Do you ever wish God would show himself? Ever feel jealous of the disciples who got to walk and talk with Jesus for three whole years? I do. I’m not always certain that God’s idea to be invisible was a good one. Why not just manifest yourself and prove to everyone you’re alive and well? It seems like that would help a lot.
As we continue in Deuteronomy 4, we come to verses 15-19. Moses’ description of idols is very interesting. Unlike our invisible God, the idols were physical objects that could be seen. Statues of people or animals, and worship of the sun and moon. The nations around Israel all had idol worship.
Most Americans, myself included, have rarely experienced what Israel dealt with every day, being influenced by idol worship. Only a few times in my life, on mission trips, have I traveled through lands where there were idol statues. Guyana, India, Nepal, and Cambodia. In these countries there were Hindu and Buddhist statues all over the place. Imagine what it would feel like trying to be a faithful Christian in Cambodia with Buddhist statues dominating the culture. In Phnom Penh we walked to the famous Wat Phnom, an ancient Buddhist temple, and peered inside the sanctuary. It was a room crammed with idols big and small. An eerie feeling came over me. In fact, in all of those countries, I felt a spiritual pressure, a darkness, and I was only visiting for a few days or months. That’s what Israel had to live with all the time.
You might think, “Statues are so basic. What is the attraction?” Because pervasive idol worship is not a part of our culture, it can be hard to fathom. But in the Canaanite culture surrounding Israel, statues or the sun or moon were tangible things. You could see them, touch them, feel them, and smell the smells around them. It works that way still today in nations with religions that feature idol worship. Adherents believe those idols are connected to a real being, a real god. It might be hard for us to imagine, but for them it was and is real. In some cases they are connected to a real being, a demonic power.
Now here’s the rub. What did God say to Israel? He said, “I don’t want you making any idols.” So how is Israel supposed to compete religiously in a culture and society that was all about physical representation of gods, when Israel’s God was invisible? Maybe that is why Israel was so enticed by other nation’s gods and their statues.
Before this sounds foreign and irrelevant to you, ask yourself if you might feel a tinge of this. Let me explain. How do you feel about worshiping an invisible God? Do you ever think, “I wish you would just show yourself, God!” When you never see God, do you ever doubt God’s existence? I do. Even if we have a strong faith, we still at times long for a physical manifestation of God.
Moses reminds us in verse 15 that Israel didn’t see their God, Yahweh. He had no form. They knew he was real, though. Why? They heard him! Yesterday, I mentioned the story of when he spoke to them. They had evidence that he was real. Other idols they could see, but those idols could not talk because they were not alive. Yahweh, though they couldn’t see him, was absolutely, clearly alive.
Even still, clearly for Israel and for us too, being in a relationship with an invisible God can be hard. When you can’t see something, when you don’t have evidence, it is hard to stay faithful. Imagine your spouse was invisible, and you only very rarely heard their voice. They wrote a book long ago, however, and that is the primary way you continue to stay in relationship with them. From time to time you see the evidence that they were around, but it is rare. How do you think your marriage would be with that kind of invisible spouse? Most of us would say “Forget this.”
We long to people in relationship with real people. We long to communicate, to look into each others’ eyes, to hear and to be heard, to touch one another. I recently listened to an interview on NPR that featured a communication specialist. She reported research into what happens in the human brain when we communicate with one another. The electrical energy in our brains goes wild, reacting, anticipating. We are built to communicate with one another, she said. Remember Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away? He survived an airplane crash that left him alone on a deserted island. Among the wreckage, he found a Wilson volleyball. As the days passed, feeling desperate, using his own blood, he painted a face on the ball, and started talking to it, as though it was a friend named Wilson. Hanks’ masterful acting depicts his character in “conversation” with Wilson. He was so alone, starved not only for food, but for communication, and he created a friend to connect with.
Therefore it is sometimes painfully hard to stay faithful to an invisible God. You can see why people long for a god they can see, hear, and feel. You can see why people worship idols.
We are people who love to hear about spiritual experiences breaking into in our everyday lives. The dreams, the visions, the miracles, the answers to prayer. Why? Because those are evidences of God being alive. If we are honest, many of us would admit that we question God’s existence or the truth of the Bible, and we feel guilty about it. So we long for God to show up. We long for those experiences of God in our lives.
I have to ask you, though: can those experiences become idols? Can we become too dependent on the physical manifestation of God? I think we can.
One of my favorite CS Lewis quotes from The Screwtape Letters is when Wormwood, the senior demon, remarks to Wormwood, the demon in training, that if a Christian sees no evidence of God in their lives, but still obeys, that Christian is not worth trying to tempt anymore. They are a lost cause…to the demon. Why? Because that Christian has attained a high level of spiritual maturity. They don’t need to see God to believe and follow him. They don’t need physical manifestations of God at work to sustain their faith. There is nothing wrong with God manifesting himself. He can and does. But maturity in Christ means that we do not allow ourselves to become addicted to spiritual manifestations; we do not allow ourselves to get to a place where our faith will crumble if those manifestations cease.
This is why we spent so much time this past summer learning about the spiritual disciplines. Scroll back through the blog and you’ll see those posts. Why are spiritual disciplines so important? When we develop habitual patterns of following God, we can have strength to get through the dry times. The regular practice of spiritual disciplines is vital.
I recently heard the story about one of our local cross country runners who was nervous to start practice. Remember those weeks in mid-August? It was hot! And humid. Can you imagine running in that? This particular young lady had never been on the cross country team before, and she was nervous she would do poorly in the heat. You know what happened that first day of practice? She was fine. But another boy, not so much. He ended up almost passing out due to heat stroke. You know the difference? She trained over the summer, and the other boy did not. She logged the personal miles, and so her body was ready for practice, even in the heat.
Likewise we practice a disciplined faith so that we can become mature followers of Jesus. Not following idols. But following the way of Jesus, even when we see little evidence of God around us.
Are you working on growing your faith? Practicing spiritual disciplines? We might not see God, Moses reminds us. But we can know that he is alive and well.