“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” Exodus 32:1–4
The word “idolatry” seems so archaic to our sensible, modern ears. Why would anyone bow down to an inanimate object? It’s so savage. So . . . pagan.
But flip toward the end of the Bible and the early church martyr Stephen puts the idolatry thing into perspective.
Idolatry begins with rejecting God
Here’s the scene from Acts 7. It’s after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and Stephen is giving the Pharisees a tongue-lashing for their hardness of heart by harkening back to the golden calf narrative in Exodus. “But our fathers refused to obey him,” says Stephen, referring to Moses, in verse 39 (NIV). “Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” Then that chucklehead Moses disappeared for a while and “That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf” (v. 41).
So, it goes like this: The mind translates information. The mind sets the heart into motion. The heart motivates the work of the hands. The work of the hands mirrors back to us the motivation of our hearts exposing the idolatry.
Head: That Moses guy bailed on us.
Heart: Now that we’re orphaned, we need to take matters into our own hands.
Hands: Ooooo, ahhhhhh, look at the shiny cow that’s going to get us out of this mess!
Ridiculous, right? Then the Apostle Paul comes along and ratchets the idolatry motif up another notch: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
Functional saviors won’t work
So, what is idolatry? Making any thing into a god-thing. But the things we assign functional savior status to cannot carry God freight. The tricky thing is, contemporary idols can be good things too, not just the icky, savage skid row-type of things.
If you put all your hopes into your kids or spouse, they’ll buckle under the pressure and resent you. If you live for success on the job, the deadlines keep coming and you’ll run yourself into the ground. You can even throw Orthodox Christian belief onto the pile. Because life disaster will come and that kind of trouble isn’t some kind of theological riddle to be cracked. Our idols will always break our hearts.
He himself is our peace
St. Augustine wisely said in Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Thank God that he doesn’t let us find our ultimate satisfaction in created things. Even when it hurts and the created things break our hearts, again.