The call to have no other gods but God is the first commandment because its breach is the cause of all sin. To give our hearts to anything or anyone created is to deny the pre-eminence of God. Once he has been dethroned in the human heart we lose our spiritual compass and become prone to drifting quickly from the course we are called to plot in life. The devotion we owe is entire: you shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. In this commitment we find purpose in life, and from it issues the second great commandment: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Those who truly love God will find the inspiration and the power to love others as they are called to do.
Anything which usurps the place of God in human devotion can legitimately be called idolatry. It doesn’t have to be as crass as a golden calf, and it is always going to be prevalent where contempt for God is strong. Idolatry has a powerful distorting effect on human character, for we tend to become like the things we worship. Scripture itself says we are changed by degrees into the likeness of Christ as we worship him and the same subtle process is at work in those who are devoted to other gods. In ancient Israel, God’s people were fatally prone to idolatry, an emotional restlessness which led them to seek quicker fixes than a life committed to Yahweh seemed to deliver. The judgment of God was that the people would consequently be powerless before their enemies. In a very practical way this meant they would be unable to protect their borders from the several superpowers who swept first one way and then another across the Middle East.
There are many forms of idolatry even in the sophisticated western world, things we trust in to deliver us the happiness and security we crave, but in ways which compromise our worship of God. Violence (or the threat of violence) is exalted in our stories as more effective and satisfying than patient negotiation. Sex is valued as an end in itself rather than the fulfilment of a lasting covenant. Wealth is celebrated as a worthy sign of success and tempts people to trust less in God than in their bank balance. Choice is thought an inviolable gift of freedom even though when enlarged it tends to paralyse people rather than liberate them. At the heart of each of these lies the greatest idolatry of all: we have enthroned the individual above all else. We are in thrall to individualism in our values and choices. I am the focal point of life. I make choices according to my wishes. No-one else has the right to challenge this.
The individual clearly has unique value. In Isaiah, God says to his people: do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. It is to the glory of God that he cares about each person sufficiently to have died for them alone. And the protection the individual has in law gives us security against abuse. We have however allowed these values to become a smokescreen behind which selfish behaviour flourishes. The very term individual suggests autonomy, a detachment from the community we were created to live in and the responsibilities we have towards it which must inevitably restrict our choices. This enthronement of the individual allows us to take a post-modern approach to truth itself, stripping it down to meaningless subjectivity. It’s my truth, so no-one can challenge it. The idea of public truth which is real and meaningful for all is being eroded; as Oasis titled one of their albums: ‘Don’t Believe the Truth’.
It is as if we have taken the first commandment – you shall have no other gods before me – and uttered it ourselves. There is a time for every believer to keep silence and let the uncreated God do the talking. The first commandment is one of them.