Bible reference: Exodus 20:3
Thou shalt have no other gods before MeKJV
What I thought this meant: You must worship God, and God only.
What I think it really means: God is bigger than you. The universe is bigger than you. The world is bigger than you. Be humble.
Throughout my life, this commandment has always troubled me. It seemed an odd declaration from the Almighty: “Don’t worship anything but Me.” 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 also made God seem insecure. To make such a bold statement… and then to repeat it, it made me think of a needy boyfriend holding on a bit too tight when he says, “You’re mine.” Jealousy even pops up in Commandment 2. God should not be insecure. From my life experience, only weak people (or people in a compromised position) make such kinds of declarations. I don’t want to believe in a weak or insecure God.
Finally, the premise itself seems faulty: why grant people free will, only to slap mandates upon us? Why not just make all creation inherently worship God and God alone? It seems particularly puzzling to demand such loyalty whilst delivering very few miracles in the past 2000 years. I mean, when was the last talking, fiery bush we got to get a relay from?
Over the years, this incongruity tumbled in my mind. It tumbled and tumbled, till all the edges smoothed out. What if…? What if this statement was the equivalent of the Almighty drawing Himself to full height and towering over me, over everyone? He darkens us in his shadow. I am God. And you are NOT. However, this is not a gesture of bullying, this is dad when junior gets a little too cocky. 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 offer 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 and time again. Therefore, it passes the Ricky Gervais Test: if you wiped out every bible today, would humanity learn this lesson again? Yes. I think people would find the awesomeness of the universe, and subsequently feel their smallness, and thus be reminded to be humble in that realization.
Does it make sense at #1? Absolutely. Start from a place of humility. People need constant reminders to keep things in context. It’s easy to get full of yourself – so remember the #1 rule. On the other hand, if you believe God’s #1 rule is “You must worship me, and me alone”… that comes before don’t murder anyone?
The First Commandment makes sense as a call to be grounded – a notion to be shaken to one’s foundations, only to be built up again – stronger. It makes sense at #1 because this is often the hardest lesson we have to learn as people:
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”. The words come can out automatically. 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 the vanity of thinking that I alone had the power to change my destiny. If only I prepared more…. If only I communicated better…. If only I invested more time or money…. If things did not go in my favor, it baffled me. I did everything right, and I still didn’t get what I wanted, and I cursed God for being unfair and unjust. 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 dot on a world, among infinite worlds, along infinite time. Sometimes, there’s nothing I can do to change my circumstances. Sometimes I just need to accept things as they are. I need to remember my place in that long cast shadow.
Accept your powerlessness. Accept your fragility. Accept your imperfection. In other words, you are not God.
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 go in any of 3 directions: 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. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” I am the Ocean. You are the speck. That is the firm ground from which a strong character can be built.
In that context, it’s a worthy First Commandment.