Cows….in My Heart?

This morning I was reading about the Israelites making a golden calf while waiting for Moses to come down from meeting with God on Mt Sinai. I’ve read this story numerous times, but something jumped off the page for me this time.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said,’Up, make us gods who shall go before us'” (verse 1).

These are the same people who had witnessed the stunning plaques in Egypt; who watched Him change Pharoah’s stubborn heart; experienced the unbelievable miracle of watching the waters of the Red Sea split to allow them to walk on dry land (and then to swallow up the Egyptian army!); and were benefiting from God’s daily provision in the desert, even in response to their sinful grumbling (Ex 16: 4-12 and 17: 1-7).

These are the people who had recently responded to the Lord’s commands with, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (19:8).

Yet in no time they are insisting that Aaron build a lifeless golden calf because Moses didn’t come back from meeting with God soon enough. This unplanned delay resulted in those who had pledged their loyal devotion to God to turn to idolatry.

Delays are hard. Waiting is always undesirable. I quickly complain when a red light lasts more than a couple of minutes or I have to wait in the driveawy (again…smile) for my teenaged daughter!

But what about waiting on God? That tests much more than my patience; it tests my faith.

As I was reading the passage this morning, I found myself spurning the Israelites. How could they have been so foolish? Disloyal? Ungodly? How could they have witnessed such incredible miracles and provision only to start gathering their gold jewelry to make an earless, voiceless cow to be their god?!?!

Then the Holy Spirit started massaging my heart. I started seeing myself in the Israelites. I have never made a golden cow, but John Calvin’s words started ringing in my ears: “The human heart is a factory of idols.” His broadening of idolatry from created objects to heart cravings has helped me see that I, too, am an idolater. It’s easy to self-righteously condemn the Israelites because their idols were visible. My idols, though, are just as dangerous because they, too, are god replacers.

Recently, the idol that the factory in my heart has produced is an idol of peace. Peace is a fine thing to desire. In fact, a peaceful life is a wonderfully good thing! But an idol is anything I’m willing to sin to get or keep. When my desire for peace becomes a demand for it I’m in trouble. Once it becomes a demand, it has moved from a hoped-for want to a sinful “craving.”

I then begin to forfeit the very thing I desire with my restless, sinful churning because it’s been delayed.

Like last Wednesday. I was tired. I felt I needed and deserved some rest. (Which was probably true.) But just as I was lying down to rest I got a phone call with a timely request from someone I love. I could have said no, but that would have resulted in considerably inconveniencing them. As I was “serving” them, I started grumbling to myself. When Benny came in to ask about my interrupted nap, I provided an eye rolling, martyr-ish explanation. My fatigue was real…but so was my self-pity.

You might think I’m being a little hard on myself. I don’t think so. My desire for peace (and rest, in this case) was fine, but I chose to set that desire aside to serve another. That was my decision. Once that decision was made, the self-pity and resentment that bubbled up in my heart alerted me that what I wanted had moved from desire to demand.

My idol of peace was just as foolish as a golden calf. Why? Because at that moment I was willing to sin to get what I wanted. Peace had become all too important to me: important enough to sin when I didn’t get it.

That day, the delay was rest and quiet. Other days it’s been a new piece of furniture; appreciation from family members; someone doing what they said they would do without reminders; being heard or understood; dinner out. You get the picture. Sometimes those desires being delayed doesn’t result in me sinning. But other times even brief delays squeeze the sponge in my heart and yukky stuff comes out.

Yes, my heart is a factory of idols. How comforting to know this! If my sinful reactions to delays are “just the way I am” there’s no hope. But if they are functional idols they can be destroyed. Moses took the golden calf and “burned it with fire and ground it to powder” (Ex 32:20). My God can do the same for me! Because of His idol-destroying death on the cross I am promised the power to “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature…which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). No golden calves mentioned here: just real-life temptations…including lust, impurity and greed!

Is having an idol in your heart a new thought? No worries. Many Christians still believe idols are simply statues that sit in religious buildings. But if that’s true, the New Testament wouldn’t talk so much about heart idols. The worst thing we can do when idols in our hearts are exposed is think “that’s just the way I am.” That may be just the way I was but because of Christ’s sinless life, atoning death and resurrection we who are Christians have been given His righteous life in exchange for our sin and idolatry! By His power we can stop worshiping peace or getting new things or feeling appreciated and turn our worship back to the only One who deserves it.

More about desires becoming demands tomorrow….

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