BASICS OF CATHOLICISM: 16. THE FIRST COMMANDMENT OF GOD: I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD: YOU SHALL NOT HAVE STRANGE GODS BEFORE ME.
Sep 9, 2019
This installment begins a detailed look at the Ten Commandments with right attention to the full depth of each commandment, mindful that the love of God and of neighbor are the two greatest commandments within which the other commandments are contained.
The first commandment is “I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange gods before me.” This formulation summarizes the words of Exodus 20:2-5 that allude to God’s act of saving His people from Egypt and that prohibits the making of images (we will cover this question of images in the next installment). In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the explanation of the first commandment expresses what it is to love and serve God alone, giving examples of how such singular service of God is carried out and also how such singular service of God is undermined.
At the center of this commandment is the call to worship God who by His very nature is worthy of our worship. As our creator and source of life, our savior, and the true fulfillment of our lives, God is worthy of our worship expressed as adoration of Him, gratitude toward Him and for all His works, and in offering ourselves to Him without whom we can do nothing (and truly would not exist). In this way, to keep God “first” in our life is to live every moment in relationship with and reference to God, who is always present. Keeping God first therefore is not merely a matter of making God the first priority among many priorities as though other priorities are separated from Him, as no such separation exists. Accordingly, our keeping of this commandment as a way of love of God is in the practice of continually offering ourselves to Him, allowing His presence to be at the center of our every moment – that He would become all in all in every moment of life.
Earlier in this series, we briefly considered the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and charity. You may recall that these virtues are first and foremost God’s own gifts, placing within each of us the capacity to live in God by giving ourselves to Him, through believing He is true and in hoping in what He promises for eternity. When we doubt God, despair of Him (not trusting that He is with us or for us), presume upon Him (or upon our own ability), or live with indifference to him or even hatred, toward Him, we sin against God by undermining faith, hope, and charity. On the other hand, when we seek to be true to God in each moment through being prayerful, hope-filled, diligent, and of course, through seeking the true good of others, we grow in these virtues – and thus our union with Him grows.
Finally, it important to identify formal acts that are contrary to this commandment – that is, ways that one literally places other “gods” before the Lord our God. Such mentalities as atheism or superstition (including superstitious acts), the use of magic, and the giving of ourselves to idols (whether these be named “pagan” gods, or even the making an idol of another person, a hobby, money, a career, etc.) are all sins against the true worship of God and express infidelity to Him—as “created things” cannot give what God alone gives. Accordingly, true love of God surrenders ourselves to Him, seeing created things in right order in relationship to God and rejecting all that is false or in any way seeks power from sources or apparent entities that are not given of God Himself.
In the next installment, we will look more closely at the proper way to understand images and veneration of saints – especially in light of the first commandment.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2082 - 2141 gives specific treatment of the First Commandment – showing in detail each of the items briefly touched upon in this column.