By Javan Rowe
When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was most important, he summarized by stating we should love God first and others second. All of
the commandments fit underneath one of these two umbrellas, including the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God set the ground rules. He must come first; nothing is to take his rightful place of prominence.
Even so, do we ever find ourselves serving and worshipping false gods?
What Is Your God?
A god can be anything you worship. A god gets your primary devotion. This broad definition reminds us that anything good in our lives is a prime candidate for exploitation, something we could make into a god.
We might secretly laugh at the notion of our worshipping a false god. Perhaps it brings to mind images of the ancient Israelites bowing before a shiny, golden calf. The truth is, anytime we place something above God in our lives, we are submitting to an inanimate object—not the one, true God
False gods are prevalent in our culture: money, sex, social status, talents, technology, and even the family unit. God rebuked Israel, saying, “You have trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute” (Ezekiel 16:15). In other words, they had transformed God’s blessings into idols. Instead of being thankful, they became idolatrous. We can do the same thing with the blessings God gives us.
When we think about false gods in our lives, we may find our primary god is self. The god of self is the umbrella under which many other idols fall. It was Samson’s pleasure-seeking selfishness, for example, that led to his downfall. Likewise, our hedonistic society preaches, “Do what feels right,” which leads to marital conflict, teen pregnancy, and other devastating results, even among believers.
Why God Wants Prominence
Why does God want our worship? Is it because he has a massive ego that needs appeased? Not at all.
Revelation 4:11 says, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” God deserves complete obedience because he gave us life. In addition, he bestows seemingly limitless blessings (which we tend to mold into idols). “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17).
Giving God prominence is actually for our own good because it saves us from unwanted tribulation. The Israelites, for example, were influenced by the gods of the nations they failed to conquer. They were to be set apart, but instead they embraced ungodly cultures. “They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and daughters to false gods” (Psalm 106:35-37).
That final sentence is horrifying—the idea of sacrificing your own children—but hang on to that thought for a moment. The fact is, our idolatrous actions do impact our children. When we place anything above the Lord, it trickles down into our relationships. You might say we are sacrificing our children by putting ourselves above God.
The commandment to put no other god before the Lord is preceded by God’s reminder that he brought Israel “out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Christians have been brought out of the devil’s camp to the Lord’s. We were once enslaved to sin, but now we’re free in Christ. Idolatry puts shackles on individuals who are supposed to be free. God offers us so much, but we limit his blessings with misplaced allegiances.
Destroying Our Idols
Giving up the idol of self does not mean we ignore ourselves. It means we maintain proper views of God and ourselves. There is a certain amount of satisfaction we should derive from knowing we are made in God’s image. The problem is we tend to elevate ourselves excessively, which was what led Jesus to summarize the commandments as he did. He knew our tendencies to concentrate on our own wants.
Giving God prominence involves prioritizing every aspect of our lives. When Jesus spoke about hating father and mother in Luke 14:26, he wasn’t encouraging his listeners to hate their families. He was pointing out the importance of putting him above everything—and everyone—else. When we give first place to ourselves, we invert the natural order and set up a false god that can destroy.
We are to instead destroy our idols, including the god of self, and that starts with humility. First Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” God
desires what is best for us, but that may not align with our immediate wants. We should patiently wait, submit to God, and lift him up instead. This involves a choice to put God first. Like Joshua, we are to choose for ourselves who we serve (Joshua 24:15).
We must remember that all of life’s blessings originate with God, no matter how hard we feel we have worked for them. Knowing God as an abundant giver can soften our hearts and build a thirst for more of him. We can say with the psalmist, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:1, 2). This intense thirst can help nullify our attempts at usurping God’s throne.
What’s the Big Deal?
Why is it important that we eliminate false gods in our lives (other than the fact that God commands it)?
Left unchecked, idolatry leaves us open to attacks from Satan and leads to other sins. We know from Scripture that focusing too much on money, for instance, can lead to other evils. The same can be said for other false gods we construct, particularly the god we make of ourselves.
Serving false gods hinders our effectiveness in God’s kingdom. When we refuse to give God prominence, he may say to us as he said to Israel, “I stretched out my hand against you and reduced your territory” (Ezekiel 16:27). In The Prayer of Jabez (Double Day, 2005), Dr. Bruce Wilkinson observed that when the Bible mentions the increase or reduction of territory, we can associate that with our impact upon God’s kingdom. What we worship affects our thoughts and actions.
God deserves our complete allegiance. Only he is unchanging, reliable, and worthy of our devotion. We must continually ask ourselves if something is getting in the way of our relationship with God. What do you have that, if lost, would totally devastate you? That may be a clue as to whether you have a false god in your life. Idols destroy the closeness God wants to have with us. When we elevate ourselves, we lessen the impact God makes through us. We must figuratively lose our lives in order to save them, as Jesus taught (Matthew 16:25).
Destroying the god of self is not easy, especially when our peers worship the same false idol. Difficult or not, we must destroy the false gods in our lives and give the Lord his rightful place.
Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” When we allow false gods into our lives, it’s as if we attach ourselves to false vines. Even worse, when the idol is self, we become attached to ourselves. Such false vines will never nourish us and they will not properly ground us so we can grow and bear good fruit. To destroy the false gods in our lives, we must believe and obey Jesus’ words: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
Digging Into the Commandments
Standard Full Color Bible, NIV
This simplified approach to studying God’s Word features color-coding of key scriptural themes for easy identification. Each verse of the Bible is highlighted with a color representing one of 12 themes to encourage deeper understanding and better retention.
(Standard Publishing, 2007)
The Ten Commandments: LifeGuide Topical Bible Studies
by Rob Suggs
(Intervarsity Press, 2002)
Following God Series: The Ten Commandments
by Rick Shepherd
(AMG Publishers, 2005)