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With rubber legs and labored breath I conquered the 1,237th step to reach the zenith of Wat Tham Sua. Some believers would find it heinous to visit such a place, but our missionary friends used the trek as a prayer walk. They would make the climb most weeks, sometimes running the steps, and pray from the high place for the salvation of the people and the destruction of the false gods that mocked them at the top of their toiling ascent. In the pictures you can see that the region below is visible from the great height. In fact, from the crest of the Wat, there is a 360 degree view of the land that brings vast awareness of all the souls it cradles. I removed my shoes out of respect for the people, not the dead deities, and stood in crushed awe at the magnitude of the honed figures littering the mountain top.

Idols. Until that moment I had not experienced such a biblical expression of the word with my own eyes — the pictures in my Sunday School stories had seemed surreal and unlikely. But there, right before me (looming so high my neck ached as my eyes scaled it) was a golden figure erected to a god other than YHWH. My heart strained and pounded in my chest from more than just the hike as I walked around the temple, glimpsing carved image after carved image, and praying frantically that God would open people’s hearts to his deep, living love for them. Some of the figures are unabashedly demonic. The people know and embrace this. I often wonder if they are closer to redemption in their honesty than we in the west who deny the spiritual realm and its power.

As my soul grieved the in-my-face assault of the enemy on a precious people created in God’s image, the Spirit whispered in His tender, teaching way, “Oh love. These may seem ridiculous, but aren’t your idols merely disguised on the mountains of your heart?”

If we could walk the landscapes of our soul like we traverse a mountain… If we could see with our spirits as clearly as we see with our eyes… what might we find raised in homage to loves other than Jesus? 

The Golden Calf story is a powerful illustration that can take us deeper in our quest to recognize the unconsecrated places in our hearts. If you haven’t read the story, go check out Exodus 32. As always, context is needed to grasp the whole picture, so here we go.

Moses is up on the mountain hanging out with God. He’s there for 40 days. This is a common time frame when God is trying or preparing someone for ministry or a new season (Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days; Elijah walked for 40 days to get to Mount Horeb; there are many 40’s in Moses’s story alone. You can read more about it here). That time frame would have been an excruciating wait for the newly-freed-from-Egypt nation of Israel.

Prior to this, they had only known slavery, oppression, and racism for generations. They likely had chunks of the faith in YHWH that their father’s had possessed, but, after 400 plus years surrounded by the countless gods of Egypt, physically represented in every form from massive statues to wall drawings, belief had likely become fuzzy.

Now, here they were, free but fledgling. They had liberty but no structure. The laws, rules, and provision of a domineering authority were gone. They had yet to understand YHWH’s love for them. They had yet to fully grasp all the wonders they had seen through the plagues. Now their new leader had been up on the mountain for over a month! “Is he coming back? Is he even alive?” We can imagine their concern.

It’s imaginable that, a little like children, they were lonely, uncertain, and frantic for connection to a God they did not truly know. In fact, they say it clearly.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron 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.” Exodus 32:1-2

So, Aaron, who had also spent his whole life in Egyptian captivity and culture, tells them to bring him gold. He melts it down, and verse 4 says:

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.”

Yikes! That’s what we tend to think, right? God was literally dictating the structure of their nation to Moses, and they, sick of waiting, turned their hearts to something “faster and easier” to make them feel secure. Hmmm… Why does that sound so familiar…?

Anyway, God tells Moses, “You’d better go down, the people are already idolatrous and I’m about to take them out” (my paraphrase). Moses appeals to God’s mercy and gets a reprieve. But then things get crazy. You’ll have to read it. But look at the encounter between Aaron and Moses when he gets down the mountain.

He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘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.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” Exodus 32:21-24

Wait, what? They gave you gold, you threw it in the fire, and “out came this calf”? Was Aaron asleep for the hours, or more likely days it took him to carve the massive metal bovine?

In my more arrogant youth, I often scoffed at the impatience and blindness of the Israelites. With the wisdom of a few decades, God has shown me that every human struggles with this plight.

Waiting and Wondering – Our faith can be so solid when all our little cares are in line. When the bills are paid, the kids are well, we feel loved, and the car starts, we sing of how good God is. When one or several of these dominos fall out of line, especially when the fix is not instant, we can start to wonder if God is really with us. Waiting tests our faith. Though Isaiah reminds us that if we persevere in waiting we will rise on wings like eagles, we struggle with the lies that urgently whisper, “You are plummeting to the ground!” Just like the Israelites, we start to agitate. We can’t see or feel God so we need to find Him! And if we cannot find Him quickly, we may decide to fashion Him. But it will not be YHWH.

Designing and Deceiving – We start designing. What can we find that brought God close before? Let’s throw that into the fire! What makes us feel as good, or close to it, as the Presence of God made us feel last time? Grab that! We’ll toss it in too. In our efforts to move God to fix our feelings or our circumstances (and quickly please), we begin to shape anything we can find into an image of god that might resemble the God we long for. Then we deceive ourselves. “I’m trying to get God’s answer,” we say. “It’s not a sinful pursuit,” we comfort ourselves. Can you hear the similarity? “I threw it in the fire and out came this calf!”

Sadness and Separation – The sad result for the Israelites and for us is the same. They were no nearer to God. They had saddened Him and separated themselves from Him. We do likewise. When we finally “come to” and realize the foolishness of our striving, we see the precious face of our Savior, the wounded Lamb of God, on the other side of a massive, dead god we have erected. Our monstrous creation blocks the path to what we most desire. 

But praise God, that is never the end! Even though that massive Buddha still holds sway on the mountain today, I know a day is coming when Jesus will claim all those who are His. The earth will be new and no more will our hearts or the hills be polluted by our shiny, pathetic efforts to paint God. Revelation says we will “see His face.”

How is it with your soul? Are there golden figures hidden among the hills and caverns of your heart that sometimes block your view and your avenue to Jesus? Ask Him to help you see your idols. Ask a trusted friend in Christ if they see things that might be blocking your victory in Jesus. 

His voice is calling. Calling us back to His heart. Calling us forward to His plans. There is always more.

You were created to live a life of calling.