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Editors’ note: 

This is an excerpt from The Gospel Project’s study “God’s Way.”

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

Sounds simple enough, right? The Hebrew, often translated as “besides me” or “before me,” means “in my presence.” The point is that nothing else can qualify as god in your life. The true God is not only to be number one but the only one.

In our day, we don’t like narrow, exclusive options. We might think God is constraining and restricting our choices. But isn’t this how love is expressed? Imagine if I were to tell my wife, “Baby, you’re number one. No matter how many other wives I take, you’ll be my first.” That might make for compelling reality television, but that’s not going to be a good marriage. Love demands exclusivity. My wife doesn’t want to be number one; she wants to be the only one—not because she doesn’t love me but because she does.

So love and exclusivity aren’t at odds with each other. God’s demand for loyalty is God’s display of love.

First Place

Why is it appropriate for God to demand first place in our lives? Is it appropriate for us to demand this kind of allegiance from those around us? Why or why not?

Some of you may look at this first commandment and think, I can check this one off. I don’t call anything or anyone else “God” in my life. I don’t bow down to or worship anything or anyone else. I don’t pray to anything or anyone else. And I don’t have any little statues or shrines in my house. Let’s move on. But here’s where we need to explore more deeply the meaning of putting other things or people before God. And this is where we come to a key biblical concept—idolatry.

What is an idol? It is anything or anyone we put in the place of God in our lives. An idol is anything or anyone we consider so central, so fundamental, so essential to our life that we couldn’t imagine life without it, him, or her. An idol is anything or anyone we love more than God, trust more than God, or obey more than God.

Here are some diagnostic questions to discover what you worship:

  • What do you feel you need in order for life to be good?
  • What makes life worth living?
  • When you dream about the future, what do you dream about obtaining?
  • Where do you go for comfort?

Breaking the first commandment leads to breaking the others because idolatry is the gateway to all other sins. If you look deeply into the ways you disobey God, you’ll usually find idolatry at the root.

The areas in your life where you are breaking the commandments are like smoke from a fire. Don’t focus on the smoke. Follow the trail of smoke back to the fire and you will arrive at the altars of the idols you are worshiping.

Sin and disobedience can’t be fixed by changing behavior. We must go back to the attitude that leads to the action, the idolatrous heart that leads to the idolatrous action. Worshiping something or someone else other than God leads us into sin. Therefore, to truly escape the harmful effects of sinful behavior, we must go back to what we worship. And the first commandment is all about God being first.