Sunday, November 08, 2015

ET3. We must not let any other thing take God's place in our life.

This is the third post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
We must not let any other thing take God's place in our life.

1. The first four or five of the Ten Commandments relate mostly to the first of the two love commands: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). [1] They give us specific examples of what it might mean to love God:
  • "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:3).
  • "You shall not make for yourself an idol" (Exod. 20:4).
  • "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God" (Exod. 20:7).
  • "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy." (Exod. 20:8).
  • And perhaps even, "Honor your father and your mother" (Exod. 20:12).
2. The first two commands relate directly to the fact that God is the Being of the universe, the all in all. He does not need the universe, but the universe could not exist without him. He is the central thing, the most important thing. Indeed, in a sense, he is the only important thing. The only reason anything else is significant is because it is significant to him. His existence is essential. The existence of everything else is derivative and contingent.

The worst sin of all is thus to consider something else more important than God or even as important as God. The command not to make idols also suggests that we must not mistake any part of the creation for him and that we should not mistake our attempts to picture him for who he literally is.

It is not that God is threatened by our misdirected worship. Indeed, we only show ourselves to be fools when we mistake something else for God. Scripture often uses the anthropomorphic image of God being angry or wrathful when we turn to other gods, but these are pictures meant to show us how serious and self-annihilating it is to do so. God does not literally throw tantrums, and any mistaking of this picture for God himself is to make yet another kind of image of him.

3. To say that nothing else is more important than God is to say that we must do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). This is the heart of all our deliberations and choices--which choice will honor God the most? We do not live for ourselves first. Indeed, part of honoring God is even to put others above our own interests (e.g., Phil. 2:3).

As human beings, we will always have competing interests tugging at our lives. Sometimes, our choice is between the bad and the good. At other times, the choice is between the good and the better. A life lived with God first is a life where all our choices are made with the desire to glorify God the most. "Nothing between my soul and the Savior," one hymn says.

We love God by worshiping him regularly, ascribing to him the praise of which he is worthy. We remember his greatness and his attributes. We remember that he is the only necessary thing. We thank him for what he has done. We thank him for his loving wisdom, even when he has not done what we thought that we preferred.

We keep him in mind every day as we go about our lives. We "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). God is not jealous of the time we spend doing good in the world or doing what is necessary for life. It is not that he demands all of our time exclusively, although we should set aside regular time for him exclusively each week, ideally every day.

4. We demonstrate our love for God by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Loving our neighbor never contradicts loving God in the same way that God's justice does not contradict his love. Loving our neighbor glorifies God and so is one of the chief ways God has designed for us to love him.

We demonstrate our love of God by treating ourselves with respect. When we do not show proper regard for ourselves as one of God's creations, we dishonor God. We should not think of ourselves more highly than we are in God's sight (Rom. 12:3), but we should not think of ourselves as less than we are in God's sight.

We demonstrate our love for God by being good stewards of his creation. This is my Father's world. I do not treat others or God's creation as trivial or junk. They are God's possessions and to be treated with honor.

5. We cannot fathom God. We will thus always have to fight confusing the pictures of God in our understanding for God himself. We know that God is love and we trust in his love, but we do not always know how each action or inaction on his part is love. We know that God acts with justice and we trust in his loving justice, but we do not always know how each action or inaction on his part is justice.

Our impulse is to think we know what he is doing, but we must always leave room for our limitation and our tendency to confuse the image of God, which is what an idol is, for God himself.

It is crucial that we recognize that even the picture of God in the Bible is a picture, an instance of God stooping to our weakness and the weaknesses of each individual author and audience. The Bible gives us an image of God in words, an image that we must not confuse with God as he is on his own terms. The Bible gives us God in terms we humans can understand and grasp. God himself is beyond understanding. The Bible must always be read to point toward God, not to be God. We must never confuse the image of God for God himself.

6. The commandment to remember the Sabbath both honored God by commemorating the day that he rested from creation and honored God by respect for ourselves and others. God created the world. The Jews honored him as creator by resting on Saturday, the seventh day (Exod. 20:11). [2] God brought Israel out of Egypt. Israel rested in honor of his release of them from slavery and gave their servants a day of rest (Deut. 5:15).

Yet the day was not primarily a day of worship in the Old Testament, although there is some evidence of convocation on the Sabbath (e.g., Isa. 1:13; 66:23). The priests, however, did their service on the Sabbath (e.g., Num. 28:8-10; Ezek. 46:3). The primary emphasis was on rest and the cessation of work. Nehemiah strongly opposed buying and selling on the Sabbath (Neh. 13:15-17), and a man is stoned in Numbers for gathering wood for a fire on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36).

The significance of sabbath is strongly recognized today. The human mind and body will function much better if it has regular rest than if a person tries to work unendingly. More work will actually be accomplished with regular rest. The idea of a day of rest and worship is thus not only honoring to God, it is beneficial for humanity.

Christians traditionally have combined these twin functions into the Lord's Day, Sunday. On Sundays, Christians remember that Jesus rose from the dead. Each Sunday is a little Easter, a small remembrance of the resurrection. Sunday can also become a sacrament, a means of God's grace. Not only do we meet together to worship and experience God's presence, but it is wise for us to rest as Israel did on its Sabbaths.

Taking a day to rest is not, however, a matter of law under the new covenant. It is a matter of grace. It is a matter of wisdom. But the apostle Paul frees Gentile believers from any obligation to keep the Jewish Sabbath. "Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths" (Col. 2:16). "Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds" (Rom. 14:5).

In the flow of revelation, the new covenant takes precedence over the old. Therefore, the Jewish Sabbath is not binding on Gentile Christians. It is a matter of conviction. So while it is wise to set aside a day of rest and it is foolish not to take time to rest, it is a matter of grace and not of law.

7. We must not let any other thing take God's place in our life. We must do everything we do in the name of the Lord Jesus, to the glory of God the Father. We must set aside time for God alone. Yet for most of our time, we will show our love for God through our love for others, our respect for ourselves, and our respect for God's creation.

Next Sunday: ET4. God calls us to respect authority in honor of his authority.

[1] Different faith traditions number the 10 commandments differently. The Jewish conception takes the verse, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" as the first of the Ten Words (Exod. 20:2). Then the command to covet is split into two parts: not to covet your neighbor's house is the ninth (Exod. 20:17), while the command not to covet your neighbor's wife and possessions is the tenth. The Catholic and Lutheran traditions combine the commandment not to have other gods before Yahweh with the command not to make idols. Then the commandment not to covet is divided out as in the Jewish tradition.

[2] Technically, they rested from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, in keeping with the pattern of days in Genesis 1--"and there was evening and there was morning, the first day" (Gen. 1:5).


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Wouldn't this view be deontological ethics, not virtue ethics, because we do what we do because God commands it?
The "fear of God" is the beginning of wisdom, which is a base to build wisdom upon or is "fear" just the beginning of understanding wisdom? In moral development, "fear" is an undeveloped stage of morality, which suggests that when one comes to more mature understanding of faith, God is understood as a symbol. Symbols represent personal values, IF self sacrifice is not viewed as virtuous.
Intellectual development grants the individual the understanding that it is a matter of choosing one's value, not "truth".

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I suppose in the scenario you posted, one better not move beyond or question a particular commitment of value (Tradition/Scripture). What one has been brought up to believe as a Christian is what one ought to continue to believe. Tradition is reconfirmed, which is confirmation bias, IMO.
In the scenario above, one begins with scripture/tradition (fear of God), understands human experience (human limitations), uses reason to asses them and makes a determination about personal values. Critiquing one's upbringing/assumptions is important to do for ego development.

Paul Tillman said...

Our 2016 Fall All-Church Spiritual Formation will be on the 10 Commandments. I'll just file this post for future reference. :)

Ken Schenck said...


Martin LaBar said...

"The worst sin of all is thus to consider something else more important than God or even as important as God." (Such as myself . . .)