Putting God first

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

We all know what the commandment says: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) The text goes on to state in a straightforward manner: “You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (verses 4a and 5a) Unfortunately, the Israelites did just that. They built altars to pagan idols and worshipped them rather than the one true God.

In our time we obviously don’t bow down to Baal or any of the other false gods mentioned in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, idolatry (worshipping some aspect of creation instead of the Creator) is pervasive in our contemporary culture. Our society considers practically everything more important than matters of faith. And anything we put before God becomes, in essence, an idol. Think about how our culture idolizes celebrities of all kinds. We put rock stars and sports heroes on a pedestal. The fact that we call certain movie actors matinee idols is especially telling.

What about family, friends, possessions, careers and leisure activities? Are we guilty at times of prioritizing any of these at the expense of Sunday worship? Instead of going to Mass, some choose to stay in bed a little longer on Sunday or perhaps play a round of golf or go to the lake. But because God is, in the words of St. Anselm, “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” we should always give Him precedence in our lives, especially on Sundays. In other words, we should make sure we get to Mass, and then we can do some of the other things, as long as we “keep the Sabbath day holy.” God wants first place in our lives. If we will make Him a priority, He will in turn supply our needs: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

When we pray the spiritual communion prayer, we say to Jesus: “I love you above all things.” Not some things, but all things. If I say I love God more than anything, I need to prove it; I need to live it. Others are watching, and the last thing I want to do is turn someone away from God and the church because they see that I’m not living out my faith.

Years ago, I met a man who belonged to a well-known civic organization that has clubs in practically every large city in the country. This man was heavily involved in the club’s service activities; it was his life. I know this because he told me one time that the club was his religion. Admirable as his commitment to service was, he clearly had his priorities mixed up.

Some people put flag and country first. It’s right and proper to love our country, but we should never privilege country over God. I belong to a local civic club (a different one from the club referred to above). Our meetings open with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, in that order. But that wasn’t always the case. At one point, confusion arose among club members regarding how we should begin our meetings.

After some discussion, we finally resolved the issue by acknowledging that God is paramount. Prayer is always the first thing on our agenda. As is often the case, tradition helps us to get things right. As everyone knows, the phrase is “God and country,” not the other way around.

Daily scripture reading and prayer are other ways we can make the Lord preeminent in our lives. We offer up prayers of thanksgiving, praise, petition and intercession first thing in the morning, at various times during the day, including before meals and immediately before going to bed at night. Scripture study and prayer allow us to enter into intimate conversation with God. Do I sometimes forget one of my prayer times or fail to do the daily readings? Sure I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up my reading and prayer regimen altogether. The Christian life is a struggle in many ways, and one way this can manifest itself is in our study and prayer time.

If our modern society were to put things in their proper order, God, the source of all good things, would come first; others would be second, and we would place ourselves last. However, our culture usually gets that turned around. What we actually see is the self, the ego, first and foremost; and everything else far behind. Regrettably, the classic expression – looking out for number one – still holds sway. Advertising backs this up by encouraging consumers to pamper their ego, to “go for all the gusto.” So where does this leave God? It leaves Him out of the picture altogether.

How often do we put family, friends, sports and our own wishes before God? It’s difficult for me to reflect on this because I’ve been guilty of relegating God to second place or lower at various times in my life. But imagine what society would look like if we all gave God His rightful place. It would, in short, revolutionize our culture.

As in everything else in life, we have a choice. We must choose between the kingdom of God and the things this world has to offer. Choosing both is not an option because “no one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) As Christians, our desire should be to serve God first, always, and everywhere, because He is, was and always will be before all things. It’s His proper place.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 contains the schema, the fundamental statement of the Jewish faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Practicing Jews still recite this passage twice a day. Jesus expands on these words by showing us how to apply them to our lives: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)

Keeping the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” requires that we love God with all of our being and that we put our faith into practice by transforming our selfishness into selflessness. In short, we show our love for God by our love for others. When we give God first place in our lives, we put others before ourselves. That’s the correct order.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)