If you want to avoid going through emotional pain or grief or suffering, one thing you definitely need to do is avoid getting into committed human relationships. Committed relationships always involve us in pain of some kind. To be a husband or wife, to be a parent or child, to be a grandparent, to be a close friend, is to make ourselves vulnerable. It opens us up to worry, pain and grief. We will experience trouble in this life, and the agony of bereavement when we lose those we love. Relationships are wonderful, but they are also very hard. We can’t have the wonder without the hardship.
This principle works itself all the way through creation all the way up to the highest point, the throne of God himself. The God we read about in the Bible doesn’t hold himself aloof from his creation; he’s passionate, involved in his world, and totally committed to the people he loves. And this leaves him open to pain and anguish. Philip Yancey has described the God of the Old Testament prophets as ‘a jilted lover’ – jilted by his bride, Israel, consumed by grief and anger, but so head over heals in love with her that he’s desperate to get her back.
This is what’s behind the language we read in the Bible of God as a ‘jealous God’. It doesn’t sound very attractive – we might even say it’s unworthy of God – but then, when we think about it, there are some situations where jealousy is understandable. A married couple commit themselves to each other to the exclusion of all others; this commitment sets up the expectation of faithfulness. The wife of an unfaithful husband will naturally feel jealous; most people would say that she has a right to feel that way. And let’s remember that the Old Testament writers see God and Israel as being symbolically married to each other; that’s what the covenant is all about. Let’s explore this idea in our reading from Jeremiah today. Look with me first at verses 1-3:
‘The word of the LORD came to me, saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says the LORD’.
This is an allegorical description of the time when Israel was wandering in the desert on the way from Egypt to the promised land. God had led them out from Egypt, delivered them from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and now he was guiding them through the wilderness under the leadership of Moses.
Jeremiah uses two poetic images here. First, he describes Israel as a newlywed bride. Speaking for God, he says,
‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’ (v.2b).
God and Israel had gotten married to each other, and the wilderness journey was their honeymoon! Where our English Bible says ‘the devotion of your youth’, the Hebrew word for devotion is hesed, sometimes translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘committed love’ – the love that’s not just about feelings but faithful actions. Usually in the Old Testament hesed is used to describe God’s love for people; this is one of the rare occasions where it’s used to describe human love for God.
Most newlyweds don’t have to be told to spend time together – they love it! They have a sense of wonder about each other, a sense of embarking on a journey of new discoveries, of plumbing the depths of love and passion for each other. It was the same with God’s new bride, Israel, in those desert days: she was deeply in love with the God who had rescued her from slavery in Egypt, to the point of being willing to turn away from all other gods and follow him through the dreadful wilderness to the land he had promised to give her.
Second, Jeremiah describes Israel as the first fruits of God’s harvest.
‘Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest’ (v.3a).
The Law of Moses said that when the harvest was gathered in, the first fruits – the grain and fruit that was harvested first – was to be given to God for the exclusive use of the priests. No one else was allowed to eat it, because it was ‘holy’ – a word that means ‘set apart for the exclusive use of God’. ‘Holy’ comes from the same root in the Bible languages as ‘sanctified’ and ‘saint’ and ‘consecrate’. So Israel was God’s holy people; God had consecrated her to himself. Israel accepted this joyfully and was happy to live it out daily.
You might be thinking, ‘What’s all this got to do with me?’ Well, this feeling of spiritual honeymooning is common among people who go through a conversion experience. In some cases, the conversion is from a lukewarm faith to a deep, heartfelt relationship with God. In other cases, it’s what we call a ‘darkness to light’ conversion: someone who has no faith in God suddenly discovers that God is real and commits himself or herself to knowing and following God.
This kind of honeymoon faith is often passionate, even reckless. I remember my own conversion experience as a young teenager. I was raised in church, but never really had a sense of connection with God. When I found that, I was passionate about it. I read the Bible eagerly every day – I spent time in prayer – I went at least once a week to a small group for prayer and Bible study. I loved singing the new worship songs that were coming out at the time. I read the things Jesus had to say about living a simple life with few possessions, and living without violence, and I was attracted by them and tried to practice them. And I did my best to share my faith with other people. This was my spiritual honeymoon, and I look back on it with great fondness.
But sooner or later things start to cool down, and then comes the potential for trouble. God’s tone changes in verse 4, and he definitely starts to sound like a jilted spouse. ‘Was there something I did wrong? Didn’t I love you enough? Was it something you wanted me to do that I didn’t do? Was it something I said? Tell me, and I’ll make it up to you!’ So in verse 5 God says,
‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?’
In desperation, God reminds them of all he did for them - rescuing them from Egypt, leading them safely through the desert, bringing them to their promised land. What was their response? They abandoned him and turned to other gods instead.
According to the Old Testament, this turning to other gods came after the Israelites settled in Canaan after their desert journey. When you understand the culture of the time it’s not actually hard to understand it. In those days the idea of one god being the god of the whole earth was very rare. Most gods were seen as territorial, and so Yahweh was the god of Israel, Molech was the god of Moab and so on. When you moved to a new land it was smart to get to know the local gods; they were in charge, so you’d be wise to avoid offending them! Also, if you were a farmer, the local fertility gods were the ones who made your crops grow, so not making offerings to them wasn’t a smart thing either.
But the weird thing is that this never actually worked for Israel. The Old Testament story is clear: when they turned to other gods, things went badly for them. Jeremiah says ‘They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’ (v.5b). The Hebrew word for ‘worthless’ can also mean ‘empty’, ‘vain’, ‘useless’. Worshipping idols turned out to be a gigantic waste of time.
How does this apply to us today? Modern idolatry in our western world is not about statues of gods made out of wood or stone. In Jeremiah 1:16 Jeremiah says of his people, ‘They have made offerings to other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands’. Today, we’re still worshipping the work of our own hands. We still think that the things we make for ourselves or buy for ourselves are the things that can make us happy and bring us a sense of fulfilment. We can build a big house, buy a big car, fill a big bank account. We can make a big country that the rest of the world fears; we can start a fashion trend, we can learn the secret of eternal youth, we can build a business empire second to none.
We were created to have the one true God at the centre of our lives. We were designed to find our primary identity as his children, made in his image, loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is what the human being was designed to do. But idolatry is putting something else – something other than God – at the centre of our lives.
Why would we do that? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, idolatry is widely accepted in our society. Of course, we don’t call it ‘idolatry’, but that doesn’t matter; whatever you want to call it, the fact is that the majority of people in our world live with something other than God at the centre of their lives. And that’s generally applauded. If you’ve decided that the meaning of life is to get ahead, to gradually become more and more wealthy, to own more and more things and to enjoy a more and more luxurious lifestyle, no one in our world thinks that’s weird. Why would they? Politicians love people who do that; they call it ‘economic growth’! Jesus called it ‘worshipping mammon’, but who listens to Jesus?
Likewise, in our society, if our country is attacked and you join the chorus of people calling for a dramatic act of revenge, no one thinks that’s weird – it’s just common sense. The Bible says that vengeance is God’s – it’s his prerogative, so to take revenge is to make yourself into a false god. But very few people take that idea seriously, even in churches. In this and many other instances, idolatry is seen as normal, and faithfulness to God is seen as swimming against the tide. It’s much easier just to go along with the idolatry.
Another reason we turn to false gods is that the good news of Jesus no longer seems like news to us. We’re used to it; if we’re honest, we’ve maybe even become a little bored with it. In contrast, our modern idolatries seem new and cool and exciting. This is the same sort of dynamic that drives extra-marital affairs; my relationship with my spouse has become old news, and then along comes someone else, and I feel again that sense of excitement, that intoxication. You know what comes next.
But the truth is that this is all useless. Jeremiah gives us a vivid picture in verse 13. Speaking for God, he says,
‘For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.
On the one hand you have God, the fountain of living water. ‘Living water’ in the Bible usually means moving water – water coming from a spring, a stream, a river, as opposed to brackish water from a slough or a cistern. And worst of all would be a cracked cistern that couldn’t even hold water; you’d be parched with thirst, go to it for a drink, and find nothing.
That’s what false gods are like: they promise to quench your thirst, but they don’t deliver on their promises. We’ve all experienced that. How much money is enough? Well, more than I’ve got now, that’s for sure (even though I’ve got a lot more than I used to have)! I’m working hard toward my goals; what happens when I achieve them? Will I be satisfied, or will I have to set new goals, even harder and more challenging? And how are my perfect spouse and perfect children coping with the pressure of being perfect? Asking our spouse to be God for us – to take godlike responsibility for making us happy and secure - is a rather big job description!
St. Augustine one said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Many people feel that restlessness, even if they don’t know what it’s about. The British newspaper columnist Bernard Levin – who, by the way, was not a Christian – once wrote these words:
‘Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches’.
What he is describing is the failure of our false gods, and this is as relevant to us today as it was in Jeremiah’s time. Christian conversion involves turning away from false gods and turning toward the one true God who has been revealed to us in Jesus. What motivates many of us to do this is that we experience what Levin has described: the failure of our false gods. When this happens, some people go into denial and look desperately for another false god to try. But some, perhaps, have the courage to accept reality, and to begin to seek the Creator God who made them and who loves them.
Christians need this ongoing conversion too, of course, not just non-Christians. False gods are all around us, and we’re tempted by their voices. So we need to hear again the Gospel message, the good news that God is real, that God is love, and that God is like Jesus. When we hear and believe that good news, we’re motivated to stop chasing after vanity and come back to God and to his Son, Jesus Christ.
So what should we do? Let me conclude by suggesting three things.
First, be aware of what your favourite false gods are. One of my personal favourites is the approval of others. I struggled with poor self-image as a teenager and a young adult, and the approval of others is pretty intoxicating for me. Over the years I’ve done all sorts of stupid things to get it, most of them involving pretending to be someone I wasn’t. And it never worked, because deep down I always knew that the person I was pretending to be wasn’t real. I’ve got through most of that now, but I know the potential is still there, and so I keep a sharp lookout for it.
Second, take steps to guard against those false gods. If there are situations where you’re going to be tempted to respond to their siren call, try to avoid those situations. Remind yourself of how often you’ve experienced the failure of those false gods in the past. Burst the bubble; point out to yourself that the emperor has no clothes!
Finally, seek the Lord. Do all you can to deepen your relationship with the one true God. Strive to know God better. Take time each day to pray and to meditate on the scriptures. Ask him to help you listen to his teaching and put it into practice in your daily life. Make it your goal to please him in all that you do and say.
Don’t expect this to yield immediate results; remember, if God is God, he’s not under our control. We can’t compel him to show up. But what we can do is to put ourselves in the place of listening to his word and living obediently toward him. And then we can ask him to make himself known to us.
Not sure how to ask for that? Psalm 27:7-9 is not a bad place to start:
‘Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! “Come”, my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me’.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.