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 ~ Beware of Secondary Gains ~

         Psychologists talk a lot about “secondary gains.” Theologians and preachers ought to also. Secondary gains are by-products of primary pursuits that can distract from the primary goal, and even cause one to abandon it in favor of the secondary gains. This can be lethal to the spiritual life. Unfortunately many pastors use the secondary gains to bait people into pursuing what is primary, to everyone’s destruction.

         A simple, physical example is that of an out-of-shape father at risk of heart problems. His kids are growing up quickly and he loves them dearly. This love motivates him to improve his health, vigor, and longevity so he can have an active and long relationship with his children and they love him even more for that.

         The secondary gains are also welcome. The father feels great and strong and becomes increasingly attractive to women. He made new friends at the gym and grows a strong liking to the “jock culture.” His increased self-esteem gives him the confidence to enter some amateur competitions. Social life expands. Now he interacts with his children and wife even less than when he was out of shape. The secondary gains, positive in themselves, have overshadowed the father’s primary goal that was motivated by love. His eyes and focus are now off that goal and he is now motivated by self-promotion and ambition.

         There are great secondary gains to character traits too. Being a chronically angry person makes those around you fearful of setting you off and more careful so thus you can control them. A chronic victim who parades her pain gets lots of welcome sympathy and attention. A chronic bar drinker feels well liked and doesn’t feel the constant boredom and loneliness of his life. “Anger-management” programs, addictions counseling, or “just say no” to your vices doesn’t work very well when the secondary gains are still very rewarding. They must be replaced by equally or more rewarding gains to free the person from the primary and troublesome pursuit.

         A powerful example of spiritual secondary gains can be read in the second  chapter of Revelation. Christ listed these in a letter to one of the seven churches: hard work, perseverance, expulsion of wickedness, doctrinal testing, and endurance through hardships. A gratifying list indeed, a by-product of the church’s first embracing of the Gospel. However, and perhaps to its surprise, Christ says, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love [primary pursuit]. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (v.4-5, NIV).

         Christ is being clear that being diverted from the primary by the joys of the secondary makes the latter worthless and even cause for a fatal fall from grace.  Explaining that the Father knows our needs to the great throng on the hillside, Jesus told them “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be provided.” Pointing to the primary focus of God’s kingdom, Jesus did not say “seek it so that all else will be provided.” Those who do, who will make their case at judgement based on their spiritual accomplishments, will hear those dreaded words, “Go away from me. I never knew you”
(Matthew 7:22-23).

         When I was in elementary school the teachers taught us that the medieval times were the “Dark Ages” which were followed by the Renaissance (the French word for revival), called the “Age of Enlightenment.” I contend the Renaissance was sparked in part by Columbus’ three transatlantic voyages which jump-started the European consciousness of a “New World.” Art, music, literature, politics, and philosophy ushered in “The Age of Reason” and the sciences. The pursuit of “enlightenment” was revolutionary. Though we are, “officially,” in “The Post-Modern Age,” I propose we are still on the relatively young road of the Renaissance.

         Religion and the views on spirituality also were changed radically and heavily impacted by science and reason. The secondary gains of the “pursuit of enlightenment” were phenomenal, accelerating today in our incredible technologies and life styles. No matter how costly to the earth, human, animal and plant life, and the spiritual welfare of our souls, short of global disaster or universal suffering, we will not forsake these gains.

        Now I know why I was taught that the Middle Ages were “Dark” and unenlightened . Post-Renaissance secular scholars wrote my text books. When I review the spiritual literature of the last 2000 years and prior, the Renaissance theological writings, expositions, statements of faith and apologetics read like a technical manual compared to the superbly profound mystical theology and wisdom of the medieval scholars. Intellectualism has tainted faith and we have made a science of religion, and a religion of science.

         Consequently, spiritual wisdom and experiences that don’t “make sense,” that do not pass the scrutiny of rationality, that do not compute through the hard wiring of our brains, are dismissed as superstition, psychiatric disorders, or outdated beliefs that belong to “the Dark Ages,” politically incorrect and unacceptable offensive views or unenlightened ignorance. Some Christians play into this by misapplying (and not understanding) the theology of “the foolishness of the Cross.” Christians are not fools or simpletons. They can intellectually stand their ground with secular thinkers. They know that spiritual realities such as love, hope, heart, soul, life, truth, cannot be known by intellectual analysis or scientific investigation. They are people of faith, and that doesn’t mean a blind mindlessness of “accepting” something “because” the Bible says so and that settles it.” Faith is a real fabric upon which the physical world is organized and manifested, “the substance of things not seen” and yet to be seen. No one could live even a day without acting on faith in something or someone.

         Christians enjoy and benefit from the secondary gains of the world’s pursuit of knowledge. But to “forsake our first love” for these gains is spiritual death, as Christ dictated to the apostle John. As a people, a body, we may be called upon to forsake some of the gains of the world. In fact, we have been already and will continue to be…”In the world but not of the world.”

         In our spiritual journey labyrinths, there are beautiful places that entice us to linger – great ministries, wondrous spiritual gifts, ecstasies, miracles. But we must keep moving with the same intensity we move through the arid valleys of death that are also part of the journey. To make these gardens along our journeys our homes is to embrace something other than Christ. He was quick to remind us of this. Luke (chapter 10) records how Jesus’ disciples returned from a mission “with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name’” (v.17). Jesus bluntly replied, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v.20). Redemption and unity in love with Christ must be the primary focus.

         On another notable occasion, upon hearing Jesus teach, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!” (Luke 11:27b, NIV). The woman certainly spoke the truth, an echo of the angelic messenger who told Mary she was blessed among all women and full of grace. But as the woman pondered Mary and her faithfulness in her part in the mystery of redemption, Jesus quickly redirected her and the others listening: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (v.28). Bearing the Incarnation of Yahweh in your body and having the demonic world submit to you are probably among the greatest “secondary gains” of union with the Holy Spirit of God forever. So great they may divert you from the focus of devotion to Christ, succumbing to the lure in finding greater self-enjoyment from these secondaries.

         Christ proclaimed Himself to be the gate for His sheep. I find it very interesting that He says some do bypass Him into the sheepfold: “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1, NIV). I suggest that one of the other ways some climb into the sheepfold is through the secondary gains of pursuing a spiritual life. Be that famous preacher, heroic missionary, model of morality, biblical scholar. Make that your primary identity and purpose, and Christ calls you a thief. What are you stealing? The centrality and supremacy of our Master, our Shepherd, our God. This was the downfall of the angel of light, Lucifer.

         Paul (1 Corinthians 13) calls all spiritual gifts, sacrifices, and gains garbage, useless as a noisy gong, if they are not fused in the sacred heart of God’s love. As we celebrate with gratitude and faithful stewardship our secondary gains, we must be vigilant to always behold and forsake all, even these, for our first and primary Love. “God is love” (John 4:16).

         No matter how good it gets, how much treasure we have deposited in heaven, we must always, every hour, pray in profound humility, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And truly mean and feel it in our hearts.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services

Weekly Reflections © December 7, 2002

Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com

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