We're beginning a series today on how to build a strong family. Twelve years ago, before I got married, I sat in a class called "Marriage and Family Counseling."? I knew that as a pastor, I was going to need some basic counseling skills on family issues. I was also planning on getting married, and I figured it wouldn't hurt me to know what I was getting into.
After my first class, I was ready to bail. The professor started, "Marriage is like a steel trap."? I copied the words down, but then I just sat there with my mouth agape. It wasn't what I was expecting. "Marriage is going to be the worst experience that you ever go through," he continued. It didn't inspire confidence. "It's also going to be the best experience that you go through. Marriage and family life is going to bring you the lowest lows that you will ever experience. But it will also bring you the highest highs. You need to expect both."
I was so disturbed after my first class of marriage and family counseling that I was ready to run from marriage, permanently. But the professor also made a point of saying, statistically speaking of course, that single unmarried men accounted for more than their fair share of societal problems. Statistically speaking of course.
Since that day I've learned the truth of my professor's statement. You were born into a family. Many of you have married and created a family. Family relationships are going to be the relationships that bring you the most joy in this life. Your family is designed to be the most deep and satisfying earthly relationship that you will ever experience. But the opposite is true as well. Your family relationships will also be the most challenging relationships you will ever experience. It will bring you your highest highs, and it will challenge you with your lowest lows. Your family will be the area in which God shapes your character through joys and also through adversities. That's why we're starting a series today called Ten Values that Build Strong Families.
Thousands of years ago, God gave us his Ten Commandments - his top-ten list of values that God wanted us to incorporate into our lives. The commandments are like no other. The Bible says that God actually spoke these words. When God gave these commands, Mount Sinai was surrounded with crowds of angels. And God revealed the values - the guidelines - under which he wants us to live our lives. These aren't values that will come and go. These are values that will last for a long, long time. In fact, these values are the bedrock of western civilization. And over the next ten weeks, we're going to look at them to see how they can make a difference in your family and in your life.
Why did God give us the Ten Commandments?? They weren't given in an environment of harshness. They were given in an environment of grace. He gave them not to hurt us but to help us. Not to hamper us but to release us. Not to punish us but to protect us. It's human nature to resist rules. We don't like people to tell us what to do and what not to do. But the values that God gave are values that tell us how to live our lives more abundantly by using the unchangeable perfection of God. The Ten Commandments tell us God's will for our lives.
It's like a playground. If you go to a school playground, you see rules like this: "No hitting. No profanity. Only age ten and under on the monkey bars. Only age eight and older on the basketball court. Ten-minute limit on the tetherball court."? And walking through the playground is Mrs. Kravitz. Mrs. Kravitz supervises that court and makes sure that order is maintained - not to take away the fun of the people, but so that all children can have as much fun as possible.
Imagine taking the rules down and removing Mrs. Kravitz out of the picture. How long do you think it would take for the rules to be violated?? "Hey, he hit me!"? "She spit on me!"? "Hey, get those big kids off the monkey bars!? Little kids are getting hurt!"? "Hey, he cut the tetherball off!"
God has lined up the universe according to some universal laws. There are certain laws that the universe operates by, whether you like it or not. Take the law of gravity. If you ignore it, you only hurt yourself. If you jump out of a ten-story window, and decide you're going to ignore the law of gravity, you won't break that law. The law of gravity will break you. Likewise, there are spiritual laws. God says these are tracks by which you can run your life on. They're values that will help you live more abundantly.
These aren't the ten suggestions; they're the Ten Commandments. They're not optional. God says, if you do these things, things will go better in your life. If you don't do them, you're really going to mess up. Psychiatrists are now saying that when we live life with no boundaries, like in the sixties, and everyone does whatever they think is right, that it's emotionally and mentally harmful. We need to know what's right and wrong. We need to know the parameters of life.
Today, we're going to look at the foundation for building a strong family - the very first command. The order of the Ten Commandments is not haphazard. They are not there by accident. God intentionally put the first one first because it's the most important one. The first commandment is mentioned in Exodus 20:3:? "Do not worship any other gods besides me."
I want to ask you a question: what single step could you take that would have the greatest positive impact on your family?? What is the one step that you could take that would make you a better spouse, a better child, a better aunt, a better grandfather?
For a lot of us, we would answer TIME. It thought of the time this past Tuesday when I was finishing my expense report at the church and I stayed longer than I should have. By the time I got home, I had missed dinner. I got to spend some time with the kids before they went to bed, but what if I had made a different choice?? What if I had chosen to drop my to-do list at 5:00, walk to the car, and be home to spend an evening of uninterrupted time with my family?
Some of you probably would say, "I could be a better family member if I LISTENED."? You may be like the many families that are so busy running from activity to activity that you never really stop long enough to listen to each other. You've read the statistics that the average parent spends 1.9 hours a day with their children, and only a few minutes of that time really talking with the kids. You may think that improving your communication would be the single most important step that you could take to improve your family life.
There may be other answers - more activities, better vacations, a bigger house, to move closer to some family members, to cut back your spending, to get out of debt. When we look at improving our families, we usually look at ways that we can improve the state of our relationships. We tend to look at the state of our relationship. But that's not what the Bible teaches. Those steps are important - and we'll get to them in the next few weeks - but they're not the most important step. The most important step that you can take to improve your relationship is this first step. "Do not worship any other gods besides me."
What's the principle here?? If you want to improve your life and your family, then put God first. In your life and your family. God is saying, "I demand top priority in your life. I'm not going to play second fiddle to anything."? God deserves to be first in your life because he made you. If he hadn't made you, you wouldn't even be here. Not only has God made you, he's given you everything that you have. Your job, your health, your car, your house, your talents - all of it is from God. Everything that you have is a gift from God. He's allowed you to have it. And the best way that you can improve your life and your family is to put God first.
Why is this the first step?? What has putting God first have to do with improving your family?? If you build a house, the most important part of that house is the part that you'll hardly ever see. It's the foundation. When you put in the foundation of that house, it's a little frustrating because you're pouring all of your energy into the work, but there's very little to show for it. But it's the most important part of the process. If your foundation is wrong, it doesn't matter how pretty the structure is. It's going to fall over. It's not glamorous, but laying a good foundation is the most important part of building a strong house.
If you look around you, you'll see that families are dropping like flies. They're falling apart faster than we can put them together. Why?? Because they're built on the wrong foundation. It doesn't matter how much money you pour into improving your family life. It doesn't matter what communication skills you try, or how much additional time you spend together. The single most important step that you can take is to build your family on the right foundation. You've got to take the step of putting God first.
In fact, there's a promise that you can claim as you take this step as a family. It's found in Proverbs 3:6. It reads like this:? "Seek his will in all you do, and he will direct your paths."? The Message paraphrase says, "Listen for GOD's voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he's the one who will keep you on track."? If you want your family and personal life to stay on track, then there's only one way to do it. You need to put God first. Whatever you want God to bless, put him first in that area.
What's the payoff for putting God first?? The divorce rate for marriages is about one out of three marriages. Harvard University did a study. In marriages when the wedding is in a church service, the divorce rate is one out of fifty marriages. You go from one out of three to one out of fifty. In marriages in which they're married in a Christian ceremony, and they go to church every week, and they read the Bible and pray together, the divorce rate is one out of every 1,105 marriages. If you go from one in three odds to one in 1,105 odds, you've got to put God first in your life.
This is crucial. If I want to be a better husband to Charlene, the best gift I can give Charlene is that I can put God first in my life. If I want my kids to grow up healthy and normal, the best gift I can give them is not another toy or activity or program. The best gift I can give them is to put God first in my life and in our family. The best gift I can give my unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren - who are still many years away from being born - is that I can help build a foundation now that is based on putting God first. It's the best gift that we can give our families.
For the rest of today, I want to look at how we can do this on a practical level. I want to give us practical steps that we can take to put God first. We read a verse like "Do not worship any other gods besides me" and think, "Great!? I don't have any idols. I don't have any gods set up in my house. I'm okay on this one."? Idolatry was the sin most vehemently condemned in the Old Testament. It's easy to think we're off the hook with this one.
But an idol isn't just a carved little statue. An idol is anything that dominates or controls your life. Listen to these questions:
What is most valuable to me?? What do I hold to be most irreplaceable?? What would I be lost without?? What do I think of with most intensity in the long stretches of my thoughts?? What is my incentive for living?? What gives my work meaning and purpose?? This I worship. (Gladys and Gordon Depree, A Blade of Grass)
Can a career be an idol?? You bet. Can another person be an idol?? Yes. Can hockey become an idol?? Absolutely. Money, things, pleasure, a friend, a mate, a child, a parent, self - all these can take the place of god in our lives. Putting anything ahead of God means that you're violating the first commandment. There's nothing wrong with enjoying any of these. The problem is when we put anything ahead of God.
We don't have idols like they used to. I doubt that anyone here is engaging in Baal-worship. If you are, then you need to go home and smash that idol. That's your application today. You can be dismissed now.
For most of us, the idols we worship are going to be a subtler. I've identified five North American idols that are competition for God. How do you know if you're worshiping these idols?? When you put them ahead of God. I've taken the acrostic F-I-R-S-T and I'm going to give you five ways that you can put God first in your life and your family:
F - FINANCES
Let's take the hardest one first. Finances can be an idol. If we're going to put God first, it's going to have to start here. Put God first in your finances.
How you handle your money is one of the most spiritual issues you will ever face. When God and your money to toe to toe, who ends up winning?? Which captures your heart?? Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matthew 6:24). There's nothing wrong with having money. There's nothing wrong with even having lots of money. The problem comes when we begin to serve our money. Our money can become our god.
The way we spend our money is the acid test of where our priorities lie. Your checkbook reveals what's really important to you. Imagine bringing all of your bank and credit card statements to church. Imagine pulling them out in a big paper envelope and handing them to the person in front of you. Imagine them looking through your receipts and trying to figure out how you lived. Chances are that by looking through your receipts and statements, they could figure out where your priorities lie.
Your spending doesn't just reveal your priorities. Your spending sets your priorities. Jesus said, "Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be" (Matthew 6:21). The heart follows the wallet. That's why it's so important to put God first in the area of your finances.
Deuteronomy 14:23 says, "The purpose of tithing is to teach you always to put God first in your lives" (Living Bible). Why should I tithe?? Not because God needs the money. You should tithe because it's what he said. The purpose of tithing is to teach you to put God first.
You may be in a financial mess right now. You may be in way over your head. Or you may be enjoying more blessing financially than you ever have before. It doesn't matter. The principle is the same in both situations. Put God first. Whatever you want God to bless, you put him first in it. If you don't want finances to be your idol, you have to take the step of putting God first in your finances.
When I was a kid, we never had much. There were periods in which our family of five didn't have a car. This wasn't in Toronto, either. It wasn't easy to get around. We'd have to get around on foot, or others would have to pick us up. There wasn't a lot of food to go around. I thought my mother didn't like meat because she never ate it. Later I found out she didn't eat meat because she only had so much money, and she wanted us to eat well. We were a poor family. But my mother taught me by example that no matter how little you have, you give God the first ten percent.
God isn't first in your life if he's not first in your finances. If you're not giving God the first part of your income, and if you're engaging in business practices that aren't honoring to God, it's simple. You have a weak foundation. God can't bless your life. If you want build a strong foundation for your family, it starts here. Put God first in your finances.
I - INTERESTS
God wants you to have hobbies. He's given all of you different interests. You may like to collect things. You may like to play sports. You may like gadgets and gizmos. You may like cooking, or sewing, or cars. None of these are wrong, but any of these can become idols. We need to put God first ahead of our interests - in our fun times, our play times, our amusements, recreations, and hobbies.
1 Corinthians 10:31 says, "Whatever you eat or drink o r whatever you do, you must do all for the glory of God."? I used to think that I worshiped God on Sunday mornings. Worship equaled church. But that's not what the Bible teaches. You can eat to the glory of God. You can golf to the glory of God. You can collect stamps to the glory of God. How?? In everything you do, put God first. Do it with an attitude of gratitude.
When you're playing tennis, say, "God, thank you that you gave me the ability to play tennis. I wouldn't have this hand/eye co-ordination if it weren't for you."
Whatever you're doing, enjoy it - but put God first. Your interests can easily become your idols. You can start to make decisions that maximize your interests, but push God out of the picture. Pretty soon your interests take over your pocket book. They take over your schedule. Your interests even take over your conversation. What do you get excited about?? Enjoy your interests. But always put God first ahead of your interests.
You were built as a relational creature. God has given you a desire to connect with other people. If you want God first in your life, you are going to have to choose your friends very carefully. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, "Bad company corrupts good character."? Your friendships will have an influence on your character. You become like the people you spend time with. If you spend time with those who are stronger and more committed to God, then you will become stronger and more committed to God. If you spend time with people who take God lightly, you will become a more casual believer. Whoever you spend time with is what you're going to be like.
I want to apply this in two areas. Those of you who are parents - who or what type of people are you exposing your children to?? Who are you inviting into your home?? Psychiatrists believe that a child is more influenced by friends than by family after the age of 6 or 7. Your children's friends will have a tremendous impact on their character. If you're serious about building strong values for your kids, you need to invite people into your home who can model the sort of behavior you want your kids to have. If they don't provide it, they'll get it from TV. You need to invite godly people into your home.
It's also easy to put relationships ahead of God in our dating lives. If you want God to be first in your life, there are some relationships that are dead wrong for you. It happens all the time. You want to get married. You're committed to Jesus. But you end up dating someone who doesn't share your values. You start compromising your lifestyle, and eventually you get pulled away. It's always easier to pull someone down than to pull somebody up. You've got to put God first in your dating life.
What relationships are you putting ahead of God?
S - SELF
You can be your own god. If you want to put God first, you've got to put him ahead of yourself.? Jesus said in Luke 14:26: "If you want to be my follower you must love me...more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple."? If you want to build a strong family - if you want to build a strong life - you can't build it on the foundation of yourself. You've got to put God ahead of yourself.
Thousands of years ago, kings used to make idols that looked like themselves. The kings would actually get down and bow before their own image. It's possible to make an idol of yourself.
Jesus teaches that true satisfaction and joy comes in life from putting God ahead of us. Jesus said, "If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for me, you will find it" (Matthew 10:39). The happiest people in this world are those who have put God ahead of themselves. The happiest, most fulfilled people are those who have realized that there is a God, and it's not them.
T - TIME
Put God first in your time, in your schedule. How?? By using your time wisely. Wake up, make a to-do list, and ask God, "God, which of these things do you want me to do today?? I've got twenty things to do, but I've only got time for five. Which do you want me to do?"? Put God ahead of your own plans for your time.
How do we put God first in our schedule?? Make a daily appointment with God. Mark 1:35 says, "The next morning Jesus awoke long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray."? We all need time every day for a daily appointment with God. If Jesus felt the need, we need it too. This appointment could be before we get to work. It could be during our lunch break. It could be before we go to bed.
One of the strongest investments you can make in your life is to take time every day as a family to worship God. It doesn't have to be long. It doesn't have to be intense. Your family can find its own way for acknowledging, everyday, that God comes first. God comes ahead of your family's finances, interests, and relationships. You've put God ahead of yourself and ahead of your time.
What's the payoff for putting God first?? When you put God first, you no longer have to worry. Right in the middle of a sermon on worry, Jesus said these words:? "He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern" (Matthew 6:33).
If you want to build a successful life, if you want to have a strong family, it starts will building the right foundation. You've got to put God first. You can make this commitment:? "As for me and my family, we will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15).
What single step could you take this morning that would have the greatest positive impact on your family?? What is the one step that you could take that would make you a better spouse, a better child, a better aunt, a better grandfather?? Put God first. God says, "Do not worship any other gods besides me."
I'd like to invite you to pray with me and to make a public commitment to follow the first commandment to put God first in your life.
If you would like to publicly commit to putting God first, I wonder if you would stand and pray: "God, I want to do the right thing. I want to build my life, and my family, on a foundation that will last. I want you to be first in my finances, interests, relationships, and time. I'm putting you first in my life."? If you want to make that commitment to God today, would you stand with me?
Father, these are your people. They are standing with me today to say, "God, I'm putting you first."? I pray that you would honor their commitment today. Make their families strong. We claim your promise that when we put you first in our lives and in our families, you will keep us on track. You will give us all that we need from day to day.
If you've never given your life to Christ, you can do so today. It's the first step that you can take in building your life on a solid foundation. You can pray words like this: "God, I'm putting you first. Jesus said that I'll find my life by losing it. Today I'm giving up my life to put you first. I'm making you the Lord, the director of my life. I'm placing myself under new management today - under the management of the one who loved me enough to die for me. In Jesus' name, Amen."