The 2006 movie "Amazing Grace" tells the story of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his efforts at abolishing slavery in England. As depicted in the film, Wilberforce was a worldly man who enjoyed gambling and drinking until he had a conversion experience at twenty-six years old. That experience of the Lord set him on a new path that eventually led him to become a political activist determined to build the kingdom of God.
At one point in the movie, Wilberforce finds himself conflicted. On the one hand, he wants to have a comfortable life, with his newfound faith and his quiet home. But he also feels drawn to take a stand against the slave trade. Eventually, Wilberforce learns that there is something more fulfilling than the “good life” he envisioned for himself: following God’s will. Thanks to Wilberforce’s dedication, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, effectively ending the slave trade in the British Empire.
Seek First the Kingdom. Like Wilberforce, we are all conflicted. We find ourselves tempted to build a comfortable and peaceful life focused only on God and ourselves and our loved ones. But this is not always what God wants for us. He wants us to receive his grace and then share that grace with the people around us. He wants us to enjoy life in his kingdom, but he also wants us to help build that kingdom. While the devil tries to convince us to build an isolated little kingdom for ourselves, Jesus urges us to take the good news of his kingdom “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus taught us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). He told us that if we did, our heavenly Father would take care of our other needs. Then, by the example of his own life, he showed us how to seek that kingdom. Think of how he reverently submitted to his Father and aligned himself with his Father’s will (Hebrews 5:7). Whether he was working in his carpentry shop at Nazareth, on a boat with his disciples, or healing the sick, Jesus’ first and greatest priority was to be united with his Father’s will and plans.
Keeping Jesus’ example in mind, let’s look at three practices that can help each of us seek first the kingdom of God: honoring the King, surrendering to the King, and serving the King.
Honor the King. One significant mark of people who have encountered Jesus as King is their desire to honor him and praise him. The Magi and the shepherds honored him at his first coming. Mary broke her alabaster jar of perfume and anointed Jesus with it. A repentant woman washed his feet and dried them with her hair.
Of course, God doesn’t need our praise. But when we get glimpses of how great, holy, and loving Jesus is, our hearts erupt in expressions of admiration. They arise within us, almost spontaneously, as a response of love and gratitude toward him.
We praise and honor God for the way he holds the universe together. We praise him for the beauty and grandeur of the natural world. We praise him for all the gifts and talents he has given us. Most of all, we praise Jesus because while remaining divine, he assumed our human nature and came to live among us. We praise him for the way he displayed God’s matchless mercy and for all the miracles he performed. We praise him for sacrificing himself on the cross so that we could be set free from sin. There is no lack of reasons to praise our King, both for who he is and for what he has done for us!
When we praise Jesus, we are the ones who receive the main benefit. As we lift our hearts to heaven, we find ourselves in the presence of God. We see him more clearly. We taste his love and his grace, and that taste moves our hearts. We know we are loved and cared for. We know that we can trust him and submit to him. And this knowledge makes us want to serve him with our lives. It makes us want to live in his kingdom.
Surrender to the King. As valuable as praising Jesus is, our King wants more from his citizens than their adoration. He wants us to surrender our hearts and minds to him as well. Surrendering to Jesus means choosing to prefer his will to our own. It means giving Jesus the freedom to direct our lives, not just when we are praying or at Mass but in our day-to-day activities. It means placing everything we do and have—our work, our marriage, our family, our finances, and so on—at God’s disposal and dedicating it to his glory.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote a prayer of surrender that he encouraged people to say:
Take, Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. You have given me all that I am and all that I possess: I surrender it all to you for you to dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more.
Ignatius’ prayer of surrender can sound extreme to us. Surely it sets the bar high! But Ignatius knew that he was speaking in ideal terms. It’s always best to set very high goals so that we have the hope of attaining some of them.
If we could just try our best to find out how Jesus wants us to act in our everyday lives, we’ll find ourselves gradually living a life of surrender. And that life of surrender will help us stay in the presence of the Lord and in the peace of Christ, even when things don’t go our way. God will see our attempts at surrender, and he will reward us with glimpses of his presence. As Ignatius said, God will give us his love and his grace—and we’ll discover that with these gifts we are indeed “rich enough.” We’ll come to experience the joy that comes from living in his kingdom.
Serve the King. When it comes to this final way of seeking God’s kingdom, there is not much to be said that we do not already know. We all know how to give of ourselves to our families, our parishes, or in our local communities. We all hear the cry of the poor. So instead of listing different ways that we might build God’s kingdom, let’s focus on some of the more important attitudes that any servant of God should strive for.
What makes a servant of the Lord? First is flexibility. A servant of God is willing to answer his or her Master’s call anywhere and at any time. A servant is willing to go where others will not, including among the poor and forgotten. To serve in God’s kingdom also means taking care of those who can’t take care of or defend themselves. A servant gives without expecting anything in return, simply because he or she goes wherever the need is greatest.
A servant in the kingdom of God is also humble. A servant never boasts and never thinks too highly of himself or herself. It’s only a matter of doing whatever is necessary in the task of building the kingdom of God and caring for his people. Servants in the kingdom are full of joy because they know that as they pour themselves out for the people around them, they are also bringing honor and glory to God. They see their service as an act of praise—the kind of praise we described earlier in this article.
Receive—and Proclaim—Your King. All that we have said so far finds its expression in the Mass. Gathered as members of God’s kingdom, we praise the Lord for giving himself to us so humbly. We surrender our hearts to him as we offer him our gifts and as we receive him in the form of bread and wine. And we receive from his altar the grace we need to “go and announce the gospel of the Lord” in our words and in our acts of loving service.
Every time we receive Jesus in Communion, we have the opportunity to honor him as our King. We have the opportunity to proclaim his death and profess his Resurrection until he comes again—that is, until the day when he returns and takes up his throne as King of heaven and earth. May Jesus Christ, the King of all creation, give each of us many blessings and gifts as we honor him, surrender to him, and serve him. May we all go out into the world and devote our lives to proclaiming his kingdom!