Signpost #7 - Identity Idolatry
Do you ever wish, as I do, that God would hand you His personality inventory assessment of you, kind of like a divine Myers-Briggs report? King David cries out for it in Psalm 139: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (v. 23-24 NLT) I feel this especially strongly since my Myers-Briggs yields a different result every time I take it! What really makes me tick? Don't I need to know?
One Old Testament professor contends that the entire history of the people of Israel was meant to hold up a mirror to us, revealing, again and again, both the power and the incurable hold of rebellion in our hearts. This prepares us for the Rescuer. And consistently reaching out to grab the ankles of God's people, causing them to fall catastrophically is idolatry. We can be sure we are vulnerable in all the same ways, but how do we recognize our idolatries?
This series' first definition of idolatry, from the story of Israel's disastrous manna hoarding, is our Just In Case instinct ... that is, whatever it is we do or serve in order to cover our bases ... in case God fails to act the way He has promised to ... the way we want Him to.
But there's more ...
It was only two months after the Red Sea crossing when the people of God arrive at Sinai, that defining meeting place with their God. The Law which God hands to Moses at the top of the mountain defines what will make the people distinctly reflect His character. Sadly, what happens at the base of Sinaidefines the people as they are at that moment. This picture of idolatry is classic. And one morning it came to life for me as my personality inventory from God.
Many years ago now, sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed, Bible and notebook at the ready, I embarked one morning on a normal 'quiet time.' The youngest of our three daughters had just begun preschool and I had an agenda for God. I was eager to get my marching orders for all this free time I was sure I was about to have in my life.
My part of the conversation began something like this: Ta-Da! Here I am, God! Finally free and at your disposal! What would you like me to DO? What's next? I will do anything you like. How about a master's degree in social work? That seems closest to the way you have been using me. I don't care that I won't make much money.
Is that it?
Here is the mysterious but unmistakable one word response my heart heard: Idolatry.
Idolatry? I was confused! All I wanted was to serve and please God. How could getting equipped to serve him more effectively be called idolatry? At 29, I was a clergy wife, home with 3 kids, foster parenting, leading Bible studies, doing and teaching children's ministry. That felt like everything in general and nothing in particular. I was hungry for a clear professional focus.
Was God asking me to put this on the altar? To die to this longing? I wrestled with that word ... Idolatry.
With deep reluctance I told God I would stay home if that was really his will. Home would be my place of service. I could make it a rich experience. I would raise children to love him and to serve him and take their place in his Kingdom. This would be my purpose. It was a sacrificial goal. An honorable goal. It would not be easy, but I would do it.
And again God answered unmistakably with one word: Idolatry.
What? Wait. I totally don't get it. Both my imagined futures are idolatry? What am I supposed to do? How are they idolatry? What isn't idolatry then?
About my only association with the word idolatry was the golden calf scene from Exodus 32, so I turned to it. It was a familiar story, but I read it afresh. And God seemed to breathe on it ... on me ... and suddenly the scene became that sharp sword the author of Hebrews speaks of " cutting between soul and spirit ... exposing my innermost thoughts and desires ..." (Hebrews 4:12).
Here's what I saw:
Moses is up on the mountain of Sinai with God. (Eight chapters earlier the people had seen him disappear into a cloud at the top of the mountain. But that was forty days ago. Forty Days!) So here is just the first verse of Exodus 32:
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. "Come on," they said, "make us some gods who can lead us. We don't know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt."
The first thing I noticed was how odd it was that Moses gets the credit, or perhaps the blame, for bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt. The whole event is simply attributed to him. Not to God. And there's more than a hint of accusation here that having gotten the people into this wilderness, Moses' long stint, his delay, on the mountaintop amounts to a failure of leadership. They can't imagine what would take him so long. By contrast, the people want Aaron to make them a god who can lead!
If Moses isn't dead, he's criminally negligent. They can't wait ... another ... day! They have seen God act powerfully, parting the sea, erasing their enemies before their eyes, providing supernatural food and water, leading them on in pillars of cloud and fire. But waiting? Forty days? This breaks them.
Their impatience still cautions me. Waiting for God is hard. It tests us. It often lures us into disobedience and idolatry. As it did for Israel in the Wilderness.
Aaron's stunning solution is to collect their jewelry and make an idol, a golden calf. At first sight, the people immediately declare (reading this, I was incredulous), " O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:4b) Seriously? And when Aaron senses their relief, he declares a day of festival worship of the calf, which leads to drunkenness and sexual sin.
God is nowhere mentioned as a character in this story so far. Instead, in only four or five verses, the people of Israel had completely shifted from idolizing Moses to idolizing a figure of their own creation.
And this is where God's Word and Spirit spoke to me and this is what I understood: Look at this people! First they are dancing around Moses, and then when he's gone too long they dance around a calf. They are desperate for something to confer identity upon them ... to tell them who they are. First they are Moses' people. Then they are the people of the calf. They have to be somebody's people! They have to have something to rally round to define them. They are desperate to label themselves.
I understood that this was my situation precisely. The sword of God's Word was doing its work. I was desperate for a label, something to confer identity in the stressful professional no-man's-land where I already felt I had been made to wait too long. And God seemed to speak, personally somehow, into the angst of my waiting.
I will give you lots of things to do. Some of them will give you a paycheck. Some will not. But none of them is Who You Are. Who you are is ... MINE. I want you to get up every morning and salute. I will lead you, teach you, and give you meaningful work ... work I have chosen for you. Your identity? Let it rest simply in being my beloved one.
It was as if God had adjusted the focus on the telescope I was looking through, straining to see my future, and while he sharpened my vision, he was also helping me identify the individual lenses that were driving my choices ... or warping my outlook. On one hand, I was making a god of professional success, but at the same time I could easily shipwreck my family if they became my measure of worth.
One moment I was full of astonished judgment of those foolish Israelites, and the next moment I saw that I was right there with them! This is just what Paul means when he claims that the Wilderness story "... happened as a warning to us, so that we would not ... worship idols as some of them did." (1 Corinthians 10:6)
God kept His word to me and gave me rich, but impossible-to-label, work. Will we keep asking ask God, as David does, for an idol inventory? He's out to free us!
Marcia Lebhar's Signs in the Wilderness Series applies to all of life. Signpost #8 will be included in the next Gulf Atlantic Diocese Communique .
For more information regarding Marcia Lebhar's The Bare Branch, please visit Amazon.com.
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RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FURTHER READING by Marcia Lebhar
I highly recommend Tim Keller's excellent book, Counterfeit Gods. In it he offers various definitions of idolatry including: taking a good thing and making it an ultimate thing, making an idol more the root of identity than the God of the Bible.
Additionally, in his deeply helpful book, Is God Anti-Gay?, Sam Allberry identifies this same identity idolatry, this craving for a label that somehow satisfies and defines us. He warns against letting our sexual preferences, or anything else, be our self-summaries, the last word on who we are, and challenges us to allow the gospel to demand everything of us, to allow our decision to follow Jesus to become our label, our identity.