Bible reference: Exodus 20:3
Thou shalt have no other gods before MeKJV
What many people think this means: You must worship God, and God only.
What it means in Context- God is bigger than you. The universe is bigger than you. The world is bigger than you. Be humble.
Throughout my life, people have interpreted this to mean, “Don’t worship anything but Me.” This bothered me for a number of reasons. For one, it seemed identical to Commandment 2, and therefore redundant, which made God seem… stupid. I don’t want to believe in a stupid God. It took me a long time to contextualize it, but then it struck me. I have heard it and seen it and experienced it all the time: feeling tiny next to the ocean; being dwarfed by the sky; awed by the vastness of space. Looking at a wall of windows on an apartment building, and realizing those are lives – each window can be a person with a family, having dreams, going to work, hanging out with friends with other families, having other dreams, going to other work, hanging out with other friends…. It’s all those thoughtful journeys that take a glimpse of the infinite. It is the quintessential discovery that sparks a sense of God… the sheer massiveness of the universe, and your puniness in contrast. It’s something thoughtful people encounter time after time. Therefore, it passes the Ricky Gervais Test: if you wiped out every bible today… humanity would find this wisdom again.
Does it make sense at #1? Absolutely. If you believe God’s #1 rule is “You must worship me, and me alone”, then what kind of God is that? An all-powerful being tells lesser beings, whom He created, that they must not only follow, not only listen to, but worship – YOU MUST WORSHIP ME! Why would God act like an insecure boyfriend? Why create free will only to issue a mandate of obedience? This interpretation makes me think God is an arrogant narcissist. It tears me away from faith.
However, as a call to humility – that makes sense as the #1 rule. It’s a call to be grounded – a notion to be shaken to one’s foundations, to be built up again. Stronger. It makes sense at #1 because this is often the hardest lesson we have to learn as people (as we are often arrogant narcissists).
It’s not all about me.
There is a reason 12-step programs start with accepting a higher power. People need to understand that they can be powerless. They need to know that there are forces that are beyond their control. Christians believe that they are fallen. However, it’s so easy to say “We are all imperfect” or “We are all sinners”. In real life, it’s not so easy to accept that we can be powerless at times. Marcus Corpening explains in his sermon, “This Might Take a While”: when everything seemingly goes wrong in life, “God… is making it impossible for you to move forward without Him… so (you) would recognize that at the end of (yourself), God is waiting there saying ‘Here I am ready to lead you….” I remember being blown away by this prospect… because it made me face my own vanity of thinking I always had the power to change my destiny. If only I prepared more…. If only I communicated better…. If only I invested more…. I believed that I alone had the power to change my destiny. I could not figure it out. I was doing everything right, and I still wasn’t getting the expected outcomes. Then I heard this message, and it sank deep into me. I lost touch with my humility. I lost touch with anything greater than me. I thought I had all the answers, or at the very least, I could find all the answers. The reality is, in the end, I am just a speck among infinite specks, along infinite time. Sometimes, there’s nothing I can do to change my circumstances. Sometimes I just need to accept things as they are.
Accept your powerlessness. Accept your fragility. Accept your imperfection.
This is not to say that pursuits or choices are meaningless. Infinities can contain infinities. There is so much richness and possibility in life. You can accomplish many things, including multitudes that you could not or would not think to conceive, but every once in a while you will get knocked down. It will seem like life is being unfair. It will seem like the universe itself is going against you. In those moments, you can believe that there is no God – that the universe is a cold place, and it all sucks, and you might as well stop trying. Or, you can curse God for being vindictive and fill yourself with resentment quickly or over time. Or, you could accept that maybe not everything is supposed to turn out your way, or be fair to you, or be about you at all.
It could be the universe trying to remind you that you should be humble.
In order to change or grow, a person needs to bow to something. A person needs to accept the nobility of service – whether it’s to a higher purpose, person, or idea. This also does not mean that one person is strictly better than another person. It just means appreciating that at the very least, in some way, in some time, in some situation, someone or something can be better than you. Before anything else, a person should accept something greater. That is foundational. That is firm ground from which a strong character can be built.
In that context, it’s a worthy first commandment.