Putting God first

Most Christians will tell you they love God more than anyone, even their own partners or children. They’ll tell you they put God first (even though other people surely require help and attention more than God does).

What does this actually mean? How can a person’s behavior demonstrate that he sees God as more important than anyone else? Gone are the days when God appeared directly to people, like he did to Abraham, and challenged their commitment to him by requesting they sacrifice a loved one. (And how many Christians would actually get ready to kill their children even if they did think God was asking them to do so?)

In lieu of such direct challenges, it becomes extremely difficult to see whether believers really love God more than anyone else.

Indeed, given that God supposedly speaks to his believers privately, it is hard to distinguish a person who puts God first from a person who puts himself first. If, say, a woman feels that her new boyfriend does not meet God’s approval, is God really telling her this, or is she just reaching this conclusion on her own and attributing it to God? If she breaks up with her boyfriend, does that mean she is putting God first, or is she just ending a relationship she feels is not consistent with her religious beliefs?

How about the distribution of resources? If Christians claim to love God more than anyone else, are they actually seen to devote more of their time and energy to God than anyone else? What does it even mean to devote time and energy to God? Presumably this might include spending time in prayer or in worship. But does anyone actually put prayer and worship ahead of the needs of their family and friends? Most churches only hold worship services once a week. And prayer, being essentially a stream of thought in one’s head, is not even something that warrants the postponing of other activities, because it’s much easier just to postpone the prayer.

And we could go deeper into this issue and ask whether loving God more than anyone else is even possible. How, indeed, do you develop a deeper relationship with a silent, invisible entity than you could with a real person? And how can you be sure that you’re not just having a relationship with yourself? Most of us  have quite a strong self-preservation instinct that sometimes trumps the needs of others.  It is not difficult to imagine someone putting themselves first while believing that they’re actually putting God first. After all, God is something that happens inside your own head.

Without answers to all these questions, I cannot help thinking there is considerable hubris involved in claiming that one loves God more than anyone. It’s a little like a young girl claiming that she loves Justin Bieber more than anyone else. She may be infatuated with the idea of Justin Bieber, and she may spend a lot of time listening to his music. But she doesn’t really know him, and doesn’t have a real relationship with him.

In the same way, it seems hard to see how Christians can have actual personal relationships with God (as I’ve argued before). God is silent and invisible – he is difficult to distinguish from a concept, as theologians like Karen Armstrong will readily admit. Believers are required to “converse” with God through nothing more than feelings, thoughts, signs, and the interpretation of scripture.  This hardly seems a solid basis for a real personal relationship, let alone one that is deeper than any other.

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