The 4th of July has traditionally been one of the most important days for Americans to express their patriotism, loyalty, and love of country. As a kid, I vaguely understood this. Fireworks, picnics, and homemade ice cream were what I perceived and appreciated most. American Independence Day slowly worked its way into my overall awareness of history, politics, and symbolic gestures as part of the trappings of being an American.
Speaking of gestures . . .
I was a part of the generation that grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance in class each morning in my public school. We would stand next to our desks and place our hands over our hearts as we faced the U.S. flag. The words would roll off our tongues without really hearing them. It was a ritual that I never thought about deeply. I saw its main value as a reference point for learning to distinguish my right hand from the left as a child. And yet, aware or unaware, it still was a powerful declaration that we children made each morning. As we grew older, we would then decide how much of it we actually meant.
We Cannot Escape Them
But allegiances are part of life. They are what give shape to our identity as individuals and as groups. Who I am is typically best put into words by speaking of the community, activities, beliefs, roles, and goals to which I have attached myself and continue in submission to. Even among those who say they have no allegiances, it’s likely they have a strong loyalty to their own independence and self-preservation at the very least. To literally hold no allegiance to anything is somewhat equivalent to being one of the walking dead. That person would theoretically be just a body, with no sense of connection to anything that raises him or her above the status of an animal. And thus there would be no ability to clarify uniqueness, beliefs, hopes, dreams, etc. I doubt there are many, if any, who truly have no loyalties to anything. Without some point of devotion or commitment to that which gives them meaning, they would be worthy of pity from the rest of us because they would not really be living.
Allegiance ultimately is an activity of the heart. Humans, I believe, were created to exercise it and do so without a lot of conscious effort. It arises from within and says, “This is what I am going to give myself to. This is going to give me my sense of purpose.” I often hear people talk about it in terms of what their passions are – the things they feel strongly about and give themselves to with abandon, holding nothing back.
The metaphorical heart (as opposed to the physical, blood-pumping organ), is the executive center of a person’s being. It is where choices are made to give oneself to something – be that a person (such as a friend or lover), a community of people (such as a family, church, social group, or nation), a thing (such as money), an activity (such as a job, a hobby, a sport, a game, or a host of other types of entertainment), or a cause (such as alleviating poverty or rescuing golden retrievers).
It’s no wonder that God asks for the entirety of a person’s heart to first be given to Him – not just a bit of it, but everything it contains. Because when something or someone has my heart, it or they have me. But only I can give that kind of access. I can be deceived or manipulated into giving it over to a person or cause that ultimately is not good for me. But my heart can never really be taken by force. Allegiance is something that I control.
God has set before us His Son, Jesus, as the one to whom the highest allegiance is due. The Bible describes Him as the King of Kings, or as in another of His titles: LORD Jesus. A true Lord expects and deserves the surrender of the will (or heart) of those who call themselves His followers. And for many, this is the bottom-line problem they have with Christianity: there can be only ONE true Lord. Such exclusivity is offensive toward all the other interests that claim a right to me.
Fighting for My Heart
There are many other things besides Jesus, that seek my devotion. And much of Christian growth involves identifying these competing allegiances that work to capture my heart. Once I identify them, I can put them in their proper place of subservience to Lord Jesus.
Besides the drives for pleasure, comfort, and power, there are a host of “isms” that also call for my loyalty. Many of them may not be evil in and of themselves. But when any one is given a throne of Lordship in my heart, it then leaves no room for Jesus to have His rightful place. In the end, I suffer, as well as those around me, when the rightful ruler is not given the proper allegiance in my life.
Over the years, I have wrestled with dethroning loyalties within that compete with the Lordship of Jesus. The biggest, yet often most subtle, is that of self-centeredness. So many times, I have come to the painful awareness that my loyalty is first to me, my fulfillment, and self-actualization. Such allegiances blind me to how to truly love others and give in a way that honors the One I claim to follow.
American celebrations like the 4th of July remind me of a tendency to give “isms” – like patriotism, nationalism, capitalism, or any other system that might try to dictate my values – more allegiance than they deserve. When not kept under the rulership of Jesus, any one of them can quickly blind me to His call to embrace the gospel and love and serve others above myself. Ultimately, I can rightly care for my family, friends, and fellow humans best when Jesus is sitting on the throne of my heart, and I pledge my allegiance first and foremost to Him and work of establishing His rulership in the hearts of those who do not know Him.
May my heart give Jesus all the honor, glory and allegiance that is due to Him.