|Cartoon showing two cavemen. One says to the other, "Hunting, gathering... it's so hard to prioritize!" Image source.|
Growing up in the church, I heard so many times that "everyone worships something." Supposedly, that's just part of human nature. It never even occurred to me to question it. And here's what it means: all people are supposed to be Christians- to worship the Christian version of God. They have an innate need to do this. But, if they don't believe in the correct Christian version of God, then they must be using something else to fill that "worship" need where God is supposed to be. And that's just unhealthy and leads to bad things. And even Christians, if they're not "putting God first" properly, if they're too focused on something else, they end up worshiping it and that leads to all the bad things.
So when I did evangelism, I would try to determine what thing my non-Christian friends were worshiping. What is really important to them? What goals are they pursuing? What motivates them? Is is the desire to do well in school? Is it family? Friends? A romantic relationship? Their own pleasure? By the way, I believed all of these were actually good things, but they became unhealthy if you valued them more than God. And obviously, if you don't even believe in [the correct version of] God, then you are definitely in that unhealthy putting-something-else-before-God zone.
Anyway, go read Carter's post. He really gets it. And I'm going to address the "everyone worships something" question too, but from sort of a different angle. Carter is ex-evangelical and is now an atheist; I'm ex-evangelical and now a Christian who doesn't believe in "putting God first"- or rather, I believe in it when it's defined in a completely different way than good evangelicals define it.
The way I see it, the problem with the "everyone worships something" line of thinking is that it envisions God as separate from the other major things in our lives that we might possibly "worship". It has Christians asking questions like "am I putting my job before God?" a question which doesn't make any sense, because doing well at your job is a way that we love God and experience the good things that God created in this world. Working hard at your job is in no way contrary to following God.
Obviously, if you're doing shady immoral things in order to get ahead, or if you're working so hard that you don't have time to care about your family, then those are problems. They are bad because they hurt other people- you don't need to bring God into this to explain why that would be immoral. But if you do want to bring God into it, then yes, hurting people is very much contrary to loving God.
But that's not what Christians are warning about when they make each other feel bad for not "putting God first." They're not worried about the way that focusing too much on just one thing can cause you to treat other people badly- no, they're warning against liking something too much. Working too hard to reach your goals. Being very dedicated to something, and not using the word "God" when you explain that dedication, is a huge red flag to evangelicals.
(And can we just stop and appreciate the privilege involved here? If you come from a background where everyone assumes you're going to work hard and be successful and have a great future, it's easy to just live the life you're expected to live, take it for granted that you have access to opportunities and are able to achieve success, and pretend none of that matters to you because you only love God. And then judge other people when you see them putting so much work into overcoming the difficulties life threw at them, overcoming society's prejudices- you think "wow they work so hard because they're making worldly success into an idol, clearly I am more godly than they are.")
But perhaps an evangelical would respond to my reasoning by saying, "No no no, I don't see following God as separate from those other things- job, family, etc- I don't believe 'following God' only happens during explicitly religious activities like going to church and reading the bible. I believe that God is with us all the time, and everything we do should be for God's glory."
Yes, okay, good point- I would be misrepresenting the concept of "putting God first" if I didn't talk about this. Evangelicals believe that in all parts of our life we should "put God first." It's not about "I spend more time praying than watching TV" it's about "even when I watch TV, I still do it in a way that's motivated by devotion to God."
And they also warn about the dangers of making church itself into an "idol." I've heard a lot of stories like "I worked so hard volunteering at church for hours and hours several days a week, but then I realized, I wasn't actually doing it for God- I was doing it so that other people would see me as a good Christian." So yes, the concept of "putting God first" is not about doing outwardly religious activities, it's about your heart and your motivation for doing whatever it is you happen to be doing.
And as you may imagine, I still have a problem with that. Let's go back to the "am I putting my job before God?" question. In this line of thinking, you answer that question by analyzing how you feel about your job, and what your purpose is in doing it. If you're "putting God first" then your main purpose must be something along the lines of "I want to set a good example of being a Christian" or "I want to bring honor to God by doing quality work" or "I want to do evangelism to people at work" or "I want to make money to donate to Christian charities." It doesn't matter whether the action itself is obviously religious, but the words you use to describe your motivation must be religious.
In other words, Christians aren't allowed to be honest with themselves about how they feel and what they want. If at any point you discover that "the real reason" you did something was actually because you enjoyed the results, then you have to feel terrible about yourself and how you've made that thing into an idol.
Yeah, I don't believe that. I don't believe there's anything wrong with "selfish" reasons for doing something. You want to have money, you want to be famous, you want to be happy? That's great! God made this world with so many good things for us to experience. "Selfishness" is only wrong when we're so focused on what we want that we hurt other people.
And remember a few paragraphs ago I said "They're not worried about the way that focusing too much on just one thing can cause you to treat other people badly"? Focusing on God too much can also cause you to treat other people badly- if your concept of "God" is something separate from treating people with love, if you think that "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind" and "love your neighbor as yourself" are two different commands.
So does "everyone worship something" and that thing better be God or else we're doomed? No. Everyone has a complex life where they do various things for various reasons. If you think "for God" is a completely separate and superior reason than "because I like it" or "to help people that I care about", I find that much more morally questionable than "making an idol."