After repeating His commands to honour father and mother and to keep the Sabbath, God repeats the First Commandment, “Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:4). Once more, Luther’s commentary on the First Commandment in the Large Catechism is quite helpful. To understand this chiefest of all commandments, we first need to understand that everyone has a god. Yes, even atheists, which is why there’s no such thing as an atheist.
What is a god? “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distresses. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart” (LC Part 1, 2). Or to use his words from the Small Catechism, a god is whatever you fear, love, and trust above all things.
Since “Mammon,” or money, is “the most common idol on earth” (paras. 6-7), Luther uses this as the paradigm of idolatry, or what it means to have a god. A rich person often “thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions” (para. 5). A wealthy person often (not always) loves money; he trusts in it as his only source of good, comfort, and security; and he fears losing it, so he will often do whatever it takes to retain his wealth, and if he is about to lose it, he becomes morose.
But even the poor can have Mammon as their god. “On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack Mammon” (paras. 8-9). This does not mean that every poor person who endeavours to better their life and the lives of their children worships money. But there are some who love money and trust it to be their ultimate source of good, comfort, and security if they can only have enough—that it will make all their problems go away. And because they fear never having enough, they seek after it rather than the kingdom of God (see Matthew 6:25-33).
Thus, everyone has a god—something or someone they fear, love, and trust more than Jesus Christ, the One True God. Another way to think of it is something that gives you your identity. Whether that’s a false god like Allah, or a non-Trinitarian god (which Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses worship); or normal things and people like politicians, celebrities, sports, money, science, sex, gender ideology, philosophy, yourself (autonomy/pride), whatever it is, everyone has a god. Even Christians will worship a false god without realising it. For example, those who regularly skip church to sleep in or watch a sports game have a god that is not Jesus. Rather than worshiping Christ through the Divine Liturgy passed down to us from the early church, they will worship their false god through the liturgy of ESPN or their own snoring.
To have Jesus as your God, “The heart knows no other comfort or confidence than in Him. It must not allow itself to be torn from Him. But, for Him, it must risk and disregard everything upon earth” (para. 16). This does not mean that one cannot ever watch sports or catch a few extra hours of sleep or whatever it is, but these things have their proper place. When these things usurp Christ in your heart, they have left their proper place and have become your god.
So, how do you know you have a false god? Ask yourself: is there something you go to for “blessings, help, and comfort” (para. 17)? Is it pornography, or sex, drugs, alcohol, social media, sports, money (e.g., going on a shopping spree), video games, etc.? Rather than going to God in prayer, or going to your pastors to receive the comfort of the Word and Sacraments, is there something to which you go first? If so, then you are not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. Our hearts are idol producing factories, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find any idols we may have erected on the altars of our hearts.
Once these idols are identified, we must cast them aside and shatter them in our hearts and come before the One True God who has invited us to lay our wearisome burdens before His feet and receive His easy yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). This He does in the Word and Sacraments, His Means of Grace. The word of your false god cannot give you the comfort you seek. Only Christ’s Word, which promises and delivers the forgiveness of sins, can give you that comfort in the Word of His Gospel. For your idol, like God’s Law, will only say, “Do this, and everything will be better.” But it never gets better. They only get worse; that’s why you keep returning to this idol like a dog after its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11).
The Word of Christ’s Gospel, on the other hand, says, “Done.” You are forgiven; the charges laying against you are cleared. That is your comfort. And as a superfluous assurance, He gives you the Sacraments through your pastor where you are washed in the waters of Baptism that washes all your sins away and you taste the sweetness of forgiveness in the Holy Supper. There, in the Sacraments, your comfort is made real; you have felt the waters, and you taste it every Sabbath day. Nothing can be more real and comforting than God’s grace delivered to you in such corporeal means.