"Realigning Our Priorities"
Scripture - Galatians 5:22-26
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 23, 2013

This sermon series, we are examining the premier anxiety for many North Americans - meaninglessness. We crave a purpose for our lives, but many fear that what they do has no real significance. They secretly suspect that Macbeth may have nailed the truth when he said, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I believe we can answer the anxiety of meaninglessness by forging a deeper connection with God, by realigning our priorities with God's priorities and by committing to live in new ways. The Scriptures are clear about God's priorities. What holds us back from living as God wants us to live? Let me name three powerful forces that work against us.

The first is described succinctly by the title of a recent article by Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business. The title is: "Where We Are Shapes Who We Are."

Atler documents several studies that suggest that many people act differently depending on the environment in which they find themselves. A team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped and addressed letters near college dorms and then recorded how many of them were picked up and placed in a mailbox so that they could be delivered. The researchers counted each letter that was mailed as a kind act and discovered that students in some dorms were kinder than others.

Nearly all of the letters dropped near uncrowded dorms - residences where there were few students on each floor - were dropped into mailboxes. In contrast, only 60 percent of the letters dropped by crowded dorms were mailed. Later, when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they would have responded had they come upon a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have mailed it regardless of where they were living.

Atler notes that "in self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly, honest and generous. Further, we imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But what study after study has shown is that many of us are more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave depending on our surroundings."

A group of psychologists at Newcastle University in England found that workers were far more likely to pay for their coffee when the honor-system collection box was placed directly below a price list featuring an image of a pair of eyes, versus one with flowers. They alternated pictures of eyes and flowers each week for 10 weeks and every week that featured eyes there was more money in the honesty box.

Atler tells of other environmental cues that shape our actions because they give subtle signs to behave badly. Several studies have shown that well behaved people are more likely to behave badly in neighborhoods with broken windows.

In another case, researchers put flyers on 139 cars in a hospital parking lot to see what the drivers of the cars would do with them. When drivers went to their cars and found a parking lot littered with flyers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (placed there by the researchers), nearly half of the people removed the flyers from their cars and dropped them on the ground. But when researchers swept the lot clean before the drivers went to their cars, only 1 in 10 dropped the flyer on the ground.

Studies suggest that there is not one single version of you and me. Where we are, can play a significant role in how we act.1 Perhaps you can recall at least one incident when you were influenced by others to do something that was out of character for you.

A second powerful force that can keep us from aligning our priorities with God's priorities is our culture. Our culture constantly churns out well-worn clichés that sanction narcissism. Our culture says "The one with the most toys wins." Our culture says, "If it feels good, do it." Our culture says, "Don't get mad, get even." Our culture says, "If someone gets in your way, take €˜em out." The message from movies, music and marketing is overwhelming narcissistic. We are constantly being told that acting in our own self-interest is the true path to Nirvana.

In addition, our culture derides duty and sacrifice in favor of whatever is easy and undemanding. Rather than serving a rich multi-course meal for the soul, our culture offers an endless array of dessert. It tantalizes the tongue that's easily addicted to sweets, but fails to plunge to any real depth to satisfy the true hungers of our souls.

The third force that tries to tug us away from God's priorities is not a power that is outside of us, but one that is internal. We seem to have a natural tendency to skew things in our favor.

Michael Lindvall, the senior pastor at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, lives in Manhattan, and only uses his car a few times a month. His car stays in a parking garage seven blocks from his apartment, so each time he drives, he takes a seven-block walk to and from the garage. His walk takes him through several intersections and at each one there is a crossing signal for pedestrians.

The crossing signal displays an orange hand that says, "Don't cross" when cars have the right-of-way and it displays a white stick figure when you can cross the street safely. But in between the orange hand and the white stick figure, there is an area that doesn't belong exactly to cars or walkers. This is when the orange hand blinks off and on.

What Lindvall has noticed about himself is that when he is walking, he believes the in-between time belongs to him the pedestrian. If a car starts edging its way into the intersection, he has been known to cast a condemnatory glance. However, 10 minutes later, when he is behind the wheel of his car, his attitude about the in-between time at the intersection does a shift. He noses his car into the intersection while pedestrians are trying to cross on the blinking hand, a hand that he now thinks is telling them that they should not be doing that.

While this small shift of perspective may be minor, it points to something larger that is true of most of us. It seems that naturally built in to our internal operating system is a desire to skew things in our favor.2 We often think we are being perfectly fair, but in reality, we're tilting things to our advantage.

So, what is a person of faith to do in the face of forces set on leading us away from the path God wants us to take? Recognizing that where we are can shape who we are; and recognizing that our culture encourages us to focus on our self-interest at the expense of the common good; and recognizing that we seem to have a built-in bias that automatically twists things to our personal advantage, is there any hope of us getting our priorities aligned with God's?

In our passage from Galatians, Paul contrasts "works of the flesh" with "fruit of the Spirit." Paul does not employ these terms to contrast the material world with the spiritual world. He is not saying that physical desires are bad, but spiritual desires are good. His phrase "works of the flesh" represents those things in human nature that fracture our relationships and conflict with divine virtues: envy, anger, idolatry, impurity, jealousy, strife and so on. These things invariably lead to a sordid life. His term "fruit of the Spirit" represents the opposite; those things that lead to loving relationships and a rich life: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." These things cultivate our character and bring us into harmony with divine values.

Paul's Letter to the Galatians focuses on freedom. We are free to make choices about the path we will take in life. We can act like helpless victims of our environment, we can give in to the messages of our culture and we can overlook our built-in tendency to skew things in our favor. Or, we can take steps to realign our priorities with God's priorities. We can be intentional in cultivating the fruit of God's Spirit by striving for these virtues and allowing them to shape our inner core. We can foster loving relationships by focusing on the other person's needs. We can practice patience with people who aren't moving as quickly as we prefer. We can perform small acts of kindness to ignite a spark of joy in someone. We can be mindful of our tendency to seek revenge and strive instead for forgiveness and peace. We can change our mindset from accumulating to giving generously.

It's easy to become stuck in unhealthy patterns, but if we strive for the fruit of the Spirit, our priorities will shift and become more and more aligned with God's priorities. That will frequently put us out of step with our culture, but more in harmony with God.

Marian Preminger was born in Hungary in 1913. She was raised in a castle with her aristocratic family, surrounded by maids, tutors and chauffeurs. Whenever they traveled they took their own linen so that they did not have to sleep on sheets used by common people.

While attending school in Vienna, Marian met a handsome young Viennese doctor. They fell in love and married when she was only 18. It lasted only a year and she began her life as an actress.

While auditioning for a play, she met a brilliant, young German director, Otto Preminger. They fell in love and soon married. Later, they moved to Hollywood where he became a movie director. Marian got caught up in the glamour, the lights, the excitement, and soon began to live a sordid life. When Preminger discovered it, he divorced her.

She returned to Europe to live the life of a socialite in Paris. Then, one day in 1948, she read in the newspaper that Albert Schweitzer was making one of his periodic visits to Europe. Marian was able to phone his secretary and secure an appointment with him.

She found him playing the organ in the village church. She listened and turned the pages of music for him. After their visit, he invited her to have dinner at his house, and by the end of the day, she knew that she had discovered what she had been looking for her entire life. When he returned to Africa, she went with him to work in the hospital he had established.

The girl who was born in a castle and raised like a princess, who was accustomed to being waited upon, learned to change bandages, bathe babies, and feed people with leprosy. It was there she found herself. Not in Vienna, not in Hollywood, not in Paris, but in a hospital in Africa, she found what her restless soul had craved: A life that counted. In her autobiography, called All I Ever Wanted Was Everything, she wrote that she could not get the "everything" that would satisfy her soul until she could GIVE everything.

When she died, in 1979, the New York Times ran her obituary, which included this statement from her own lips: "Albert Schweitzer said there are two classes of people in this world - the helpers and the non-helpers. I'm a helper."3

Not everyone is called to Africa, but when we realign our priorities with God's priorities, the pieces of life's puzzle fall into place. We can be intentional about striving for the fruit of God's Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And if we do, we will discover that a life in harmony with God is a life with a truly satisfying purpose.


  1. Adam Alter, "Where We Are Shapes Who We Are," New York Times, June 14, 2013.
  2. Michael Lindvall, "A Wandering Moral Compass," June 16, 2013.
  3. John A. Huffman, Jr., "Living By the Spirit," November 24, 2002.