Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior.
— Martin Luther
When I was in third grade, I memorized the Ten Commandments in Sunday School. At the time, the Second Commandment seemed like a no brainer.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…Exodus 20:4.
I mean, why would I want to carve some piece of wood or stone and worship it? It all seemed a little silly.
Forty years later, I understand the danger. We can make idols out of anything, and we’re pretty good at it too. My idols have included academics, career, political ideology, and even my own children.
Recently, I was reading the story of Jonah. You’re probably familiar with much of the story. Jonah is a prophet who is called to go to the dreaded city of Nineveh with a divine warning. Jonah wants no part of this plan and boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. A raging storm causes panic on the ship, and Jonah knows that his disobedience is the cause. He asks to be thrown overboard. His shipmates reluctantly agree. But God provides a huge fish to swallow Jonah and save him from certain death. Inside the fish’s belly Jonah cries out to God, knowing he has failed his calling.
As I read, one line struck me:
Those that cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Jonah 2:8
In this moment, it feels very much like American Christianity has found its way into the belly of the whale. God wants the Church to be an instrument of redemption and love; and yet, in many areas, the Church has run away from this calling and retreated into fear or complacency. This has been true for far too long; but like Jonah, we have been given the opportunity to repent. Of course, I know many individual Christians who live out the love of God every day, but as a whole we have much to answer for.
Do we recognize our worthless idols? Do we know where we have failed in our calling?
Let’s start with calling. What is the purpose of the Body of Christ? To LOVE. To love God and love our neighbor. That’s it. No more, no less. As Jesus taught, “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:40 (NLT) And yet, like Jonah, we so often run away from the very thing we are meant to do. We find other things to love — other things to worship.
Why? Well, it’s an unavoidable fact that the Church is made up of messy humans. But I also believe we humans are afraid of our own messiness, and stepping into love is undoubtedly messy. Surrendering our selfish desires to God can leave us feeling vulnerable; and loving other broken, screwed-up human beings is risky. It’s so much easier to put God in a box and avoid the people who aren’t like us. But that’s not what we are called to do.
Acknowledging our failings, we are well positioned to examine our hearts. What have we put before God? Where have we insisted on being ‘right’ rather than walking in humility? Where have our actions caused us to forfeit grace? How have we reacted with fear or complacency to what God is doing in our midst?
God wants nothing more than the hearts of his children. You see, the Ten Commandments are like guard rails, intended to keep a people with hardened hearts from losing their connection to God. But God makes another promise to Ezekiel — he creates a new covenant of the heart.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
This is how we walk in grace. This is how we love God and love our neighbor —with a new heart! When we receive this supernatural heart transplant and begin to walk in the truth that “we love because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) following God’s commandments becomes the natural result of the love we carry.
Friends, we’ve let our hearts grow hard. We’ve neglected our calling and chased after worthless idols. As a result, we (the Body of Christ) now find ourselves in the belly of the whale. The only way out is repentance. We must look inward.
Jonah cries out to the Lord and is promptly delivered from the belly of the whale. And yet, even after he delivers his message to the Ninevites and sees them respond with repentance, he still misses the point. Much to Jonah’s chagrin, God cares about the Ninevites too.
How would the Church respond if all of those on the ‘outside’ suddenly came to the ‘inside?’ Would we welcome them? Or would we judge them? Would we be able to let go of our idols (political, cultural, or otherwise) and genuinely love them? These questions are worth asking.
When God’s love truly dwells within, we will find it easier to extend grace to those who don’t think like us, worship like us, pray like us, or vote like us — even within the Church. If we hope to walk in unity, we must humbly address our heart problems. Perhaps then we will more closely resemble the One we follow.
We have a moment here in the belly of the whale. May we use this time wisely.
Lord, we have failed.
Failed to welcome.
Failed to listen
Failed to comfort.
Failed to love.
Soften our hearts that you may enter.
Open our eyes that we may see you clearly.
Forgive us for chasing after worthless idols.
Forgive us for placing our trust in worldly structures and systems rather than you.
Forgive us for elevating human authority over Kingdom authority.
Forgive us for putting political ideology before Godly wisdom.
May our hearts be humble.
May we freely extend grace to others as you have done for us.
Show us the way forward.
Help us to love.