Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Golden Calf and the Big Truth Exchange

Do you know the Old Testament story of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6)? Moses, the leader of the people of Israel, went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and other instructions from God. He was gone for forty days and the people grew anxious without him, so they asked Aaron, the priest, to make gods to lead them in Moses’s absence. Together with Aaron, then, they made a golden calf to worship. It’s shocking how quickly they turned to polytheism and idolatry, breaking both God’s first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)—and his second—“You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exodus 20:4). 

 But there’s something else to note: When the Israelites made the calf, they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” In their minds, the one golden calf was not their only god. They were, it seems, crediting the calf with working with the one true God to bring them out of Egypt. They may not have been denying that God brought them out of Egypt, but rather, denying that he had done it alone. And when they feasted after sacrificing to the calf, they called it “a feast to Yahweh.” Yahweh is the true God’s name, so when they celebrated, they were trying, in their twisted way, to honor God. And as they tried to honor him, they got at least two details about God right. They called him by the right name, and they acknowledged one of his works.
But a few right ideas about God didn’t keep the Israelites from idolatry. Even as they attempted to worship him, their minds remade the one true God into a smaller, weaker god. They reimagined him as a god who wasn’t powerful enough to accomplish his will without help from other powers, and one who was willing to share his glory with an image they had crafted from things they owned.

Their story is evidence of what the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1: All people are naturally inclined toward idolatry. The Israelites exchanged “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23) and “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25)—and it didn’t take them long to do it. We read their story and wonder how they could have been so foolish, but worshipping a carved image alongside Yahweh didn’t seem bizarre to them because believing in multiple gods and practicing idolatry were normal in the culture they came from. We live in a different culture and time, and aren’t surrounded by idol worshipping polytheists, so we might never build an actual golden calf to worship, but as fallen people we too are prone to idolatry. Like the Israelites, we are naturally inclined to reimagine God as someone or something more like “mortal man” than the glorious almighty God he is. Even though we might never fall as far and fast as they did, to the extent we view God as different from the One he has revealed himself to be, we have also “[exchanged] the truth about God for a lie.”

Erin, a young woman I once knew, liked to think of God as spontaneous (to use her word), because she thought a spontaneous god would be more exciting than one who planned everything ahead of time. But we know the true God isn’t spontaneous. He has told us he has a plan and he always sticks to it. When Erin imagined that God was impulsive, she was exchanging the truth of God who is always the same for the lie of one who changes from moment to moment. She may have believed many accurate things about God, but this didn’t keep her from building a false image of him in her mind—and all because, like many her age, she placed a high value on living in the moment without a plan for the future. She preferred a god who was more like she was.

Like the Israelites and Erin, we have a natural inclination to view God as more like us than he is, and more like whatever the culture around us values than he is. But thankfully, the Spirit works within us to fine-tune our thoughts about God as we study his revelation of himself. Yes, until we see him face to face, the picture of God we hold in our minds will never be exactly right. Even our best thoughts of God will be a little idolatrous, but the more we work to conform our thoughts to what God has told us about himself, the more clearly we will know him, and the more truly we can worship him.

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