You may have heard the story about how to catch a monkey (whether true or not is another matter): Put some enticing goodies in a jar, and wait for the monkey to put his hand in to grab them. Of course the greedy monkey won’t let go, so he remains trapped with his fist in the jar.
Whether apocryphal or not, similar stories have been told about kids and cookie jars. The moral of such stories of course is if we greedily and recklessly clutch on to something, we become entrapped and enslaved, and are not free to do that which is of more value and worth.
Spiritually speaking this truth holds up big time, monkey stories notwithstanding. When we cling to anything other than God, it enslaves us, and it prevents us from taking hold of that which is really important. The truth is, we must choose one or the other – we cannot have both.
This truth was clearly expressed to me today as I read through the book of Jonah. This very familiar book concerns a number of important themes, but it was Jonah 2:8 that stood out to me this morning: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
God’s grace and favour cannot coexist with his people pursuing worthless idols. Idolatry always becomes a false god, robbing the one true God of his rightful place. Because we are made in God’s image, but live in a fallen world, our universal desire to worship something and cling to something – anything – will always be there.
If we do not adhere to and worship the true and living God, we will find all sorts of other false gods and worthless idols to commit ourselves to. But it always is the case of one or the other. We cannot worship God and false gods at the same time.
As Jesus plainly said in Matthew 6:24, “You can’t serve both God and Mammon”. We either whole-heartedly worship the God of the universe, or we worship a god of our own devising. There is no middle ground here, and no other alternatives.
Of course there are other passages which speak directly to this important theme. One very notable text is Jeremiah 2:13:
My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
This is such an important verse. Not only is there no moral equivalence whatsoever between the real God and all the false gods, but only the former can satisfy, deliver the goods, and bring us real fulfilment and true satisfaction. The myriad of false gods we prefer to worship are always going to be empty cisterns, and they will never satisfy or fulfil our deepest longings.
That is why idolatry is always painted as such a horrible sin in the Bible. It is a slap in the face to the true God, and it leaves the idolater empty, unsatisfied and broken. Thus when God commands us to have no idols, he tells us this for our own good.
He knows that only he can meet our needs and fully allow us to be who we were meant to be. Yet we allow ourselves to be enthralled and bedazzled by all the worthless trinkets and rubbish that is out there, preferring the trash of this world to the glories and treasures of God.
As C. S. Lewis put it in his important essay, “The Weight of Glory”, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We settle for the pigsty when the King wants us to share in the whole palace. We think all our worldly amusements and attractions will bring meaning, purpose and joy, but all they do is bring bitter disappointment in the end. They cannot satisfy, and never will satisfy.
And this pull to false gods is with us from day one. As John Calvin wrote, “Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” Our sin-soaked hearts are addicted to false gods and worthless idols. They are the stuff of our natural desires. So we need some outside help here.
As R.C. Sproul put it, “Loving a holy God is beyond our moral power. The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands. Unless we are born of the Spirit of God, unless God sheds His holy love in our hearts, unless He stoops in His grace to change our hearts, we will not love Him… To love a holy God requires grace, grace strong enough to pierce our hardened hearts and awaken our moribund souls.”
Thank God that he is forever in the business of smashing our ensnaring idols and illusory gods. As Lewis put it, God is “the great iconoclast”. He constantly has to smash our vain idols and get us refocused on himself. He does this in love, mercy and grace of course.
He knows what is best for us, and that is himself alone. Nothing else comes close. So when he finds us trapped with our fist in the cookie jar, he will faithfully smash both jar and cookie to set us free and bring us back to where we belong – in a sole, exclusive love relationship with himself.