God has given us laws. In part one of this series I offered that seeing his laws as principles can help us see them not just as rules to make God happy with us, but also keys to God’s hope and plan for us as his people. In part two I reconsidered the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. These two easily lend themselves to being principles to live by. What Christian would not consider love for God and others a principle of life?
Today I want to start considering the Ten Commandments in the same light. I think this is slightly more difficult than the Great Commandment, but I also think that understanding them this way can be more profound and helpful. Let’s start at the top.
“You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3 ESV).
If the Great Commandment is the greatest law, then the first commandment is the law with the greatest consequences for failure to obey. Loving the Lord with all your heart is hard to measure, but bowing down to false Gods is easy to measure, the more literally you take it. Today, much is said and written about idols in our hearts and about loving something else more than God. But the first thing God had in mind with this is the propensity of ancient people, even the Jews, to worship whatever local god had a following. Though God was explicit in his command against the practice, the Jews repeatedly fell into idol worship. This led to some of their most severe consequences. Of course, the law still stands for Christians (1 Jn 5:21).
As a principle, this works pretty well. In all that you do, put God first. The reality is that God is first. He created all things, and he created the way things work. Putting him first not only gives him the glory and honor that is appropriate to him, but it also lines up everything else in your life.
The first and most practical way to apply this principle is to start your day acknowledging God, reading his Word, worshipping him and praying. Five minutes, ten minutes, or an hour will do. Doing it first is a way to put him first in your heart. Some people will fail to do this on the grounds that they are not quite awake yet, and giving their first would violate a desire to give him their best. Maybe the point is valid, but how about five minutes first, and fifty-five minutes of best later in the day when you are in your prime?
Now, here’s a problem right now in the Church. To most Christians, loving God above all else and having no idols means loving only God. There is one word behind this notion. I’ll tell you what it is in a minute. But let me rephrase it.
To love God, according to many, and to keep the first commandment to have no idols, is to love only God.
If they love anything else, they feel anxious and do one of two things, they give up the thing they love, or they find a way to rationalize it, usually by doing some sort of penance.
Let’s take an example: Alex loves to play the piano. He finds that he gets a great amount of joy from tackling a hard piece, struggling to master it, and then playing well enough to work on the many nuances of musicality that really bring him joy. He revels in the music itself, having found masters to play. And don’t get him started on the Steinway that his grandmother left him. It’s a beautiful instrument, and he still cannot get over the fact that it is his. He enjoys playing for the entertainment of others, but that is a distant secondary to the sheer joy of making music.
Alex is a Christian. He feels anxious in church when the pastor says, “If you really love something, or find a lot of joy in it, you need to consider that it is an idol.” Alex wonders if his piano hobby is an idol. Maybe he should join the worship team at church to justify his talent, but the fact is, he doesn’t really know much about playing from chord charts the way the band at church does. He’s willing to try. Maybe that would assuage the feeling that has been rising every time he hears the pastor speak on the subject.
And what is that feeling? It is anxiety. And where does it come from? That one word I promised to share above: Guilt.
What is Alex to do? Driven by this guilt he has only two choices. The first is give it up. He can sell his piano and give the money to the church. He could play in the praise band, but he runs the risk of enjoying that too. That’s just too risky. He’s better off having nothing to do with music at all.
This would be a tragedy. What about a second possibility? He could continue to play, but ratchet up his spiritual disciplines. For every hour he plays, he will read his Bible and pray. This will be hard, but hopefully he will become somewhat unhappy. If he becomes unhappy, then he can feel much better. Surely his lack of joy is proof that he doesn’t love anything more than God. He has made his life as hard as possible. Yes, he still plays, but he doesn’t really like it that much anymore, maybe he’ll give it up now anyway.
Obviously, the second solution is just as wrong as the first. God gave this command to the people who would build idols and then call them their god. They would offer sacrifices, even human sacrifices to these gods, and beg them for a good harvest or a fertile wife. It was spiritual adultery.
This is not what Alex was doing with his piano. He loves God and thanks him every day for his talent, his grandmother’s piano, and the joy of music. But still, the pastor said…
The pastor is wrong. I’ll tell you why in the next article, part 4.