4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;
5 “you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,
6 “but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Addiction is a vicious god. It deceives you very gradually into thinking it will solve your problems. If you just get enough drugs or alcohol or sex or pornography or gambling, if you just indulge yourself this “one time,” then you can make it through another night, another day. You will not feel so lonely, not worry so much, not necessarily need that fellowship and love that once filled your life. If you give in now and then, it seems not nearly so bad as facing the day or the week or the month without that rush you get from taking another hit. Your life feels empty without the high–and, you come to realize, your life feels empty WITH it, too. You serve the twin gods of false fulfillment and real shame, and even when guilt and regret fill your heart, it still is not enough to force you to give up the double life you are leading. You wear a mask that shows you are getting by, when in reality you’re just getting by between episodes of getting your next fix. You go to work, go to church, go to parties, go meet friends for coffee, go see a movie, go visit your kids or grandkids–and on the surface, you wear that winsome smile that tells friends and family you are just fine. And yet, your god–the horrid beast of addiction–is eating away at your self-esteem, is never truly saving you from anything, is demanding more and larger sacrifices of time and heart and soul.
Addiction is perhaps the worst of the false gods we serve in our lives. Sometimes we half-jokingly talk about how our love of TV, our love of some particular food, or our love for some sports team is an “idol” in our lives. But those are things we show others gladly. We almost boast about how we love certain movies or celebrities or foods or athletes or books, and we say to ourselves and others, “I really need to give that up.” But the worst idols are not necessarily the things that eat up all our time, they are the things we worship and serve in secret, the things we are too ashamed to bring into the light, the things that seem to sustain us to show off those other things about which we are not so embarrassed. Our love for a hometown football team that prompts us to wear certain colors and to cheer like mad even among strangers–that is nothing compared to using that fanaticism to hide our addiction and brokenness and fear. Those TV shows, those foods, those little idols, they are just part of the mask. The worst idols are the once we keep to ourselves.
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He knew they would be tempted to look back. They would be tempted to remember how their masters had kept them fed, how they had a place to sleep and a place to raise their families. Never mind that they were enslaved to perform hard labor, that they never had the time nor the means to spend time with the God who had raised them up from the seed of Abraham. They didn’t know how hard they had it nor how good they could have it, because for generations they had known nothing else. They had come to Egypt as the families of a dozen men, and by the time of the Exodus they were a population of over a million. They bore the whip as the necessary consequence of living day to day. If they could just get through a day without getting beaten again, without losing a loved one to a vicious overseer, without missing their quota, then life was good enough. Why should they want more? Who would give them more than what they already had? It was the reality of their world that some people were masters and some were slaves. They just happened to be on the low end of the ladder with everyone else stepping on them to get ahead. They may not have been as fat and happy as they were just after the famine during Joseph’s lifetime, but they were at least content with their lot in life. Then along came Moses to challenge Pharaoh and drag them out from under the whip–and to take them away from the only homes and lives they had ever known. Yes, they would be awfully tempted to look back fondly on that slavery.
The Lord our God is indeed a jealous God, but not in the way you or I are typically jealous. We hoard our time with our loved ones, desiring more attention, craving affection from someone–and yet our jealousy is not really FOR ourselves but AGAINST someone else. Our jealousy is built on our own desire for companionship and self-focused love, built on our fear of abandonment. But God is jealous in a different way. He knows that He is far better than any other thing or person in our lives, and so He has no fear that we will ever truly find something better. No, He is not so much jealous that we will ignore Him but that we will ignore His will for our lives, that we will be led astray by other gods in our lives, that we will take a path that will lead to our destruction. We humans may actually be better off with one person versus another person, and we may find a better life with someone else–more love, greater faith, better service unto God–and yet we are constantly jealous of each other, seeking to keep others close to us for our own needs. However, the Lord our God knows that we cannot possibly find anything greater than Him–no greater love, no greater power, no greater concern for our safety, no greater joy than we will find at His side and in His service–and so He is not jealous OF those other gods in our lives but jealous FOR our well-being, jealous that we will not find the blessings He has promised us.
There was a saying we had in the Army back in the 1980s, and I imagine it still circulates today: Your last duty station is always your best. We said that jokingly, because no matter how awful things were where you were last stationed, in retrospect it always seems better than the place you’re in now. Humans are nostalgic creatures with very selective memories, and so we remember the good about the places we’ve been and the life we’ve lived, even as we seem to remember only the bad things about the people we encounter along the way. And the last place we were–Egypt, addiction, abuse, or darkest sin–always seems better than the struggles we face now.
“I was better fed in Egypt.”
“I felt better when I acted on my addiction.”
“I felt loved even as I was treated worse than a stray dog.”
“I enjoyed myself in those dark places.”
We forget that those gods of our lives never lifted us out of the miry clay to set our feet on solid ground. We forget that those gods never gave us true joy or love or safety. We forget that those gods fed us only so long as we fed them. We forget–or rather, we CHOOSE to forget–that we entered that slavery willingly at first, and that we became so used to it that we couldn’t imagine a life without those gods in our lives. We became just like the Israelites in Egypt.
But God is jealous for us, and so He has commanded that we worship only Him, that we serve only Him, that we love Him first above all other things or people in our lives. God loves us so much that He sent His Son to make sure we have a way out of our slavery, a way to break the bonds that those other gods have on our lives. Moses came with the power of God to break Pharaoh’s chains and lead Israel to the Promised Land. Jesus came with the power of salvation and has broken the chains of our addictions, the chains of our petty gods, the chains of our regrets, the chains of our memories of “better” times that were actually far worse than we remember. Jesus has come in the name of our jealous God to help us remember that He is the only God worthy of our worship and service, that He alone can bring us real joy, that this Lord our God will wipe away all our tears, heal all our wounds, and give us eternal life. Can a mute bit of stone or metal do that? Can a mere human do that? Can a bit of inanimate drug or a sexual encounter do that? Can a roll of the dice do that? No, only a jealous, righteous, loving God can do that.
I know what it’s like to be so lost in addiction that I could not see my way out. I know what it’s like to crave that next high, to desire to give in to my flesh and ignore my spirit. I know the pain of regret that still does not seem to outweigh the temporary happiness of addictive activity. I know the weight of those chains that seemed so light at the time because I did not know life without them. I know the bitter, petty, selfish jealousy of wishing I could just escape from others and get back to my secret life of self-indulgence and hidden guilt.
But my God is a jealous God, and He is a forgiving God. He shows mercy to thousands of generations who love Him and keep His commandments. And so, even as I wallowed in self-pity and worldly fulfillment, He called to me. Once I sought Him and had just a glimpse of His glory, His Spirit kept after me, calling me to repent and believe in the gospel of peace with God. His jealousy made Him relentless in His pursuit of me–yes, HIS pursuit of ME. For even though I lost my way again and again and forgot to seek His face, He kept after me, never letting me forget that He is jealous for me with a righteous jealousy, with a righteous anger, with a righteous love. His love for me brings me to tears even now as I write this, and I cannot ever forget how jealously He loves me.
Yes, we have little idols in our lives, things that satisfy our desire for entertainment, things that break the monotony of the daily grind of life in this world cursed by our own sin. Yes, we have mute gods that do nothing more than give us little islands of pleasure in a seemingly boundless and stormy sea of everyday life. But worse than that are the idols we serve in secret, the ones to whom we give our unspoken allegiance, the ones whom we expect to lift us up but who really drag us down. Jesus Christ has come to free us from all such idols, all such petty gods. He has come to break the chains of sin and death, to show us how God’s jealousy leads to God’s mercy. For even as the Lord our God has promised to visit the iniquity of fathers unto the third and fourth generation–i.e. upon those who learn the fathers’ sinful ways–He has also promised mercy to those who love Him, to those who keep His commandments. And chief among those commandments is that we have no other gods before Him–that we should not set up for ourselves false idols, that we should not allow ourselves to be drawn back into the slavery from which he has freed us. He alone is God, the great I AM, the Almighty, the One who is worthy of all our praise and worship and obedience and love.
There is nothing on this earth that can satisfy our need for salvation and love like the Lord our God. And He knows that! And He wants US to know that! That is why His commandments begin with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2) There is no better place than the place to which He leads us. There is no greater love than the grace which He has shown us. There is no greater joy than what we find in obedience to Him and love for Him. No addiction, no worldly desire, no person, no drug, no entertainment, no avoidance of life–nothing can ever truly satisfy that need we all have for the love of God. And His love is a jealous love, a love that is on fire for our well-being, a love that makes Him move with power in our lives, a love that moves Him to mercy, a love that prompts Him to grace. Without that love, we might have been lost forever, but because of that love we are now found, and through Jesus Christ we can know the fullness of His love and mercy. Yes, our God is a jealous God, and I for one am glad He is.
Dear Father in heaven, I am so glad You are jealous for me, that You love me so much that You gave Your Son to save us all. I love You for that jealousy, for that faithfulness and that mercy, for that relentless pursuit of my well-being, for that amazing grace that rains down upon us all. O Lord my God, please break these chains that bind me still. Let Your jealousy melt the steely bonds I myself have tempered through years of lies and deceit. Drag me, Father, kicking and screaming, out of Egypt, and set my feet upon the ground You have sanctified for me. May Your desire for me become my desire for You, a jealous love for only Your presence, only Your joy, only Your grace. Let me know the true joy and fulfillment that only Your jealous love for me can bring. Amen.