“One God! No idols!” the paraphrase begins, best shouted. This simplified list, a tool for children to remember the Ten Commandments, still helps me recall the gist of each commandment God gave His people.
Realizing that the concept of bowing to idols wouldn’t feel strikingly relevant, wise mentors at various points during my youth would help me consider how this command applied—idols are more than just the carved images of wood or stone that so often entangled and caused trouble for God’s people in history. Then and now, God alone is truly deserving of worship.
When we think of idols, we tend to think of extremes. Throughout the Old Testament, God is continually calling His people back to Himself as the Israelites are also, continually, setting up and cutting down their idols. Tracking the Israelite’s tendencies is a bit like watching ping-pong: worshipping God, worshipping idols, back and forth. And sometimes it seems unclear exactly where the worship is being directed. Lines become a little blurred.
In some cases the Israelites didn’t totally turn from God, but made seemingly small allowances to fit idol worship alongside their worship of the one living and true God. The idol Asherah is a fascinating example: poles or trees were used to either represent or honor Asherah in Canaanite tradition, where she was considered a goddess and the mother of Baal. Despite God’s warnings to His people against bowing down and serving the many false gods of the people surrounding them, over time the Asherah poles were reasonably justified—the historical narrative supposedly followed some idea of God needing a wife. The Bible records that Asherah poles accompanied altars built to offer sacrifices to God, and were even placed inside the temple (see 2 Kings 21:7). And so detestable idols were integrated into the Israelite’s worship of the one living and true God.
Isn’t that how it goes? Instead of suddenly turning from God, as it appears the Israelites did when we read hundreds of years of history at once, we too make allowances that seem harmless enough. We need to honestly ask: where are we directing our worship exactly?
Rather than some combination of poles or trees as with idols of the Old Testament, God’s people today have been surrounded for generations by people serving a false god that takes a different form: with much reasonable justification, those around us shamelessly bow down and serve the idol of self. We, too, crave anything that reinforces our own self-focus—cell phones, for example, are ubiquitous powerful devices, second-nature extensions of our persons, where the tools and social media we access are designed to structure our minds with ourselves at the center. Although God alone is truly deserving of worship, lines become a little blurred. We need to honestly ask: over time, and influenced by the false gods of the people surrounding us, are we unwittingly worshipping ourselves?
It turns out the way of God’s people in history is still the way of God’s people today: we make seemingly small allowances and fit the idol of self alongside our worship of the one living and true God. But God is faithful to continually call us back to Himself. 2 Chronicles 30:9 ends, “For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” When we ask ourselves honest questions and find unbecoming answers, God still holds out His grace to us in love—we can always return wholeheartedly to Him.
Distinguishing between worship since Christ came and fulfilled the Law and the Prophets is important when considering lessons from the Old Testament. God’s people are no longer required to offer various sacrifices in order to come before the living God—we are now gloriously freed by the blood of Jesus Christ to approach a still-holy God as His grateful children. The service we offer to Him is now in response to His kindness and mercy; as He transforms us by the renewing of our minds, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2).
Cross-cultural workers understand a life of sacrifice in unique ways. But it’s not helpful to indulge the thinking that internally elevates our personal sacrifices and risks over the unseen and unknown sacrifices of other believers. In doing so, we begin to fit the detestable idol of self—yes, even through service!—into our worship of God. Particularly as we share stories of what God is doing in and through us in our various callings, we need to be guarded about how we present ourselves; more importantly, though, we need to be guarded with how we allow ourselves to think. We become bitter with our sacrifices when we’re making them to ourselves.
Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” As we serve God as His children, let’s remember that He doesn’t want our good service as His sacrifice. Jesus took care of that. He wants us! In humility, then, let’s cut down our idol of self and return to our gracious and compassionate God. He is, after all, never tiring of continually calling us back.
How do you remind yourself that you sacrifice out of love for God and not self-worship? Do you have strategies to share (routines, verses, accountability) that encourage helpful thinking in this?
Share your images on this week’s theme with #VelvetAshesSacrifice. You can add yours!