GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 621 • March 19, 2021
IS IT IMPORTANT, INDIFFERENT, OR IRRELEVANT? HOW CAN WE TELL THE DIFFERENCE?
I saw this illustration, but you can easily visualize it. The teacher had a large glass jar and an assortment of other things on the table. He said he would demonstrate how to fill a jar – of course we could see into it and judge what he was doing. First he placed some large rocks in the jar – some smooth, some with jagged edges – until no more would fit. Has the jar been filled now? Yes, some agreed that it was full. No, not yet. He poured in some coarse gravel and shook the jar so that the gravel settled between the rocks. Full now? Yes. Are you sure? He then poured in some very fine sand, shook it and watched it settle into the space between rocks and gravel until the mass was seemingly solid and immoveable. Is the jar full now? Yes, certainly so – no room even for more sand. He then began to pour water into the jar until everything was wet and the water was at the topmost level of the jar. Now everyone agreed that it was completely filled and full. The teacher then said this was a test – a test of perception. Each student was required to write the lesson learned from the demonstration. What lesson did you learn from this?
My preacher friend Dwight Butler once asked me to talk to a group of preachers about “Matters that matters and matters that don’t matter.” No doubt you’ve noticed that people often get worked up about things you think are of little or no consequence – another way of saying things that don’t matter – but the same people refuse to be bothered about things you think are really important, things that do matter. Importance depends upon perception, what one thinks or wants to think about any matter.
Another friend, an elder Bob Barrientez, often said, “The controlling principle in life is ‘mind over matter.’ If you don’t mind, it probably doesn’t matter.” Clever, cute but not true. There are many things that ought to matter to people, but they don’t. On the other hand, many things that people are bothered about shouldn’t really matter.
There are four words that can help us decide what matters and what doesn’t, to what we should give attention and what can safely be given little or no attention.
- Essential. This always matters. Usually urgent, needs to be done without delay. Delay or refusal to act may have serious consequences.
- Important. Almost always matters, but is not essential or even urgent. The important easily crowds out the essential if it is easier or – especially – if it is more pleasant.
- Indifferent (could also say irrelevant). Matters only if you want it to, but may not matter much on its own – won’t make much difference either way.
- Priority. First things first, second things second, last things last – do everything in the order of perceived importance. Note: this is not the lesson from the rocks in the jar illustration. We will get back to that soon.
IMPROPER CRITERIA USED TO DETERMINE WHAT REALLY MATTERS AND WHAT DOES NOT.
• Does salvation depend upon it? Of course there is a positive and essential application here that we do not want to miss – salvation is the ultimate consideration. If salvation depends upon it, do it, even if you must leave some important or preferable things undone. But often the excuse for not doing a thing is that “my salvation is not determined by it.” How much of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) do I have to know to be saved? How many “good works” must I do to be saved? Salvation is not like a Boy Scout merit badge.
• What advantage, reward, or benefit does it have? This works on the personal level. Why must there be “incentives” for getting people involved in church work? The rewards or benefits being sought are often material and social, not spiritual. It also works on the corporate or congregational level. Will it enhance our public image? Will it make membership more attractive? Will it keep our people from seeking fellowship elsewhere? Whatever happened to “be good for goodness’ sake”?
• Does it require leaving “the comfort zone”? People want what makes them feel comfortable – they do not want to be uncomfortable and certainly not challenged or stretched. Should you “Do as little as possible and repeat the easy things so you will look busy?” One will not grow in his comfort zone. Growth may be essential (2 Peter 3:18). We may not actually grow, but we must try to do so (Phil. 3:13-15). We may lose some of what we have gained – old age, infirmity, lack of opportunity. Sometimes growth is just a matter of running in place – holding on, not giving up.
PROPER CRITERIA TO USE IN DETERMINING WHAT MATTERS AND WHAT DOES NOT.
• Does God indicate that it is essential? Is it really a requirement for salvation? To clarify: we are personally (not just collectively – as the church – required to “make our own calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). There is no security in Christ for those who will not obey his commands and fulfill his requirements (Luke 6:46). We could say that anything with eternal consequences certainly matters (2 Cor. 5:10, Rom. 14:10, John 5:29).
• Will God be glorified by it? Scripture seems to make that the top priority in everything (1 Cor. 10:31). Some things that please people, or which they think will please God, do not (Mt. 7:21ff).
• What effect will it have on others, on the church, and on me? Will it enhance efforts to evangelize and edify others? (Mt. 28:18-20, Jude 20, Eph. 4:16). We are not to do anything that leads others astray (1 Cor. 10:32-33). Is it an appropriate use of my abilities? Will it help me develop and grow in the ways God requires, in my calling from Him? (Eph. 4:1).
CHARACTER is what you really are. Reputation is what others think you are. God knows what you are – nothing is hidden from Him (Heb. 4:12-13). Some character qualities are commanded and required by God, and He provides what is needed for developing and maintaining them.
- VIRTUE – essential humanity, the ability to be like God. 2 Peter 1:3, 5
- RIGHTEOUSNESS – Mt. 5:20
- HOLINESS – 1 Peter 1:15-16, Hebrews 12:14. Don’t expect to see God without it.
- HONESTY – Rom. 12:17
- STEWARDSHIP of all that God has entrusted to us. 1 Peter 4:10, 1 Cor. 4:1-2
- LOVE – greatest of all character qualities, the genuine likeness to God and His Son Jesus. 1 John 4:7-8, John 13:34-35
Everything essential to one’s salvation and right relationship with God is stipulated in scripture. Things that are really important but not necessarily essential are more difficult to determine. But we are given sufficient information to make an accurate and acceptable judgment. Indifferent, irrelevant, and inconsequential matters – trivia, matters that do not matter are too often allowed a disproportionate share of our time and energy, leaving insufficient time for the important or even the essential things – the matters that do matter.
Priority matters. The lesson from the jar: if you don’t put the big rocks in first you’ll never get them in at all. If you fill the jar by putting the water in first you’ll never get anything else in.
If we do not do the things essential for salvation, essential for God’s approval and His promised rewards — faith, repentance, obedience, baptism, worship, adhering to His moral standards and, keeping His covenant, and doing His required and stipulated works —we will fail in our request for salvation and a properly fulfilled life.