"Stop! STOP! STOP!" screamed the outraged home-team fans.
"Turn around, Tom! Go the other way!" bellowed the dumbfounded basketball coach.
But Tom didn't stop or turn around. Instead, in a bewildered state of euphoria, Tom hurriedly dribbled the basketball across the half-court line to the free-throw line, then past the free-throw line to the three-second lane and finally laid the ball up into the basket to make a perfect goal — for the other team!
Yes, remarkable as it seemed, Tom, one of the best basketball players on the team, had become confused because of the intense excitement and screaming bedlam that filled the gymnasium during this important game. For one brief moment Tom became disoriented and actually scored a goal — two points — for the opposite side.
I was there. I saw the proud look on Tom's face melt into horror as he realized the basket went on the scoreboard for the competition.
But the real pity is not that Tom scored two points for the opposing team that day. After all, that event was a school basketball game that occurred 15 years ago. No, the real pity is that this story is relived over and over by some people in God's Church. It is relived because some people, in their spiritual lives, profess to make the Kingdom of God their all-encompassing goal when in reality they do not. In reality, they are scoring points for the other side.
Couldn't happen to you? Be careful. Don't let yourself believe that you could not be one of these people. After all, Tom did not intentionally score that basket for the opposing side.
No, the frenzy of the packed gym, the distractions of the shouting cheerleaders, the popcorn vendors and the pounding of tennis shoes on the floor all served to distract and confuse him. He believed he was going in the right direction when he was not. You, too, could believe you are "on track" and actually be going the wrong way.
If some of us think it couldn't happen to us, perhaps we have forgotten the parable of the rich man in Matthew 19.
This young man professed a willingness to do any "good thing" that would lead to eternal life (verse 16). But when Christ told him he should "go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor," the rich man became disheartened and "went away sorrowful" (verses 21-22). His response betrayed his true priorities. Although he professed to want the Kingdom of God, he was still seeking the riches and mammon of this life first.
Yes, it is possible to convince yourself that you are seeking first the Kingdom of God when indeed you are not. And you had better know for sure. Christ said, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37).
In other words, he who has another person or another goal before the goal of the Kingdom of God is not worthy of Christ and will not be in God's Kingdom.
But how can you know for sure? How can you know whether you only believe you are heading toward the Kingdom of God while in reality you, like Tom, are "scoring points for the other side"?
Look for the symptoms The answer is that you can know by looking to see if you display the symptoms of going after the wrong goal.
And make no mistake, there are symptoms. Even Tom, in that basketball game, had symptoms or indicators that he was heading the wrong direction. The crowd was screaming at him, the coach was going wild and his teammates were running after him and desperately attempting to block his shot.
He should have realized something was wrong. He could certainly have realized his mistake had he hesitated just a moment. If he had stopped just long enough to collect his thoughts and reconfirm that he was heading the right way, he would have known better before it was too late.
Unfortunately, we, like Tom, tend to be the last to know that we are going in the wrong direction. But it's not too late to take stock of your direction if you only will. See if the following symptoms apply to you.
• Symptom: You are worried that people will find out what you're "really like."
Of course, all of us hide our true selves to some extent. But if you have a conscious or overriding fear of people "finding out," then you are probably trying to hide things that show you are not living up to God's standards. You are constructing a veneer for people to see or hear while you cover motives, attitudes or actions that do not conform to God's way.
Such a religious veneer usually takes the form of trying to look and sound righteous — in other words, being with the right people at the right places or using the proper religious- sounding phrases or buzzwords — but not really being the proper person. Such a state of mind is mere hypocrisy.
If this sounds like you, you could be in the same category as the scribes and Pharisees whom Christ upbraided.
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also" (Matt. 23:25-26).
One particularly insidious form of this hypocrisy occurs when the affected party doesn't know he is a hypocrite! He truly believes that external appearances are the totality of Christianity. He doesn't even see inside to his sins.
This type of person may even sincerely believe he is trying to seek the Kingdom of God first. What he really wants, however, is the adulation of men who think he is righteous. This type of person, however sincere, is not seeking God's Kingdom first. Rather, he is looking first for the recognition of other people.
• Symptom: You are not overcoming your faults or growing spiritually.
A person truly moving toward God's true goal for man should be growing more and more as he progresses. It should be obvious to him and to others that he is getting closer to that goal. Since the path to God's Kingdom is developing holy, righteous character, we can know if we're on the road by looking for spiritual progress.
If you are not growing closer to the goal, then you are like the Jews who returned to the promised land after the captivity.
Commissioned to rebuild God's Temple, they did not make good progress. Instead, they worked on their own homes and built for themselves while they outwardly expressed spiritual intentions of wishing to do God's Work.
Therefore, God said to the prophet Haggai, "Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built [in other words, they had excuses]. Then came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste? Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways" (Hag. 1:2-5).
How about you? Are you helping to build God's spiritual Temple? Is the working of God's Holy Spirit more and more evident in your life?
If not, you are not giving the goal of spiritual growth top priority in your life. If you're not getting closer to God, it is because you're not working on it.
Pursuing the physical • Symptom: Your mind is usually on physical things.
If your mind is constantly filled with thoughts of work or worries about food, shelter, clothing or luxuries, then your goals are no different from those of the unconverted world around you.
"Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Matt. 6:31-33).
What your mind is on can be a dead giveaway to identify what your goal really is. If your mind is on the Kingdom of God and things connected with it, then the Kingdom is your goal. If your mind is mostly on physical things, then perhaps they are your goal.
Maybe you are making God's Kingdom the most important thing in your life. But maybe you are not. Maybe the most important thing in your life is earning a living, buying a new car or a new house or finding a mate.
If so, read Christ's analogy in which He likens the Kingdom of heaven to a "treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field" (Matt. 13:44).
Is God's Kingdom so important in your life that all other goals are secondary to it? Would you sell all that you had (if the time came when you should) in order to seek first the Kingdom?
Read on in verses 45 and 46, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."
Are you like the man who found the pearl of great price? Is the pearl of God's Kingdom the most important thing in your life? Are you treating it so? If not, then God's Kingdom is not truly your greatest goal. You may be going in the wrong direction.
Those of us in the stands who incredulously watched Tom, the basketball player mentioned earlier, couldn't help but ask a similar question. "What is Tom thinking about?" we wondered.
And with good reason. His mind seemed to be somewhere else than on the game. Even 15 years later, those of us who sit around and tell the story of Tom and his basketball fiasco still wonder whether he was thinking about his girlfriend or how his uniform fit when he should have been paying attention to the game. Don't let this happen to you.
• Symptom: You spend most of your spare time on physical pursuits.
What you do with your time tells exactly what you are doing with your life, for time is life. Do you spend time praying, studying, fasting, serving? Or do you spend time foolishly wandering after material pursuits to the neglect of your spiritual life? Or do you simply waste time?
Just as some people in this world are forever occupied with learning, yet never learn the truth, so are some people forever occupied, but not with the things that concern God's Kingdom.
How can you profess to love the things that be of God if you never — or too rarely — take the time to do things that will draw you close to God? You could be like the college student who professes to be majoring in French but spends all of his time on the ski slopes instead. At the end of his college career, he knows more about skiing than about the courses for which he paid.
How about you? Are you professing to "major" in the Kingdom, but putting your time elsewhere? Examine yourself to be sure.
• Symptom: Your physical goals are incompatible with your spiritual goals.
Even though the Kingdom should be our No. I goal, we should also have secondary, physical goals if we are to truly accomplish things in this life. But if your physical goals conflict with your spiritual goals, you will forsake the one for the other. You simply cannot go both directions at once.
For example, it would be pretty difficult for a person who says he embraces the ideals of God's Kingdom and wishes to love his brother as Christ taught to be a professional soldier.
And a businessman who ruthlessly exploits his employees or manipulates or cons his prospects is denying, by his actions, that his real goal is the Kingdom of God. He is just plain going in one direction while he professes that he is going in another. His behavior is inconsistent with his ideals.
Such behavior was typified by the scribes and Pharisees of Christ's time, for Christ said, "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me" (Matt. 15:8).
If your physical actions conflict with your spiritual ideals, then the physical must be more important to you than the Kingdom.
Seek God's Kingdom Now that you have analyzed the symptoms, what should you do if you find you are indeed seeking the wrong goal?
First, admit to yourself that you are headed off course, and resolve to change. Realize that your life is not your own and that whatever carnal desires you may have or wish to pursue, you have nonetheless been bought with the blood of Christ.
You are not your own person anymore. It is not your decision to make about what direction to go with your life.
"For," as the apostle Paul said in I Corinthians 6:20, "ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."
If the realization that you have been bought by the blood of Christ is not enough to turn your goals around, then realize further this: All other goals besides the Kingdom of God are merely temporary anyway. The physical things — the material desires and wants that tend to draw us humans like magnets — will dissolve with the elements when this world passes away.
Take Christ's advice to "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" by seeking the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:19-20).
Be careful that you do not think the physical cares of this life are more important than the spiritual. "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15).
And finally, realize that you will receive whatever physical things are good for you in this life if you do seek the Kingdom of God first. This great truth, expressed by Christ, is important to remember.
"But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things [your physical needs] shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33).
My old friend Tom the basketball player today lives somewhere in the United States. From time to time, I'm sure he must remember the day he blindly scored a perfect lay-up and added two points to the opposing team's score. I can imagine how he feels when he thinks about it. I'm certain that he desperately wishes he could turn back the clock, and this time listen to the coach who hollered to him from the sideline.
The game is not yet over for you. And the coach's advice to Tom 15 years ago is as good for us spiritually — if we are not seeking God's Kingdom first — as it was for Tom then. The coach's advice was this: "Stop! Turn around! Go the other way!"
Seek the Kingdom first!