The metaphor of holding a lie in your hand makes me think of our incredible capacity for self-deception. I think of a frog or fish, slippery and writhing, which I can barely keep in my grasp. I think of pine needles that I cannot pluck from the sap smeared across my palms. A lie is wilily in that it both wants to escape and wreak havoc, and cling to leach away your life.
The above quote comes from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah and is part of a larger critique of idolatry – making something other than God the center of your existence. As he sharply criticizes God’s people for turning from the true and living God to others he talks about the depths of our self-deception.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
And while it might be easy to look down on “primitive ancient cultures” or just excuse these people as living in a prescientific age, we are like them, putting too much hope in the things we make and serve. It happens with money, family, work, hobbies, friendships and just about anything we hold too tightly. We think that these can provide what we need and protect us – “deliver.” A few chapters later Isaiah talks about these same idols being taken into captivity as their worshipers are conquered.
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity.
Only in a crisis do the people begin to see the inability of their gods to protect them as they go with them into captivity. The image of an idol being carried on the back of livestock is a mirror for the worshipper who has supported this false god all along. The veil is pulled back and the lie that was so plain and had been held so long is exposed.
I think about my own blindness and wonder what is stuck to my hands or trying to slip out. I recently purchased a variety of short booklets written for those investigating the Christian faith. As I was flipping through one, right in the middle there was an advertisement for further materials by this company and I had this visceral negative reaction. As I was trying to understand why, I realized this single full page ad would put this otherwise excellent publication in the category of “another company trying to sell me something.” This feel of being sold a product is the exact opposite of the impression I’d want someone to have in reading about Jesus. Is the lie in the right hand about marketing? Is it about promotion of excellent resources for the benefit of others? Is it about getting our produce out there? I don’t know. While I try to be aware of the lies that I am tempted to hold I fear that I am blind to the things that I would make to displace God – crafting it and having confidence that it can deliver; carrying the burden on my back only in crisis to have my false God exposed. This last passage from Isaiah (46) follows the previous one in which the idols are carried into captivity, and gives me great hope.
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.
“To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike?
Even as we carry idols on our backs, becoming less than human, God is carrying us. Even when we hold the lie in our hand and believe it will deliver, God says I will save. What an amazing salvation.