By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
“I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before me”
Exodus 20: 1-5a
When I was in the first year of the Jesuit Novitiate, fresh from a life in the business world, I encountered a disturbing dynamic in myself. Every once in awhile, I would experience some negative feelings, stemming from what I was to discover was a lack of self-esteem. I brought this concern to one of the spiritual directors, an older Jesuit who was quite perceptive. He suggested I say a phrase whenever I encountered the disturbing feelings. The phrase was: “God loves me and nothing else matters.”
As I used the phrase, my self-identity changed from what other people thought of me and what possessions I used to have to an identity based on the love of God. You might say I was worshipping ‘strange gods’ before this conversion. I had confused identity with description.
The first of the Ten Commandments has us put our ultimate focus and identity on God, not on things. As it says in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (6:4-5).
It is so easy to forget the truth of God’s love as the foundation of who we are. There are so many other ‘attractions’ out there – material goods, ‘the good life,’ success, reputation, and so on. We have all encountered them.
This commandment embraces three values – Faith, Trust, and Commitment.
FAITH ‘in a power greater than ourselves,’ as Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, but even more explicit - faith in a God of love who cares for us and our spiritual welfare. Our responsibility is to nourish and protect this faith and to treat everything that is opposed to it as rubbish, as trash. This means being alert to the appearance of “strange gods” (or idols) in our life be they in the form of
Power ---- Prestige ---- Possessions
What “strange gods” have you encountered in your personal and professional life?
TRUST goes to the core of this commandment: trust that God is always at hand but especially when life is difficult for us because of personal or financial issues. Trust, too, that when we fail in our moral life and get caught up in a ‘strange god episode,’ God’s mercy is greater than our weakness. God’s strength can lift us out of whatever moral ‘hole’ we have fallen into.
COMMITMENT. “The first commandment summons (us) to believe in God, to hope in God And to love God above all else” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2134). We nurture this challenge in three ways: by prayer, by discipline, and by acts of integrity.
Prayer keeps us growing in our personal relationship with the Creator; it also expands our capacity for hope. Hope is an essential virtue, especially in troubled times, be they economic or political. Prayer is also the ‘seed’ of discernment, which faculty we need to recognize “strange gods” when they appear.
Second, Discipline is needed to say “No” to temptations to worship an ‘idol’ because some of these distractions can seem very appealing. Discipline involves knowing oneself and the kind of morally unhealthy desires one has.
Third, Acts of Integrity. Integrity consists in doing the right thing and for the right reasons, even at personal cost. The first commandment requires a commitment to this virtue, to keep one’s focus on God and on the values of the Bible. Integrity and moral courage go hand in hand.
(October 2009 Newsletter)