is His work (2 Cor 5:4, 1 Cor 2:15, Jn 6:63) and that He, by grace, will honor and reward our efforts to join with Him(Mt 25:23).

[i] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2012, pp 241

[ii] In his “The New Testament for Everyone”, NT Wright, expounding on 1 Tim 4:10 (“For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe”, has this to say about striving in spiritual work:

“Verse 8 is one of the clearest references to physical exercise in the New Testament. As in the previous passage, there are echoes of 1 Corinthians here, in this case of 9:24-27; there, Paul mentions athletics, wrestling, running races, and boxing, all familiar sports in his world. Whether Timothy was actively involved in that kind of thing we can’t tell, since verse 8 may just be a powerful illustration rather than a comment on what he’s actually doing, but the point is obvious: for genuine godliness, true piety, you need to go into training just as much as an athlete does. And this sort of training is even more worthwhile. The first will make you physically fit, able (at least in principle) to work harder and enjoy life more. The second will make you… well, not just spiritually fit (as though the point of it all was to be able to engage in a more energetic spiritual life), but the kind of person who reflects God’s image, one who has taken him- or herself in hand, has seen the need to develop properly as a fully human being, and taken appropriate action. This, as we shall see presently, is what Paul means by life.

This is emphatically not what people today expect or want to hear. We expect and want to be told that ‘spirituality’ is simply the sense I have of being in God’s presence, being surrounded with his love, sensing a transcendent dimension in the affairs of everyday life. It comes as a shock to be told that it’s something you have to work at – and something, moreover, which will take the same kind of hard work as going into training for athletics, or even in order to move house.

Paul doesn’t say what kind of exercises he has in mind, though many wise guides have developed such things. But he does refer, in verse 10, to his own hard work and struggles, and the word ‘struggle’ is the regular one wrestlers would use. This is how Paul understands the work of prayer, pastoral care and evangelism: not as a smooth, easy set of tasks, the kind of thing that just flows naturally, but as something through which one is changed the way that a block of marble is changed, as the sculptor chips away at it to get to the beautiful statue she has in mind, and as something through which the world around is changed, in the way that a hard-working labourer can transform a plot of thistles and nettles into a lovely garden.

The garden he’s working on – or, if you prefer, the sculpture he’s chiseling out – has a grand name: life (verse 8). The power of death, decay, and deconstruction is so strong that if life, the new life that God longs to give to his whole creation, is to win, it must involve and engage all the energies of God’s people in working for it. This God is the living God (as opposed to the lifeless, powerless gods of popular mythology). Those who struggle and wrestle in their spiritual exercises under his direction are doing so in order to attain the ultimate life of the new world itself, and also the anticipation of that life which comes forward to meet us in the present.”

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