“There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him
that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”
~ Flannery O’Connor
The newly-formed nation of Israel struggled with their newly known Unseen God, just as their ancestor Jacob had done in his midnight wrestling match long ago. Egypt was a saharan Mars Hill, filled with carved idols of stone, wood and gold. Some surrounding cultures worshiped the images themselves, others worshiped like Egypt, understanding them in some kind of representational fashion.
And God banned idolatry with two commandments, even as Israel wandered back to the same images. Desperate for something simple, something tangible and safe, they created a golden calf and danced around it even as Moses stood on the mountain.
And yet I’m pretty sure God knew what was up. The first commandment is difficult to misunderstand:
Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
The second seems redundant at first glance:
Thou shalt not make unto Me any graven image.
I’m no student of Hebrew (yet), but some commentators have interpreted this along the lines of God telling Israel, “Do not represent Me. Do not even try to cast My presence into some tangible form subject to decay; don’t try and make Me a subcreation of your own. Remember Who it is that brought you up out of Egypt.”
((a note: He did eventually come to earth in a tangible form, in every way that would turn Israel’s expectations inside out yet again)).
The modern church teaches all sorts of lessons about modern idols. As creatures living in a world changed by the Enlightenment, the world scoffs at the idea that a stone could listen and fulfill your requests. We learn that a spouse, food, cellphones or anything else we view as more important than God will become a false idol, that those things can never fulfill us.
And yet, I think we miss the second commandment in doing this. We take it for a repeat while denominations split and are born over different doctrines and different views of the character of God. We emphasize His love and compassion so much that we lose track of the rest of His character. He becomes the God of satisfying your wants with little authority. Or, we take an emphasis on His perfect character, His justice and wrath and holiness, and we say, “this is what God is! fear and obey!”
Christianity is about imitating Christ. This means looking up and pursuing Him, which we often elaborate on in practical terms. Most people learn basic elements of morality when they are young from demonstrations by other people, which is all well and good.
Unfortunately, when we hold up a specific characteristic of God, often already past the practical application example, and say loudly, ‘This is who God is!’ we’re creating a false image. God is more complex than basic competing human emotions: those human feelings are small fragments of a bigger picture. In emphasis, we have missed the whole for a part.
Often, when people remain in the church with this mis-emphasis, their view shrinks. God is no longer just, He is exacting. He is no longer holy, He is distant. The only way to avoid His punishing character is to avoid sin.
Do not make God small by limiting Him to few words, especially in a digital age. The Psalms run wild with descriptions of His love and justice and mercy. The Bible teems with the rumblings of who He is. He created language, do not cling to old carvings or create new ones without understanding. The God of Israel does not need infinite simplification; we need to dive into His vastness.