Are you by nature a competitive person? Some people are; they compete at everything and have to win at everything, even simply playing board games with family. Others are not so competitive; for any number of reasons they simply are not so driven to have to always come out on top. But the fact is we live in a very competitive world, don’t we?
Sporting events are all about competition. Sure, they also may emphasize good sportsmanship and teamwork and perseverance, but in the end teams, players, and coaches are competing to win. Whether it’s the World Cup, the Super Bowl, or the Olympic finals, teams and individuals compete until finally there is but one winner.
Maybe you’re not a sports fan but you enjoy watching other programs on television, such as Dancing with the Stars, the Voice, any of the various talent shows, or beauty pageants. The competition goes on as contestants are eliminated until there is only one winner.
Even if you are not a competitive person by nature, all of us have to compete at different times. Students compete for a limited number of slots at a university, then they compete for scholarships to pay for their education, and after school we compete for jobs. If you are one of 50 people applying for a job, you are competing against the other 49. Regardless of whether or not we like to compete, we all at various times must compete.
There is one competition we are all a part of. This competition is a little different because while this competition involves us, we also get to choose who wins. It’s up to us to decide who or what comes out on top. And we must be clear – only one can come out on top. There is not room for two or three. This is the competition for our hearts. Who or what will reign in our hearts?
Actually, all people from every generation have had to face this competition for their hearts, including the ancient Israelites. We see this in the first of the Ten Commandments. Last week I introduced the Ten Commandments and the main point I made was that the commandments are based in the grace of God. The commandments begin with the first two verses of Exodus 20: “And God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’”
God did not begin by giving the Israelites a list of commandments to obey which if and only if they obeyed would God be their God. No, first God acted graciously toward the Israelites. Before the Israelites did anything to earn God’s love or acceptance, God demonstrated His love for them by choosing the Israelites as His special possession and then rescuing them from their slavery in Egypt. Keeping the commandments was how the Israelites could show their gratitude to God for the grace and mercy He had already shown them.
The same is true for us. God has shown us His grace in accepting us and forgiving us through Christ apart from any good works by us. Obeying and following His directions is how we live in response to God’s grace.
There is another sense in which the Ten Commandments are evidence of the grace of God. The Israelites had just come out of 430 years in Egypt, many of which they spent as slaves. How were they now to live as a free people? For at this time, with their background they knew little of the true God or what He expected of them. They didn’t know how to live together as a free people striving to be a community. God didn’t want them controlled by things such as stealing, killing, lying, and trusting in false gods, all of which would be destructive for their life together. So God graciously gave them the Ten Commandments, a set of directions to guide them in wholesome living, especially as it related to their key relationships – their relationships with God, with themselves, and with others.
And that is true for us as well. How are we to live? What is the meaning of life? The purpose of life? Who is God? How are we to relate to God? How are we to relate to others? What values should guide us in the decisions we make and the life we live? What would a “life well-lived” look like? Sometimes life can be confusing.
But life does not have to be confusing, for in His Word God has graciously given us a set of directions, a guide for living. A central aspect of these directions are the Ten Commandments. They tell us about God and His rightful place in our lives, as well as how we are to live in relationship with others. They tell us not only how to live a life that is pleasing and honoring to God, but also how we can really thrive as individuals and as a community. When people abide by the commandments, life goes better for everyone. The commandments are evidence of God’s grace, for through them God has revealed to us life as it is meant to be lived.
That is a key point. The commandments are about how we live, not just what we know or believe. For instance, Ps. 119:1 states: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law (Torah) of the Lord.” The commandments are not just a list of religious principles to study, reflect on, or memorize. Rather they are dynamic in their nature. They are about life. Thus, you don’t just learn the law – although obviously that is the first step, but then you walk in it. In giving the commandments God was graciously pointing the way in which we should go, the path we should follow in order to live a full, meaningful, and authentic life. The Ten Commandments are a kind of map to direct our journey through life.
The foundation of this guide for living is the first commandment, in which we see the competition for our hearts. Here God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
First, a note of clarification. God said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When we hear that or read that, we can easily get the wrong impression, for when we hear that word “before” we tend to think of things in order of importance or priority. No one walks before the president or the queen; they follow behind for their position or status isn’t as important as that of the president or queen. And so some may conclude it’s okay to have other gods in our lives, as long as none are before God in terms of importance or the place we give them. Actually such a religious system would not be unusual for throughout history different cultures have had a hierarchy of gods, esteeming one god above others but they also honored those they considered lesser gods. But obviously God did not mean that He was simply to be first among others.
To correctly understand this commandment, we must first consider it in its historical context. At the time, when a nation would conquer another nation, it was common for them to take the gods and idols of the group they defeated and bring them into their own temple or place of worship. They would then place these gods before their own god – that is, in the presence of their god, and celebrate because their god(s) was stronger than the god of the people they conquered.
So the word “before” has the sense of being in the presence of, just as when someone is arrested for a crime they must go before the judge, meaning they stand in the presence of the judge. Thus, when God commanded the Israelites to have no other gods before Him, He was saying that they were not to bring any other gods into His presence. Since God abided with His people, there were to be no other gods in their midst or in their lives. For God is true, and they are false. God is holy, and they represent what is evil. So they were not to be in His presence. The Israelites were to have nothing to do with them.
Where is God’s presence today? It’s within us. I Cor. 3:6 states: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” So God’s message to us is, “I dwell in you. Don’t bring any other gods before me – that is, into my presence.” In other words, “Don’t have any other gods in your life – at all! Because I live in you, and I alone am God.” So this is not about the order of importance or priority, but rather exclusion – no other gods besides the true God.
Well as I said, this first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is really the foundation for the others. It’s not likely that we will be interested in following the other commandments God has given us if we don’t pay attention to this one, if we have not first surrendered our lives to God so that He is indeed our Lord. Allowing God to truly be God in our lives sets the stage for following the others.
This is probably the biggest challenge all of us face, isn’t it – keeping God first in our lives. So many other things try to usurp God of His rightful position in our lives, and at times it can be an intense competition. Just think of the competitors for our hearts: money, pleasure, sex, power, prestige, other people, recreation, entertainment, career, physical fitness, living only for ourselves and our goals and desires. Anything, including many good things, can end up becoming the god we serve if they define our attitudes and determine our behavior, if they are what we trust in and look to for meaning and fulfillment, if they become the most important thing in our lives, what the rest of our life revolves around.
It may be that we make a willful, deliberate decision to exalt one of these aspects of life to the place that only God truly has a right to. But more often it happens gradually, subtly, without us making a deliberate decision and maybe without us hardly being aware of it.
Preacher and author George Buttrick describes a time when he came upon a farmer who had just retrieved a lost sheep. He asked the farmer how it is that sheep wander and get lost. The farmer replied, “They just nibble themselves lost.” He explained that with their heads down, they just go along nibbling from one bit of green grass to another and then another without really paying attention to where they are going until finally they are lost. The sheep never decide to explore what’s on the other side of the mountain; they just nibble a bit here and there until finally they are lost.
That can easily happen to us, can’t it? We never intended to make money our god. It was never our plan that our career be the thing that defines us. We never made the conscious decision to live for pleasure. It was not our goal that our prestige be the most important thing in our life. But gradually over a period of time of not really paying attention as we nibbled a bit and then a bit more, almost unconsciously giving it a little bit more of our hearts, it became something that we had not planned on, for it became in fact the most important thing in our lives. And now it consumes our time, dominates our thoughts, drives our desires, and determines our behavior. In short, it governs our lives.
The problem, of course, is that all of these are nothing but false gods and thus they are not worthy of being at the center of our lives. We were not created for money or entertainment or our career. Yes, they have their place, but if we live with such things at the center of our lives, we are like a confused mother laying aside her baby and clinging to a rag doll instead. Imagine a mother paying more attention to a doll than to her baby! The idea of that is absurd, isn’t it! Yet often we do the same thing when something other than God rules our hearts. We trade the real thing for a cheap imitation that can’t deliver. Our values, our sense of what is ultimately true and meaningful has gone haywire.
For we were created by God and for God. When we elevate anything or anyone other than God to the supreme place in our hearts, not only do we overvalue those false gods but we also underestimate our own value. If we live as if we were made for money or having a beautiful body or worldly success or whatever, we devalue the meaning and worth of our lives, for we were made for so much more than that.
We were made to enjoy the richness of a deeply personal relationship with the God who loves us so much He not only created us but He died in our place on the cross. We were created so we can know His presence and experience His faithfulness in our lives daily, and so we can reflect His glory and be His representatives in the world as we make God and God alone Lord of our lives. Don’t underestimate the value of your life by living for anything less.
So when God said, “You shall have no other gods before me,” He was not just giving us a rule to follow. No, God was telling us that He alone is the true God, and so He alone is worthy of reigning in our hearts. And God was also affirming the value of our lives by saying we were not made for the things of this world but for something far more important. So included in that statement was the most profound thing we can imagine. For in saying, “You shall have no other gods before me,” God was also saying, “But you shall have me. I, the only true God, the Creator of the universe and the Giver of every good gift will come to you to live and reign in your heart.” How incredible!
This comes back to the grace of God in giving us the Ten Commandments. For in this first commandment, God was not only exhorting us to have no other gods in our lives. He was saying that of course, but He was also telling us that He wants to be actively involved in our lives, upholding us in His love and directing us toward a meaningful, satisfying life as we seek first God and His kingdom. Isn’t that amazing! No matter who we are, no matter our past, no matter how much we have ignored or disobeyed God, the Creator of the whole universe wants to be involved in our lives.
God was saying, “I, the only true God, am available to you. You can know me. You can find your sense of meaning and worth in Me and My love for you. Don’t settle for anything less.” God demands that He be first in our lives because of course, He alone is worthy of that distinction. But God also demands that because we will never be truly satisfied until He is first in our lives. And thus it is an invitation to experience His grace.
This commandment also speaks of God’s grace because of the hope it gives us for our lives. About 600 or 700 years after God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and long after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites were not serving God above all. And so through the prophet Jeremiah God said to the Israelites (Jer. 2:2), “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert.” For a brief period the Israelites were devoted to God. God was first in their lives and they enjoyed a love-filled relationship with God. But then they lost their love and devotion. Actually, they went back and forth a number of times.
So God went on to say in this passage (vs. 5), “What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” The Israelites forsook the living God who delivered them from their slavery and instead embraced the worthless idols of their neighbors and in the process became worthless themselves.
Imagine, exchanging the only true God – who in His wisdom and power brought the whole universe into existence, and in His love brought the nation of Israel into existence, delivered them from slavery, led them on their journey, and gave them the privilege of representing the true God to the surrounding nations – exchanging this great God for statues and idols made of wood and stone, bowing before fertility gods and goddesses. They participated in empty and often perverse rituals in celebration of these worthless idols. And as they gave themselves to these worthless idols, they became like them – perverted, misguided, filled with fear, trusting in what was false. Like these false gods they followed they became worthless, for now they could not fulfill God’s high purpose for them in living as a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, as those who represented the true God to those who did not know Him.
We always become like that which we follow. Whether it is the true God, false gods, the values of society, or a person we idolize, we always end up becoming like that which we follow. So as we make God first in our lives and follow Him wholeheartedly, we are given the real opportunity for character transformation. Over time we come to resemble more and more the character of Christ, for by His grace and power we will become like the One we follow.
Just think of that. Our temper that hurts others and embarrasses us can be overcome. Our self-centeredness that drives others away can be replaced with a genuine concern for others. We can gain control over our quick and sharp tongue. Resentment and bitterness no longer have to rule our hearts but can give way to forgiveness and acceptance. Habits that held us in their grip can be broken. It doesn’t happen all at once, but over time as we give God first place in our lives, by His grace we can be victorious over these negative qualities and take on the character of Christ. We will become like the One we follow, and thus we will be much happier and satisfied with who we are.
This commandment to keep God first in our hearts is a sign of God’s grace, for it protects us from what is false, from those things that may look like they’re real and can satisfy us but they are fake. They are worthless, and certainly not worthy of being at the center or our lives. They are like counterfeit money, looking authentic, but in the end worthless. If you try to buy something with counterfeit money, you won’t be able to for it has no value. So this commandment protects us from counterfeit gods that may look promising but ultimately they can’t provide us with anything. They can’t provide us with true joy, with the hope of personal transformation, with a satisfying sense of purpose, or with the assurance of eternity. Only God our Creator can provide us with these. Only He is worthy of being first in our hearts.
God knew that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land there would be a lot of competition for their hearts. They would be surrounded by people who worshiped all kinds of false gods. And so God gave them this command as a part of the roadmap for their journey. With it they could navigate their way through life safely. With it they could reach the goal of their journey – not only the Promised Land on the other side of the desert, not only heaven when they died, but also a life in this world that would match God’s design for them.
By keeping God first in their lives, by not giving space in their lives to any other gods they could know the true God and understand the meaning and purpose of their lives. They could experience the presence, love, and faithfulness of God. They could fulfill their calling of being a holy nation as they were transformed in character, and thus they could represent the true God to the rest of the world.
We, too, more than 3,000 years later and living in a drastically different culture face a lot of competition for our hearts. We struggle with the pulling and tugging at our hearts everyday from things that would rule our hearts. But only One is worthy of reigning in our hearts. That is the One who created us, who died for us, and who is with us now to help us become all He designed us to be. Only when God is first in our lives can we honor God and live up to our full potential. Only when we seek first God and His kingdom, which means His rule in our hearts, can we experience the fullness of life God alone can offer us. So let’s be sure that God and God alone reigns in our hearts.