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How Did We Get Here: You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me

What has been propagated by many Christians in recent years is a sort of “American Dream Christianity.” The purpose is to pursue and attain whatever is desired in this life—relationships, jobs, wealth, health, comfort—with religion, church, and God fitting neatly into their respective places. God becomes a component of one’s life, but never the whole of it.
If there’s one thing that Scripture is abundantly clear about, it’s that there is only one God, and He alone is worthy of worship. From the opening chapters of Genesis, we see God creating the universe, exercising authority over creation, judging the world for its disobedience with the flood; and God then proved to all the world that He alone is God when He delivered His people out of Egypt (Ex. 7:5). The consistent testimony of God’s word is that He is the only God, Creator of all, sovereign over everything (Is. 43:10, 45:20-25).

The implications of this universal reality can be seen in the first of God’s ordinances regarding His moral standard—the first commandment. Just a few simple words, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), and yet, words which ought to break every one of us. Sadly, they far too often do not.

There are a few things we need to bring to the forefront of our minds as we consider our failure regarding this commandment. First, Almighty, triune God is an absolutely perfect Being. We can never allow ourselves to cease to be amazed at God’s holiness, loveliness, mercy, goodness, truthfulness, and so on. The perfect Being that He is, God is the only proper object of worship for all things, at all times, in every place (Rev. 15:4); even the unconscious creation worships and glorifies God! (Ps. 19:1-4). Yet, although the worship of anything next to this Sovereign King is clearly foolish and forbidden (Ps. 14:1, Mt. 4:10), our sinful hearts cannot help but make idols out of anything and everything.

Jesus tells us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). For most, when we think of the first commandment, our minds go to false religions, praying to icons, and strange temple ceremonies. While these things no doubt constitute idolatry, there is a much more subtle variety, which Jesus points out in this verse. And it is a variety which, quite sadly, has been preached in many churches for some time.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 clearly reveal that even the best things in this life can become idols for us. Whenever we elevate or exalt anything in our lives to the level of Almighty God, this breaks the first commandment. It is not necessary that we physically bow down to something in order to worship it—idolatry is a matter of the heart.

What has been propagated by many Christians in recent years is a sort of “American Dream Christianity.” The purpose is to pursue and attain whatever is desired in this life—relationships, jobs, wealth, health, comfort—with religion, church, and God fitting neatly into their respective places. God becomes a component of one’s life, but never the whole of it.

People are consumed with the idols of relaxation and free time, success and possessions, family and friends, all the while giving God His time on Sundays, and so assuming themselves to be safe on the day of judgement. Too many churches have bought into this worldly concept, using God’s word as a platform for what is essentially self-help, giving tips for achieving worldly success, making the individual the central figure in life instead of God, and preaching that if God does not “bless” you in this way, it is because you did not have enough faith.

To be clear, family and relationships, honest work, health and comfort are all appropriate things to seek, but only as a means of glorifying and honoring God. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Christianity is transformative —all our affection and energy that used to be spent on the things of this world is now entirely devoted to God and from that, emanates outward into the world.

God is the absolute center of our lives; our whole identity is Christ, and He demands the whole of our being (Gal. 2:20, Ph. 3:8). We are called to contentment apart from the comforts of this life, to be fully satisfied and secure in Christ, resting in His finished work. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). This attitude is grounded in the first commandment, and it must be the clear testimony in both the preaching of the church, and in the individual lives of her members.

In many ways, the modern American church has become like Old Testament Israel. A people blessed with so much knowledge of God, a foundation upon God’s word, and a rich religious tradition, yet Israel continued to go after the idols of those around them. Although they professed faith in God, went through the ceremonial rituals, and exhibited all of the external signs of religion, they did not truly love the Lord (Is. 29:13), and they mingled the worship of idols with their worship of God (Ez. 8:7-18). In the house of the Lord, they worshiped idols, and so many American churches today are doing the same.

The way many Christians have casually bent and broken the first commandment has had a direct effect on the culture around us. It is not difficult to connect the dots between the relaxing of this exhortation and the systemic dismantling of the second table of the law that we are seeing today. Man’s natural tendency is to replace God with himself as the sovereign over his own life (Rom. 1:22-215), and when this habit is not constantly combatted and remains unchecked, it then becomes the standard. If God is not regarded as the one and only all consuming God of our lives, if we diminish His position even a little bit, then it becomes much easier to relax His law. And when God is more and more replaced by the individual, the desires and pursuits of man’s own ends take priority at the expense of God’s revealed will. When man replaces God, his chief end becomes, not to glorify and enjoy God, but rather to glorify himself, at whatever cost.

And so it is only when God is the sole object of our worship that we will genuinely desire to obey His law, to love our neighbors as ourselves, even when it means denying ourselves. Only then will we make pleasing God our priority, instead of looking to please ourselves first while keeping God at a comfortable distance. We must daily meditate on God’s character, understanding just how highly exalted He is, and how lowly everything in creation is when compared to Him.

We ought to praise Him daily, study Him, know what He loves, what He hates, and pray that these same attitudes would be manifest in us. The lone safeguard against idolatry is continual meditation upon God, such as the blessed man of Psalm 1 (Ps. 1:2). “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory…” (Ps. 115:1)—and it is this attitude that must be taught and, if we are truly born again in Christ, manifested in our lives if we hope to see any transformation in our culture.
Luke Griffo is a member of leadership at Redeemer Church of South Hills in West Mifflin, PA. Click here for more RCSH Blog posts.
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