You know or may have heard of the ancient Israelites. Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. Oppression, harsh labor, brutal treatment. Moses bellowing, “Let my people go!” Then the ten plagues, powerful exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea.
Well, in Exodus chapter 32, the Hebrew people (a.k.a. Israelites), now having escaped from slavery, are wandering in the hope-dehydrating desert. They are literally meandering about without a clear source of long-term food and water, and no plan for where they are headed—totally dependent on God to show up for them. They are tired, hangry, complaining. Imagine a whiny six-year-old continually asking “Are we there yet?” from the back seat (only in a caravan).
Moses, their leader, said, “You all wait here while I go up on the mountain and sort things out with the big guy. You can play horseshoes or cornhole while you wait” (my paraphrase).
Parents, you know about the “law of the limited opportunity window,” right? Whenever your child wants something, you set a precise, limited window of time to address that need or else the prehistoric pterodactyl personality of your kid comes out. Miss the window for food? Forget it! Their blood sugar bottoms out and so does all their sanity. Push the window for nap time and trade your calm afternoon plans for chaos.
Well, the same goes for the Israelites. Apparently, God wasn’t following the law of the limited opportunity window. Moses was gone for forty days and the people turned to Aaron, Moses’ brother-in-law, and said:
. . . Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.
Aaron, babysitter-in-chief for the nation, replied, “Um sure, kids, you can practice knife throwing at one another in the kitchen.” That’s my modern-day translation. He really said, something to the effect of “Yes, I’ll make you a visible god. Now give me all your gold so I can create the statue which you will worship. Then quit your whining, will you?”
I love the next nuanced detail of Scripture here:
He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
At that point, someone probably dropped the “bass,” killed the lights, and the party started. It may have looked like street riots after a Super Bowl. Cue Moses’ return.
Imagine it, Dad comes home after the knife-throwing time trials in the kitchen and surveys the damage. The text actually says that Moses smashed the tablets with the Ten Commandments on the rock in fury and disbelief at what the people had done. Then he does something baffling:
And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
A quick sidenote. Why do you think Moses made them drink it? I think it’s because the next day when they went to relieve themselves, they would look down and see what their shiny idol had turned into, revealing its true value!
Moses asked Aaron, “Why did you do this?”
Aaron replied, “They whined for a visible god, so I just threw some shiny stuff into the fire and ‘boop’—out popped this golden calf!”
Aaron “forgot” that he had “fashioned it with a tool.” Can you imagine the scene? “What gold-fashioning tool in my hand behind my back? I don’t know what you are talking about.”
It’s like the current-day Springer household: “Children, why are there empty cookie packages hiding under your bedsheets?”
Their response: “I don’t know; they just fell there.”
What’s going on in this text?
The people were afraid! Worried that Moses wasn’t coming back also meant God wasn’t going to show up for them, either to meet their physical needs or to fulfill their hopes for the future.
It must have felt like abandonment (consciously or subconsciously). “God can’t be counted on. God won’t be there for us. He might not even be good or think we are good enough for him. We must create what we need ourselves, take matters into our hands, fill our own holes of heart.”
They crafted an idol, a silly golden calf. This was a god they could see. A god that would not require them to trust. A god whose favor and presence they thought they didn’t need to earn. A god whom they figured they could understand and control. A god-image who might work for them on their terms.
They were turning to something created to get what only the Creator can give.
Sound familiar? I do that. You might do that too.
I told you my story. I allowed my identity to be built on achievement. I thought I’d get the significance I needed in life through visible accomplishment for Jesus. Like a slowly eroding shoreline, the basis of who I was disintegrated into what I could do. I thought I needed to earn my good standing with God and build my own sense of self.
You might be able to relate to an accomplishment-rooted identity like me. But maybe not—for you, it could be people pleasing. Needing the affirmation of others, craving the onlooking eyes of an audience, unable to emerge out from under the opinion of an important person in your life.
Or maybe you have the need to be especially creative and unique or smarter than others around you, to feel that you stand out. Or maybe you are desperate for a structured, safe-and-secure, mapped-out life, where every circumstance is controllable and predictable.
There is nothing wrong with any of these desires, but instead of remaining desires, they can often slither toward becoming the obsessive bedrock of our striving souls. At that point, we have drifted away from an identity which rests in Christ and Christ alone. That’s when the Trojan horse takes over; we’ve turned to something created to get what only the Creator can give.
Am I overexaggerating to say this is the greatest threat to my following Jesus for the rest of my life? No matter how much I may want to distance myself from this truth, I don’t think I can. Nothing will take us offtrack faster than placing our trust and allegiance in something or someone (or some idea, etc.) other than Christ himself. This is the root cause underneath so many other sins that grow more visibly on the surface of our lives.
When you and I said “yes” to Jesus, we said “yes” to grace. To undeserved love. To an identity rooted in the always, only, ever accepting love of God. You said “yes” to trusting his provision and his providence with no strings attached. You did. I did. We did.
We must never forget the following verse:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Stop to read that verse two or three more times. Then, maybe two or three more times after that.
This love is a gift, and nothing can ever change that. If the soil of your soul should ever become poisoned over time, chances are this will be the toxic killer: an uprooted identity which says, “You have to earn God’s love. You need to achieve acceptance in him through some effort of your own.”
But only God can give you acceptance. Only God can give you significance. Only God can give you fulfillment and purpose and security and safety and a stable future. Only God can fix what is broken and only God can give you the adventure and influence you crave. All of that is a gift from God and God alone.
God knows your needs. He is waiting only for you to come to him. This isn’t a once-and-done, all-you-need Amazon Prime package delivered to your front door. This is the daily job of clinging to him above all else, the most important battleground for the rest of your life. So, be willing to be patient and consistent in prayer, waiting for him to meet your need in his time and his way, not yours. This is the foundation of your faith and mine.
This is an excerpt from Craig Springer’s new book, How to Follow Jesus: A Practical Guide to Growing Your Faith (Zondervan + Seedbed). In How to Follow Jesus, Craig Springer, executive director of Alpha USA, one of America’s most effective evangelism movements, explodes numerous myths surrounding the Christian faith that create unnecessary obstacles to growth, including: illustrating that sin and temptation are not the greatest threat to a flourishing faith, forgiveness means going through rather than around our feelings, and how disappointment in the church may be the essential step in growing a foundation for life-changing community.
This book is perfect for:
- Newcomers classes
- Discipleship classes
- Individuals beginning their faith journey
Get your copy from our store here.