Of all the biblical examples of what not to do, the one that seems the most brainless might be the one we are most likely to imitate. It’s the story of the Israelites worshipping a golden calf after witnessing overwhelming evidence of the one true God.
What motivated those people to give their gold jewelry to their priest and have him make them a statuesque god they could worship so they could feel God was near? Some scholars believe they really wanted to honor God, just needed something in front of them to feel like God was in their midst. But God’s response of wanting to annihilate the people for their offense is a sobering reminder and warning of how God views our attempts to put anyone or anything in His rightful place.
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What Happened in the Bible with the Golden Calf?
Exodus 32 records the incident of the golden calf. After witnessing the mighty wonders of God in delivering His people from Egypt, the Israelites began to feel that their leader, Moses, had abandoned them. For 40 days Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the written law from the Almighty God, with smoke and darkness covering the mountain. The same God who brought 10 plagues upon Egypt so that Pharaoh would let the Israelites go, and the same God who parted the Red Sea to let His people walk through it on dry ground appeared to be “far off” so the Israelites decided to create a god of their own. They asked Aaron the Priest (Moses’ own brother) to “make us gods who shall go before us.” They gave Aaron all their gold jewelry (the plunder God gave them from the Egyptians when they fled that land) and Aaron melted it down and made a statue of a golden calf. He then built an altar upon which he erected the calf and proclaimed a “feast to the Lord” the next day. The people burnt offerings and then danced and partied before the god they had made in their own image (verses 1-6 ESV).
God was repulsed at their sin of worshipping a created image as if it were the one True God (and the One who had delivered them from Egypt), and His wrath “burned hot against them.” After Moses begged God to show mercy on His people, God relented, but allowed His sword of judgment to kill 300 Levites, signifying how serious God is about expecting spiritual leaders to be responsible and not tolerate sin in their camp.
What Does the Golden Calf Symbolize?
Scholars believe the golden calf may have been modeled after Apis, the Egyptian fertility bull-god. That would have been a symbol the Israelites were familiar with after their years of slavery in Egypt. Although Aaron may have presented the calf as a symbol of the true God – he built an altar for the idol, designated it as sacred, and called for a “festival to the Lord” (verse 5) – God considered it a corruption of themselves and wanted to consume them out of His wrath.
According to the commentators of the Life Application Study Bible, “even if we do not make idols today, we are often guilty of trying to make God in our image – molding him to fit our expectations, desires, and circumstances. When we do this, we end up worshipping ourselves rather than the God who created us – and self-worship today as in the Israelites’ time, leads to all kinds of immorality.”
How Can You Find the Golden Calf in Your Life?
You and I don’t melt down our jewelry and make physical statues and call them God, yet we sometimes give up what is important to us to prioritize the temporary, worthless things of this world. We tend to spend money on precious possessions like expensive cars, high tech toys, beautiful homes, or name-brand handbags, and then invest our time and energy and more money to keep them safe, secure, and spotless. Anything we love, think about, or serve (with our energy and time) can become a golden calf in our lives. Anything that we raise up in the place of God, revere, desire, or consider more valuable than our relationship with God can become an unknowing golden calf in our lives.
Our golden calf can be success, productivity, fame, the approval of others, or anything we strive for more than our spiritual growth and our closeness with God.
Sometimes we make our children our golden calf when they become our no. 1 priority and we stress about their health, their wellbeing and their happiness, more than we desire to please God by trusting Him with our children’s lives.
A husband or wife can put their spouse in that position of worship if they obey their spouse’s desires over God’s, seek to please their spouse more than they seek to please God, or simply desire their spouse more than they desire God. Some wives put their husbands in the position of God, expecting them to meet all their emotional needs and expectations, instead of letting God meet their emotional needs.
At times, work becomes our golden calf because it creeps into the no. 1 spot on our priority lists and consumes our time and energy and we put everything else beneath that. Maybe money is your golden calf because how much you have (or don’t have) determines your security or contentment level or because every ounce of energy you have is going toward making more, paying off debt, or saving up for something you desperately want.
Here are seven ways to identify and eliminate the golden calf in your life.
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1. Ask God to show you daily who or what is most important to you.
Jesus said the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
One way to do that is to pray, “God, how is my heart before You today? Are you still my top priority and in the place where you should be?” Then seek to love Him first and foremost and all the other things will fall into place (Matthew 6:33), including being less likely to erect a golden calf.
2. Assess what you worry about or spend most of your time thinking about.
Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, Luke 12:34). If your heart and mind are consumed with worry about your children or obsessing over your body image or weight or the number of followers you have on Instagram, that will tell you a lot about who and what you worship.
Colossians 3:1-3 tells us to set our minds on things above. If you are longing for Jesus, longing for Heaven, and living with eternity in mind, you clearly have God in the right place and there isn’t a chance you’ll be erecting a golden calf and worshipping something temporary or far less worthy than Him.
3. Acknowledge Him daily through praise and thanksgiving.
When you daily praise the Almighty, you are reminding yourself that He is God and you are not. First Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Being thankful for all things keeps us in perspective and reminds us that everything we have has been given to us. That humble and grateful mindset keeps us from making, erecting, or worshipping a golden calf out of a lack of contentment or feeling we should have more than we do.
4. Abstain from whatever consumes you, causes you to sin, or competes with God in your life.
Jesus said if your right eye causes you to sin tear it out and throw it away, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away (Matthew 5:29-31). Sounds severe, right? Yet He was expressing that our eternity is far more important than our temporary discomfort or full-on struggle in order to avoid temptation and habitual sin. Addictions can easily become our golden calf. That’s why Step No. 1 in the 12 Step-Recovery Program for AA is that you acknowledge you are not God of your life and surrender to your Higher Power – which is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Only One who can give us strength and power to overcome addictive behavior and He is the only One who belongs in the No. 1 place in our life – not alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, gambling, shopping, caffeine, or whatever might hold power over you.
Allow a friend into your life by sharing with them how you might struggle in this area. Choose a friend who will pray for you and hold you accountable. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 tells us: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” Bring someone alongside you to help you eliminate the golden calf of addiction in your life.
5. Absorb God’s Word and let it become what you feast on.
Romans 12:2 commands us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
We make idols of our desires when we become conformed to this world. And we can make God into our own image when we are more familiar with the world and its ways than the Word of God and His ways. The best way to renew our minds and be transformed to the will of God rather than this world is to be fully saturated in the Word of God. A person transformed by the Word of God is much less likely to erect a golden calf and worship a false god in their life.
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6. Adopt the practice of waiting upon God.
It was the Israelites’ lack of patience and unwillingness to wait on God that caused them to turn away from God and make up one of their own. They got tired of waiting – waiting for Moses to return from the mountain, waiting to find out what they should do next, waiting while it seemed to them that God was silent. Do you get impatient waiting on God, too?
In Psalm 62, David sang: “My soul waits in silence for God alone; From Him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I will not be greatly shaken” (verses 1-2). And in verses 5-6, David again proclaimed: “My soul, wait in silence for God alone, For my hope is from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, My refuge; I will not be shaken” (NASB).
Those words were penned by a man who waited on God, worshipped God, and earned the description by God as “a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do’” (Acts 13:22 NIV). You can eliminate the golden calf in your life by simply waiting for God and His purposes in your life, not trying to go after them on your own.
7. Address the people-pleasing areas of your life.
Aaron obviously feared the Israelites’ response if he didn’t do what they asked of him. But rather than holding to his convictions and principles, and standing for truth and worship of the one true God, this Priest appointed by God caved to the expectations of the people. Do you fear people more than you fear God? Do you desire to please them more than you desire to be obedient to, and thus please God? When people are big in your eyes and God is small, that equates to erecting the golden calf of people (and their opinions and approval) over the God who created people. External pressures by others to take up life on your own instead of depending on God may lead you to adopt your own golden calf that takes the place, respect, service, and time from you that only God deserves.
As you live by Jesus’ command in Matthew 22:37 to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength you will be ensuring that no one takes His rightful place in your life. And, as you surrender your heart and will to Him daily and make sure the Holy Spirit is on the throne of your heart, you will be ensuring that yourself (or anything else) doesn’t take the rightful place of God and become an object of worship in your life.