‘The Lord Your God is the Only God’(Deut.6:4)

by Ben Pugh.

I have just started writing a little devotional book about the attributes of God, and meditating on who he is has already, I think, opened my eyes to some things that were opaque before.

One observation is about idolatry. I am hardly the first to point this out, but, if there is a god that we worship in wealthy Western countries more than any other, it is greed. We don’t call it that, of course. We reify it as ‘the Economy’: this huge thing that must be continually placated, and onto whose altars we must sacrifice the poor and the natural world. The effect of this is plain to see. Like all the false gods of the Hebrew Bible, this idolatry blinds us to the obvious.

Take some of the most recent big issues: social justice, for instance. Being fair to each other is basic. Why haven’t we learned that yet? The answer, to some degree at least, is that we did once know about fairness. When we all lived in close-knit communities, fairness to one another was axiomatic. Things were far from perfect but a basic level of decency towards one another did not need to be codified in legislation or inspected against a set of criteria by someone holding a clipboard. In a community where everyone knows everyone, if you are not a fair-dealing person, the community will deal with you accordingly. And good behaviour towards one another was confirmed Sunday by Sunday by the messages heard from the pulpit. But then came the massification of culture and the massification of greed along with it. We forgot how to be fair.

Or, take the environment. When we relied on nature, with all its awesome unpredictability, we knew we had to work with it. We had no choice. We felt keenly the fact that we are part of nature. If we wanted to feed our family, we had to treat it well. Then, we bowed down to profit and forgot that all the things we make and sell are the products of nature’s bounty. So here, too, we are faced with the humiliating reality of having to learn all over again something that used to be obvious. What we were talking about at Glasgow is truly complex but, on another level, it is ridiculously basic, a mere starting point for living on planet earth. Our idolatry has dealt us a dose of collective amnesia. Our greed has made us forget how to look after the earth.

The biblical writers were ever conscious of how the allure of other gods could make Israel forget, so they never tired of restating this one simple truth: God is the only God. God’s singular entitlement to our devotion is undergirded by his self-existence, expressed programmatically in the all-important ‘I AM’ moment of Exodus 3:14. He will always be what he will always be: underived, the first cause, himself uncaused; entirely independent in thought, will and action.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that this moment of revelation to Moses kicks off a story within the story of the whole Hebrew Bible. From this moment, the underlying story it tells, and the theme it constantly returns to is, ‘Will the people of God worship the God-who-is or will they go after gods-who-are-not?’ The exodus story is a story of triumph over the gods of Egypt, not the people of Egypt, or even Pharaoh necessarily. The Ten Commands begin with: ‘you shall have no other gods before me’(Ex.20:3). The story of the wilderness wanderings is a story of faithfulness to God and the covenant He had just inaugurated through Moses, versus the allure of other loyalties tugging at the people’s hearts. The conquest and settlement of Canaan is a story about a generation that had no memory of the great wonders that the God of Israel had performed, and which now faced the shock of a sedentary existence in which the skills of agriculture must be learned. They noted that the natives worshipped Baal to make the land fertile, so they did the same. The story of the monarchy is a story of monarchs who did what was right in the sight of the Lord by honouring and obeying him and monarchs who went after other gods and led Israel in the same idolatry. The prophets are all aghast at how completely their own people had bowed down to useless gods of wood and stone. In the New Testament too, the spectre of idolatry has not gone away. John warns against it (1John 5:21); Paul warns against it (1Cor.10:14), and the main argument of Romans begins with the assertion that humanity’s primary problem is the fact that we have worshipped the creature rather than the Creator (Rom.1:18-23).

Are we following the God who really is God, or are we walking in the ways of gods that can be seen – and even controlled? There is no neutral, worship-free ground where we can stand. From the divine viewpoint, we were created to worship, and we are, therefore, all engaged in it. The starting point for remedying greed and every other idol is the same as it was for Israel. It is to give honour to the God who is God: ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ (Deut.6:4). Will we be part of humanity’s ancient worship disorder, or will we be part of the answer?

17 thoughts on “‘The Lord Your God is the Only God’(Deut.6:4)”

  1. I once asked a Methodist Local Preacher, who was also a lecturer in Economics, why ‘Growth’ was desirable. I said that in a finite world it was obvious that if one part experienced growth, another part must correspondingly shrink. As Christians, or as anyone concerned about social justice, how could ‘growth’ make sense?

    He dismissed my question as naive.

    I remain naive, and his attempt to explain did nothing to cure me.
    It can not be morally right that e.g. rich people, whether individuals or societies, can lend to the poor and require interest, thus unbalancing social justice even further. (Leaving aside how we became rich in the first place.)

    But how do we who have houses and a bank balance live with ourselves in a society built on the shifting sands of the god money?

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    1. 1,000 years ago, only a third of a billion people lived on Earth; average life expectancy was not much more than 30 years; infant mortality was very high and 46% didn’t make it to adulthood. A great many lived at the margins of subsistence. Because of growth, through the creation of greater resources from better understanding of agriculture and industry, and from substantial progress in health care etc, the world now sustains 7.5 billion; death in childhood has reduced to 4.6% and average life expectancy has risen to 72.6. It will take more growth to improve the situation further.
      If the Lever family and the Cadbury family had shared out their money evenly across their respective local communities rather than providing employment, housing, education and community facilities for their workers, what do you think would have happened?
      Yes, there are still unacceptable discrepancies in standards of living, which need to be addressed urgently. The best way of dealing with the issues that cause migrant problems, for example, is by increasing overseas aid, so that people don’t need to leave their home countries; not by breaking a manifesto promise and reducing such aid.

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  2. This is Christianity! Protest at the injustice and unfairness overwhelming us. There was a time when government was service to people rather than maintaining profit margins. Yes, I am angry and “woke”. But surely this is better than being placid and apathetic!

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    1. I’m afraid the woke folk lost all credibility for me when they started glueing their faces to the M25!
      ‘Placid and apathetic’ is not the only alternative to angry and woke. They are just two extremes. Most of us are somewhere in between.

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  3. The three temptations that Jesus resisted were to have his physical needs met, to achieve fame through a spectacular display and to obtain power. It seems in our society that people’s dreams are to win the lottery, to become a celebrity, or to be in a role where one can tell others what to do. This stems from a media and social media culture which encourages dissatisfaction unless we are seen to be ‘a success’. It leads many to feel a failure, and even to question whether life is worth living. There are many exceptions to this, of course, and I write on a day when Kevin Sinfield has run 101 miles in 24 hours to raise funds for research into MND from which his friend is suffering.

    Churches are far from immune from self-centredness. Some popular preachers in the USA suggest that, if you are generous to God, he’ll be generous to you. Your business will flourish, or you’ll get a better job, or you’ll be healthier. A more subtle form of bargaining with God is found in the style of Christianity which focuses primarily on how we get to Heaven – the benefits of being a Christian, the rewards that faithfulness to the right beliefs will bring. In all my years of listening to evangelists, I’ve yet to hear one mention the costs of discipleship. It’s always been what you will personally gain, if you become a Christian. They offer retirement benefits which are out of this world!

    It is suggested by some that God created us to worship him. Well, I don’t think that God wanted to be surrounded by sycophants, always singing his praises and pandering to his egotism. If so, he’d surely have populated it with angels and not free-spirited humans. Adoration and thankfulness are a natural response to experience of God’s love but we also need to a broader understanding of worship. Isaiah, Amos and Micah all told us that a relationship with God is best expressed not through religious ritual but through acting justly and looking after those in need. In modern times Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this as: ‘God wants us to honour God on earth; …in our fellow man and woman.’ For him prayer had to be connected to concrete action for justice. Jesus himself praised the Samaritan, who involved himself in the sometimes messy, uncomfortable and costly business of caring for others rather than the priest and the Levite who wanted to keep themselves pure for their service in the temple

    If we take note of this and if we take seriously the ‘anything you did for one of my brothers you did for me’ of Matthew 25.35-45, God may be much closer than we sometimes realize. It seems He is more likely to appear to us as someone suffering or lonely or in need than during a meditation on what happened 2,000 years ago. This is not a comfortable thought. It is more difficult to love some of the people we encounter than to worship God at a safe distance. If God is so close to us, we need to adjust our focus from first century events more towards God’s action in the world today. This presents a challenge to our understanding of worship, and indeed to our understanding of God. However, it is as we respond to God’s presence in those oppressed, distressed or perplexed, when we focus more on being spent than on being saved, that we transcend our concern for personal salvation, make ‘Thy kingdom come’ a practical prayer for the here and now, and teach God’s love in the most effective way – through our own lives.

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  4. Thank you, Ben Pugh, for this article. It is so refreshing to hear someone unashamedly defend the faith.
    I think people sometimes forget that Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. His God was the God of the Old Testament. Jesus told his disciples ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind …’ (Matthew 22:37)
    That sounds like the ultimate kind of love to me. It sounds like the supreme gold standard of love. It sounds like total devotion, adoration and worship.

    ‘Saviour, if of Zion’s city,
    I, through grace, a member am,
    Let the world deride or pity,
    I will glory in Thy name.
    Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
    All his boasted pomp and show;
    Solid joys and lasting treasure,
    None but Zion’s children know.’
    (H&P 817)

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  5. Sorry – my previous post was a quotation from a lecture by Helmut Thielicke called ‘World Picture and World View’ which seemed relevant to what Ben said about idolatry. Thielicke says the church must call attention to the tremendous danger of having a world view without God. “Wherever God the Creator is dethroned as the absolute and sovereign Lord of the world and our life, there the gods replace him. Wherever false gods are enthroned, there is always a struggle of the gods among themselves; the result is a battle of the world views and the threat of chaos.”

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  6. “God” carries all kinds of connotations for many people of an all-powerful being enthroned above the sky in a kind of cosmic control room, who intervenes rather arbitrarily in human affairs. The rapidly growing number who haven’t grown up within the church cannot understand how church doctrines relate to their everyday lives and find much of church language about blood sacrifices and penal substitution so esoteric as to be meaningless for them. On the other hand, people do understand love, hope, joy, peace and creativity, particularly where they see them being practised. They can appreciate what liberates them from a pre-occupation with their personal affairs, from a pursuit of pleasure and from the cancer of consumerism, and raises them to a level where they gain self-fulfilment from contributing to the well-being of others. These surely are the foundations which we have to strengthen and on which we have to build, if we are to encourage their engagement with spiritual development.

    Some 35 years ago the then Bishop of London was threatening to split the Anglican Church if women vicars were ever appointed – which he declared to be against biblical teaching. While the berobed bishops were debating this theological issue at great length and generating a lot of heat over it, a scruffy, foul-mouthed pop star, Bob Geldof, got very passionate about the suffering caused by the Ethiopian famine. “If you care, why are you waiting while children die? Give us your mucky money now.” (Except he didn’t say “mucky”). The tremendous response this received showed that underneath the prevailing self-centredness that was infecting the society of the day (including the church with its emphasis on personal salvation) there was a largely untapped spirituality that was ready to respond to the right stimulus. How do we today get through to those disaffected with, or disregarding of, religion, capture their attention and motivate them? Surely, not by just doing what we are already doing, or even by doing the same things more energetically! We need to give them a new vision of what life is about. How we do that seems to me to be a prime challenge for Christianity. Until we can get people to engage with spirituality, the specifics of Christianity will just pass them by.

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  7. Ben, Pavel, James. Wanted to say that I was deeply moved by your contributions. I often feel discouraged by the “traditional message” I receive most Sundays, but here are words that bring meaning that relates to real life! I particularly identified with James’ statement: “Underneath the prevailing self-centredness that was infecting the society of the day (including the church with its emphasis on personal salvation) there was a largely untapped spirituality that was ready to respond to the right stimulus”. Could it be that Christ has moved out of the churches and it is beholden on we who consider ourselves to be Christians to disengage with the “tradition”, deconstruct the holiness of Bible, creed, dogma and salvationism, and go for a secular engagement with the ethical spirituality in society as it is? Thanks again for your comments.

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    1. Yes, I think it would be kinder to disengage with those things that you obviously do not believe in and have no respect for, instead of trying to kick them into submission and oblivion. Leave the faith to the faithful.
      Good luck with your ‘secular’ church!

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    2. Robert,
      There is a vast array of people in the world and even within any one community – different personalities, skills, cultures and experiences. God has a way of reaching each one and God’s self-revelation is suited to individuals. For some the way to faith is through a struggle to reason things out. Being convinced intellectually is the starting point from which they can develop spiritually. For some others, like Paul, it is a dramatic encounter that changes a life in a moment, while for the many, like Cleopas and his companion, its full meaning is revealed gradually over the length of a spiritual journey. For a number, like the writer of the Gospel of Peter, the resurrection is a mystical moment. For many more it is an intensely personal encounter, perhaps viewed, as with Mary Magdalene, through the tears of despair.

      Whichever way we come to this truth, it needs to become part of who we are. It’s not our intellectual agreement with religious propositions but our heartfelt commitment and spiritual experiences that cause us to live a life of faith. Spiritual truth isn’t a list of statements about God but the knowledge of his love and creative power that you feel from the very centre of your being. It is a supra-rational truth, which loses much of its power, if we try to define it too closely or constrain it within doctrinal statements. We have to appreciate that individuals’ spiritual needs are different, and to encourage and support others where they are on their personal faith journeys. For some, traditional doctrines are very helpful in providing secure guidelines for their spiritual development, while others find such doctrines constraining as their relationship with God grows. For the great majority in the UK, religious traditions are very helpful at times of crisis in their lives, but not part of their everyday lives. Their approach to spirituality might be much more practical. We need to respect where others are in their faith and tread lightly on matters that are deeply important to others. After all, the quality of our faith is judged not by what we believe but by the kind of people we are, by our fruits.

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  8. Unfortunately my life experiences include the awful effects of harmful, unethical judgmentalism in the church. The kind of person I am, and my faith, are such that I cannot stand by and see this sort of Christianity as an equally valid spiritual journey.

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  9. I can respect your beliefs, experience and opinions, Robert, even though I don’t share them.
    But as a devout and committed traditionalist Christian, I take it I’m excluded from your ‘inclusive’ church then?

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  10. Robert,
    I’m sorry that you have both been hurt by people within the church and have witnessed other people being hurt. Unfortunately, some people think it is o.k. to trample with hobnailed boots over the sensitivities of those with different beliefs because they are so sure that they have all the answers, when in fact they’ve yet to discover half the questions. Not fitting the traditional mould, I’ve suffered a lot of negative comments, including a minister who told me that it would be wrong for anyone in the church to show me any respect, because I didn’t believe what he told me I had to believe in order to be acceptable.

    The problem with anger is that it can be like a red mist that blinds you to the full picture, and leads you to tar all those who share a set of beliefs with the same brush. Alongside the people who have said hurtful things to me have been conservative evangelicals with very traditional beliefs who have been very supportive and very generous to me and to others. You should view * Pope Francis consoles a boy who asked if his non-believing father is in Heaven – YouTube * to see that far from everybody with traditional beliefs is condemnatory.

    You might find it helpful to read a summary of The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, by authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich such as
    * Stages of Faith: A Map for the Spiritual Journey – TheoCenTriC (wordpress.com) *
    This may help you to see whereabouts you might be in your own faith and where most of those you have difficulty with are in their faith.

    You might find The Post-Evangelical an interesting read or the following blog might help. It’s comes from an American setting but some of it applies in the UK:
    * Post-evangelicals and the Episcopal Church – Covenant (livingchurch.org) *

    I hope that something in this might help you.

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  11. Pavel. I wonder if some of the confusion arises from the difference between faith and belief. For me faith is the spirituality or motivation that every human being needs to maintain a positive mental attitude to life. The mystery is that in treating other human beings with the care and respect they deserve (with responsive love) we actually find this motivation, and realise it is freely given by “the creative force and the source of all life in the universe”, God. I find this amazing! Faith arises from the amazing gift of unconditional love we receive from God and give to others. It is inclusive and non-judgmental, and manifested as we work for justice and fairness.
    So faith is ethical.
    Religious beliefs on the other hand may or may not be ethical and, as I have written, they can be harmful with the exclusiveness and judgmentalism we invariable identify in abusive relationships.
    This seems so simple to me! This ethical spirituality that I call faith gives me, a measure of the usefulness of religious ideas. If they are lead to an exclusive and loveless judgmentalism I challenge them, if only by walking away. Docile acceptance is not an option.
    Thank you for your kind words. I am encouraged to hear that Pope Francis consoled the boy. Wonder if Ratsinger would have done the same? I will read the living church information. If you are interested J T Eberhard posted 40 harmful effects of Christianity on the Patheos site. I have gone through them and decided that if the protagonists had bothered to reflect on the love shown by Jesus the list would not even exist!

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