In my first book 8 Essential Exchanges, I unpack how many of the toughest choices in life are trade-offs (or as I call them, exchanges)—meaning you must give up something good to get something better. That’s why these decisions are so difficult for us to make. Both options are good, but ultimately, we have to learn to prioritize what’s most important.
This is a principle Augustine, one of history’s most influential theologians and philosophers, explored in detail. Augustine called it disordered love. He believed that our problem isn’t necessarily that we love the wrong things. It’s that we often love the right things in the wrong order.
Augustine defends his argument by pointing to Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:36–40. Jesus said that all of God’s law can be summed up like this: love God first and then love your neighbor.
I believe Augustine is right. While he argues primarily from a faith perspective, I also believe that if you play out this principle in other areas of your life, the concept still holds true.
Let’s think through a few practical examples.
As you’re building your career, you’re often pinned with this choice between your job and your family. The obvious choice is family. Of course, you love them more! But your job is still important. It’s not wrong to want to do your job well or to even love it (I hope you do!), but you must desire the good of your family more than an opportunity to advance in your career. You can love your work. It can be a priority, but family comes first.
Sometimes, it feels like we have to choose between our spouse and our children. We love our children. Undoubtedly, they will be a top priority. But sometimes we love and prioritize them to the detriment of our spouses. In some ways, it’s easier to love our kids. The relationship between parent and child doesn’t come with the same complexities that marriage often brings. But in order for our homes to operate peacefully, we must prioritize loving our spouses first. This doesn’t mean we don’t love our children deeply, but choosing to love our spouses first cultivates a healthy home environment that’s necessary for an entire family to thrive.
Here’s one final example. It’s important to exercise our minds, bodies, and souls on a daily basis. In other words, we should work to learn, to exercise and eat healthy, and to grow spiritually every single day. These are all good things and important for our overall well-being, but what comes first? For me, I would say that loving God and growing spiritually should be the most important. However, in reality I often place that below the other two when I prioritize my day. I have to make an intentional and focused effort if I’m going to have my priorities in the proper order.
The principle seems simple and straightforward. But when we try to put this into practice on a daily basis, it’s easy to work out of extremes. We believe the lie that in order to choose one thing, we must completely reject the other. This isn’t the case. In the example that Augustine used, you can love God, your neighbor, and yourself, you just need to learn what it looks like to love God most, then your neighbor more than yourself.
Here’s the question we all need to answer: Are your loves in the right order?
You don’t have to hate good things to love better things. You can love them all. But are you prioritizing what’s most important?
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