I cannot relate to parts of the Old Testament narratives because we live in a different place and time, but one theme that feels uncomfortably close is the Israelites’ idol worship.
Our church has been reading the Old Testament together, and we are discussing the content every week in our small groups. After God delivers the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, their tendency to turn away from God and towards all kinds of idols is quickly apparent.
As Moses received commandments from God on top of a mountain on behalf of Israel, the Israelites grew impatient as they waited in the foothills. They gathered all of their gold together and built a golden calf—an idol to worship—because it seemed their leader and this God called “Yahweh” they were following had abandoned them.
This is no one-time event; the Israelites consistently struggled with idol worship throughout the Old Testament. I relate to the Israelites every time I read about another experiment or construction with idols from surrounding countries.
We moved to New Orleans one year ago in July so that I could learn in the seminary classroom. (I was an online student for two years before we moved.) We are certain that God orchestrated our move, and I have grown exponentially as a Christian learner and believer by simply relocating to the campus.
But I would be telling half of the truth if I stopped here. Our move to New Orleans seemed like the right time for God to just take a baseball bat to all of the golden calves I had built.
Nothing was left untouched.
During my spring semester, I took a course in introductory Greek taught by a professor with a reputation for fast-paced instruction alongside my usual course load.
A’s are one of my golden calves. I have known for a long time my heart’s tendency to covet and—dare I say—worship good grades. They sneak up and replace God’s voice from time to time, telling me who I am and what I am living for.
On a Saturday following spring break in March, I found myself crying out to God in tears with flashcards all over the floor in preparation for a Greek exam. After a required four-hour spiritual retreat with God for another class, God had exposed my idol in such a way that I could no longer hide from it. I had exchanged hours upon hours this year studying about God in seminary for meeting with God in secret.
My soul sensed its own dehydration from the Living Water.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke these words long ago on behalf of God: “’My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer. 2:13).
Take a hard look back at my list. None of these things are bad; each of them is a gift and provision of God. But good gifts and provisions from God can quickly become broken cisterns that do not satisfy and golden calves that do not deserve worship.
Although they are commonplace in some parts of the world, physical idols are hard to relate to in our materialistic postmodern society. We don’t see a lot of physical idols like golden calves around us in shopping malls or city squares, but idols are everywhere.
Andy Crouch said this about people made in God’s image and their tendency to worship idols: “Image bearing and idol making rarely can be disentangled… I just think most human activities are both.”
My relationships, work, school, expenses, beliefs, and wellness are all human activities, and I can just as easily forge idols out of those activities as I can bear God’s image in them.
God in His grace began to expose and demolish my golden calves one by one. I did not receive this chain of demolitions as grace until a friend’s gentle reminder to me: God will level our idols so that we begin again with Him as the focus of our worship.
I’m calling this year in New Orleans the year of my idol demolition. The demolition and reconstruction of any goodness in our lives is a painful process, but it taught me to approach loss in a different way.
When I lose something in my life, I tend to ask, “God, why did you take that from me?”
I’m learning to ask a different question first these days: “God, did you just strip an idol from me I was never meant to serve anyway?”
The activities on my list are certainly gifts of grace, but they make terrible gods. They are fragile and fleeting; they can change or end in a second’s notice.
As we enter a new year in a more familiar place, my prayer is to be honest daily with God and myself about the objects of my worship. In what ways might I be serving something created rather than the Creator as Paul puts it in Rom. 1:25?
I love how my friend, Paola Barrera Ruiz, described this tension on her own blog this week: “The nuance between something being made for us vs. us being made for it marks the difference between life-giving and life-draining. How often I behave toward something as if I was made for it. That is a picture of idolatry.”
Our souls weren’t made for idolatry, and life-drain is a reliable symptom for when our souls are worshipping the wrong things. As we enter the second half of 2018, today is a good day to ask God where you and I might be forging activities into idols instead of bearing His image in those activities.
We grow in true worship when we are willing to receive His response.