I gave a talk in church on Sunday on the first commandment. I wrote it in its entirety in a couple of hours on Saturday when I was sick and had some unpleasant things going on. It was very unlike my usual talk-writing process, and was really a gift. So for anyone interested (and for my own records), here it is.
I was asked to speak today on the first of the Ten Commandments, which says, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” If I am not mistaken, someone spoke on this topic recently in Sacrament meeting, which is humbling both because I don’t want to bore you all, but more importantly because the frequency indicates the importance of the topic. And to the brother who gave the talk, I’m sorry I don’t remember who you are, but with three boys doing their best to ensure that I’m not paying attention, I call the fact that I remember anything at all a win.
Throughout the scriptures, the Lord has elaborated upon what it means to place no gods before Him. In the commandment immediately following this one, He says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.”
In his October General Conference talk, Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained these commandments this way: “More than merely forbidding physical idols, this states a fundamental priority for all time… The meaning of jealous is revealing. Its Hebrew origin means “possessing sensitive and deep feelings”. Thus we offend God when we “serve” other gods—when we have other first priorities.”
The Old Testament Student Manual says this about God’s proclaimed jealousy as to our priorities:
"At first some may think that this demand for exclusive worship and devotion by God for Himself sounds selfish. But two things should be remembered. First, as Lord and Creator of all the universe, and as one who has all power, knowledge, and glory, God does not need man’s adoration and worship to add to His state of being. So, His jealousy is not a protective concern for His own status.
"The second thing to remember is that the Lord taught Moses that God’s work is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”. Anytime His children set anything before God in importance, they begin to thwart His work for them. He is the only source of power and knowledge sufficient to save. To set anything above Him lessens their ability to draw on that power and knowledge for their salvation. That is why He says to His children, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.
"One Bible scholar put it this way: “This commandment prohibits every species of mental idolatry, and all inordinate attachment to earthly and sensible things [things which appeal to the senses]. … God is the fountain of happiness, and no intelligent creature can be happy but through him. … The very first commandment of the whole series is divinely calculated to prevent man’s misery and promote his happiness, by taking him off from all false dependence, and leading him to God himself, the fountain of all good.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:402–3.)"
King Benjamin’s teachings in the Book of Mormon add to our understanding that God asks for our loyalty and obedience for our benefit rather than his: “I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another— I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.
“And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.
“ And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.
“And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?”
In short, the things that God demands of us benefit him only in that His work is furthered because His work is blessing and saving us. Seeing as tax season is upon us, I’ll put it this way: Act for act, we will never give Him a net gain on His loving investment in us. But as we put Him first in our lives, we will feel His love and concern for us and come to know Him, the only true God, which Christ said “is life eternal.” (John 17:3)
In the New Testament when Christ himself was asked about the great commandment in the law, “Jesus said…, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”
Putting God first in our lives isn’t about blind obedience or demanding rules; it is about loving God, “because He first loved us.” It is about allowing that love to penetrate everything that we do so that through our faith and diligence “all things shall come together for [our] good.” (D&C 90:24)
In his April 1988 General Conference address, President Ezra Taft Benson expounded on how we are to do this: “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is all-consuming and all-encompassing. It is no lukewarm endeavor. It is total commitment of our very being—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—to a love of the Lord.
“The breadth, depth, and height of this love of God extend into every facet of one’s life. Our desires, be they spiritual or temporal, should be rooted in a love of the Lord. Our thoughts and affections should be centered on the Lord. “Let all thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord,” said Alma, “yea, let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever” (Alma 37:36).
“Why did God put the first commandment first? Because He knew that if we truly loved Him we would want to keep all of His other commandments. “For this is the love of God,” says John, “that we keep his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:3; see also 2 Jn. 1:6).
“We must put God in the forefront of everything else in our lives. He must come first, just as He declares in the first of His Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).
“When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities.
“We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives.”
This can be a hard task in our day and age, when society at large seems bent on either disregarding God and mocking all those who would follow His commandments, or defining God in ways that please themselves and others. Some grasp at principles they like, such as freedom and love, to the exclusion of other truths which would govern and bring meaning to them, such as obedience and chastity.
As the Lord himself said in His introduction to the Doctrine and covenants, “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own God, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.”
So when we seek to define God according to our own design, or to fit Him into what our society or culture sees as “politically correct” instead of seeking to know and follow Him, we are creating our own image to worship instead of putting Him first.
In a 1978 address at BYU, Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke prophetically of this problem and how we must confront it: “Your discipleship may see the time come when religious convictions are heavily discounted… This new irreligious imperialism seeks to disallow certain of people’s opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions. Resistance to abortion will soon be seen as primitive. Concern over the institution of the family will be viewed as untrendy and unenlightened.”
He continued, “It may well be, as our time comes to ‘suffer shame for his name’ (Acts 5:41), that some of this special stress will grow out of that portion of discipleship which involves citizenship. Remember that, as Nephi and Jacob said, we must learn to endure ‘the crosses of the world’ (2 Nephi 9:18) and yet to despise ‘the shame of [it]’ (Jacob 1:8). To go on clinging to the iron rod in spite of the mockery and scorn that flow at us from the multitudes in that great and spacious building seen by Father Lehi, which is the ‘pride of the world,’ is to disregard the shame of the world.”
38 years later, Elder Oaks echoed the same sentiments and confirmed Elder Maxwell’s foresight, which all of us have seen play out around us. He said, “Our twelfth article of faith states our belief in being subject to civil authority and “in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” But man’s laws cannot make moral what God has declared immoral. Commitment to our highest priority—to love and serve God—requires that we look to His law for our standard of behavior. For example, we remain under divine command not to commit adultery or fornication even when those acts are no longer crimes under the laws of the states or countries where we reside. Similarly, laws legalizing so-called “same-sex marriage” do not change God’s law of marriage or His commandments and our standards concerning it. We remain under covenant to love God and keep His commandments and to refrain from serving other gods and priorities—even those becoming popular in our particular time and place.
“In this determination we may be misunderstood, and we may incur accusations of bigotry, suffer discrimination, or have to withstand invasions of our free exercise of religion. If so, I think we should remember our first priority—to serve God—and, like our pioneer predecessors, push our personal handcarts forward with the same fortitude they exhibited.”
As we stand up for what we believe, whether it be in public discourse or in simply living Godly principles, we will inevitably be called out as a strange and peculiar people, and many will seek to tear down our faith. But putting God first means trusting that His way will guide us to live “after the manner of happiness,” as Nephi called it. At some point this will require hard things from each of us. It will require us to change our habits and attitudes and to humble ourselves or to be humbled. It will require us to withstand derision as we cling to unpopular principles. It will require us to endure physical, mental, or emotional pain for ourselves or loved ones in faith. It will change the way we view ourselves, our families, our activities, and our affiliations. It will cause us to reevaluate our treatment of sacred things such as our homes, church and temple attendance and participation, and the Sabbath day. It will call us to take on responsibilities of varying shapes and sizes and to sustain others in their responsibilities even when we may have differing opinions. It will require our loyalty to God’s servants, who, as imperfect men, are nevertheless called to carry out divine purposes. Elder Maxwell called this one “a hard doctrine, but … a particularly vital doctrine in a society which is becoming more wicked,” because, as he continued, “not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ includes not being ashamed of the prophets of Jesus Christ.”
This isn’t to say that we can’t ask honest questions; they are an essential part of building faith. It does require that we ask those questions “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ,” and a “desire to believe.” Then the Spirit can teach without acrimony the hard truths we sometimes struggle to discern. If, on the other hand, our desire is to fit in with what the world deems acceptable and we disregard his commandments, we run the risk of becoming “past feeling” as Nephi said.
Putting God first also does not require that we shun outsiders or put down others’ opinions. We can praise all that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy in society, but we must also stand true to God when asked to take the false with the true. The key is discernment through the Holy Ghost, which we can only access through our personal worthiness and by keeping the covenant to “Always remember [Jesus Christ].”
This week I read the book Unbroken, which is the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was in a plane crash in World War II, survived on a raft drifting across the Pacific for 47 days only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to labor, starvation, and dehumanizing abuse, especially by one particular captor known as “The Bird.” When he finally returned home, he suffered from flashbacks and his dreams were haunted by The Bird. He turned to drinking, and resolved in his mind that the only way to free himself would be to exact revenge by returning to Japan and killing The Bird himself. His life spiraled out of control, and he was “past feeling” in many ways. Finally, his wife convinced him to go to two Billy Graham sermons. In the first he couldn’t bear to stay because he felt so attacked and confronted by the calls for repentance and forgiveness. In the second he was about to storm out again when a flashback of another kind came upon him; he remembered the times that he prayed on the raft, saying that if God would just spare his life that he would serve God forever. He seemed to feel rain on his head as he stood there in the sermon. Twice such prayers on the raft had led to life-sustaining rain, and other times they had been able to catch food. He remembered the peaceful beauty that he had seen and felt as they passed through the doldrums, and the confirmation that those things were granted him as gifts from God to sustain him. Suddenly the fear and hate left him and he was filled with love for and from God. From that moment he was able to make the changes he so desperately needed in his life, to let go of his bitterness and to forgive. His nightmares ceased. He spent the rest of his life sharing his message and helping troubled kids to change their lives. By letting go of his god of revenge, he was able to put the God of love first and to be healed.
On a more personal note, I am often reminded that my priorities need adjusting if God is to be first in my life. Just this week I read a couple of articles that friends had posted online questioning certain opinions and practices taught by the Brethren. I thought about how subtly truths can be twisted and construed, “to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.” (Mark 13:22) And then I had a somewhat chastising thought: How much time do I spend studying the scriptures and the words of the prophets compared to the time I spend reading things online and elsewhere? How much of my study is spent finding out what the world thinks, and how much spent finding out what my Father thinks? How much of my daily effort is spent coming to know and love Him? Suddenly it became clear to me how easily I could confuse my priorities and lose the spiritual discernment needed to wade through all of the half-truths that society teaches.
Another example comes up frequently in my current stage of life. Going out and about with three energetic boys seems to elicit the same comment from almost everyone I see: “You have your hands full!” My answer is generally, “Yes, I do!” which I try to follow with some expression of how blessed I am to have to have full hands. Depending on my boys’ behavior, this can be easier to do some times than others. Often amid seemingly innocuous comments I get the sense that my having three kids isn’t necessarily a good thing, and the fact that I might want more seems completely preposterous to many. Sometimes I have felt self-conscious about wanting a big family and staying home with my kids, or that we won’t be sending our kids to the best schools and extracurricular activities. In high school when I said that I want to stay home with my children, more than one teacher made comments akin to, “What a waste!” As I heard one comedian say, “Big families are like waterbed stores; they used to be everywhere, but now they are just weird.” But when I seek out the Spirit I am reminded that by following God’s commandments to have children and to put my family first, I am investing myself and my time in the things that are
eternally important and that will, in the end, bring the most happiness to myself and others as I serve God instead of the opinions and ways of the world.
In his April 1996 Conference talk, Russell M. Nelson likened putting God first to a military drill: an officer would call out, attention! Right face! Left face! Or About face! And all those in the drill would act instantly. In testing our allegiance to the commandment to put God first, Elder Nelson suggested that we ask ourselves, “Which way do I face?” In 3 Nephi, when the voice of God came to the surviving Nephites and Lamanites introducing His son, at first the people didn’t understand the voice. They “cast their eyes round about,” presumably to the people around them, trying to figure out what the voice was and where it came from. Finally, the third time, “they did hear the voice, and did open their ears to hear it; and their eyes were towards the sound thereof; and they did look steadfastly towards heaven, from whence the sound came. And behold, the third time they did understand the voice which they heard.”
I would invite each of us to evaluate where we are facing and whether we are enabling ourselves to hear and receive the loving counsel of our Heavenly Father. I testify that as we seek Him first and follow His commandments in all things that we will be blessed and prospered in all things, and come to know His love, which can fill our lives and make us whole. In doing so, we “may become the sons [and daughters] of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.” (Moroni 7:48)