Try this mental exercise:
Imagine that an intelligent being, who had no previous experience with human beings or our world, were to observe human interactions and the way that we spend our time. What conclusions would that intelligent being come to about what is most important for human life, survival, and happiness?
Now imagine that the same intelligent being, instead of observing humanity in general, were to observe your life. What conclusions would this intelligent being come to about what is most important for your life, your survival, and your happiness?
One of my favorite sermons by John Wesley, “The One Thing Needful,” begins with this very mental exercise:
Could we suppose an intelligent being, entirely a stranger to the state of this world and its inhabitants, to take a view of their various enterprises and employments, and thence conjecture the end of their existence, he would surely conclude that these creatures were designed to be busied about many things. While he observed not only the infinite difference of the ends which different men were pursuing, but how vast a multitude of objects were successively pursued by almost every different person, he might fairly infer that for all these things were the sons of men placed upon the earth, even to gratify their several desires with sensual pleasure, or riches, or honour, or power. (I.1, p.34)
Wesley then notes “how surprised” this being would be “to hear their Creator declare to all, without distinction, ‘One thing is needful!’ But how much more when he knew that this one thing needful for me, their one business, the one end of their existence, was none of all those things which men were troubled about… Nay, that it was an end not only distinct from but contrary to them all – as contrary as light and darkness, heaven and hell, the kingdom of God and that of Satan!” (I.2, p.34)
The intelligent being, then, would assume that these people must have an infinite amount of time. In other words, they are not doing the “one thing needful” because they are guaranteed to have enough time to get to it. But Wesley wonders when this being realized that “all men were placed on a narrow, weak, tottering bridge, whereof either end was swallowed up in eternity…” how would it respond? He asks, “How would he express, how would he conceive the senselessness, the madness, of those creatures who, being in such a situation, could think of anything else, could talk of anything else, could do anything besides, could find time for any other design, or care, but that of ensuring the one thing needful!” (I.3, p.35)
So what is the one thing needful from Wesley’s perspective? He vividly describes it:
To recover our first estate, from which we are thus fallen, is the one thing now needful – to re-exchange the image of Satan for the image of God, bondage for freedom, sickness for health. Our one great business is to rase out of our souls the likeness of our destroyer, and to be born again, to be formed anew after the likeness of our Creator. It is our one concern to shake off this servile yoke and to regain our native freedom; to throw off every chain, every passion and desire that does not suit an angelical nature. The one work we have to do is to return from the gates of death to perfect soundness; to have our diseases cure, our wounds healed, and our uncleanness done away. (I.5, p. 36)
I find that this sermon is worth reading on a regular basis, because it so powerfully asks us if we have our priorities in check. Another way of getting at the same basic point that Wesley is making is that you can tell someone’s priorities by the way that they spend their time and their money.
Wesley believed that it was absolutely essential that God’s priorities were our priorities. And this was not just a platitude that he often repeated. As a result of his conviction that one thing is needful – being renewed and remade in the image of God – he used anything that he could find to help people constantly be reminded of what was most important. And so Wesley urged his followers to use the means of grace – to pray, read Scripture, receive Communion, and fast – and to watch over one another in love through various forms of communal practice. As many others have pointed out, the goal was not to create the ultimate bureaucracy, or to create anything for its own sake. Rather, the goal was to fan the flames that God had lit in people’s hearts and lives. The goal was to help every Methodist keep their eyes on God and to keep them attentive to nurturing and growing their relationship with God.
So, what conclusions would that “intelligent being” come to about what is most important in your life? Or for that matter, what do other people in your life think are most important in your life, based on the way that you are actually living?
It seems like we often think it is acceptable and normal to believe that our true priorities can’t be that easily seen. The idea is that if you want to know what my deepest priorities are, you would have to be able to talk to me and ask me, so I could explain them to you.
There may be some truth to this way of thinking. Convictions, ideas, and beliefs certainly do matter. But so does the way that we spend our lives. What are you spending your life on? What are you investing your life in? As we consider these questions, Wesley reminds us that there is only one thing that is needful.