Not So Far From Israel
A retrospective on being a Christian living in America
America might’ve been founded on Judeo-Christian values in its inception, but I can hardly say that America is a Christian nation. America really is not a Christian nation, and for good reason because religious freedom was one of the main reasons for breaking free from England. However, over the years Christian morals and principles about humanity and freedom have been thrown out the window in favor of more “progressive” and secular values. I want to contrast this against Ancient Israel, and their similar progression away from God over the years. I feel a real connection to Ancient Israel in the way that my country has gone astray and forgotten about God. After finally reading the Old Testament (a 2 year personal study), I’ve come to learn that this topic of National Abandonment of God couldn’t be any clearer in the Bible.
For the LORD will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive. There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone—gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. But from there you will search again for the LORD your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.
“In the distant future, when you are suffering all these things, you will finally return to the LORD your God and listen to what he tells you. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the solemn covenant he made with your ancestors.
Living in a Foreign Land
Here in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites and encouraging them not to abandon God after they enter the promised land. At the same time, he’s prophesying that they will indeed abandon God and find themselves exiled from their own land and living in foreign nations because of their rebellion. Through a hermeneutical lens, I see myself living in a “foreign” nation (one that does not honor God) while I’m seeking to try and find God. Today in America, our idols aren’t made of wood or stone, but instead of electronics and plastic. I’d even argue that they’re worse than ancient carvings of fake deities. The idols that exist much more prevalently today are TV’s, computers, and smart phones. Instead of ancient idols, which are limited in their depiction of only one deity, we can pull up a whole host of idols through the screens on our devices. Not only are our phones themselves idols, but even the content we watch and read become idols as well. Never has it been so easy to worship false idols; we don’t even need to commute to a temple. But even in the midst of such prevalent, yet massively subtle idolatry, I continue to seek God with all my heart and soul because I know He still hasn’t abandoned me or my country.
I feel a particular connection to the Israelites who found themselves living in foreign nations during the exile. During this time, the expedient thing for them to do was adopt the culture of the new nation they were living in. This meant deciding to worship the idols of their captors, the Assyrians and Babylonians. To be clear, I’m not saying I relate to Israel’s exile, but instead their dispersion into foreign lands and the struggles they encountered as foreigners. Their faith was put to the test; do they continue to worship God and be persecuted, or do they adopt the pagan culture and escape persecution? In America, I don’t fear persecution so much, but I do fear that my own heart is being corrupted and molded towards secular beliefs that do not honor God. Another huge theme of the Old Testament was that God was looking for his people to worship him with thanksgiving and honest hearts. If their hearts weren’t in the right place, then God didn’t want their sacrifices (Psalm 40:6).
Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God,
and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
Then call on me when you are in trouble,
and I will rescue you,
and you will give me glory.”
But God says to the wicked:
“Why bother reciting my decrees
and pretending to obey my covenant?
For you refuse my discipline
and treat my words like trash.
Another way to say this in modern terms is that God doesn’t want us to just be going through the motions with things like praying, attending church, throwing some change in the offering basket, etc. unless our hearts are truly postured towards loving Him. It’s no different if we try to do thoughtless acts to please our spouse without our hearts truly being in it. Our spouse will see right through us and the acts that we did for them will mean nothing.
And so I too struggle with how expedient it is to adopt American culture, even though I call myself a Christian. In a sense, God was calling these dispersed Israelites to be counter-cultural, not for the sake of being difficult, but for the sake of being a light in the darkness. Christians today are also called to be counter-cultural for the sake of staying true to God, even when the culture we live in is so against Him. Patience, meekness, and humility are virtues hardly practiced in America where we are obsessed with fast developing news stories, viral sensations, celebrations of homosexuality, and an unhealthy appetite for sex. Speaking of, abstinence has become such a laughing stock to most people even though so many psychological studies have come out showing how dissatisfying and depressing it is to sleep around with multiple partners. It’s things like this where we’ve completely misunderstood God’s commandments and rebelled against him like an angsty teenager. Even now as I’m reading an article on Psychology Today called, “Could Online Pornography Be A Silent Yet Exploding Epidemic?” there’s an ad on the side of my screen with a woman in a skimpy bathing suit. America has normalized things like eroticism, desensitizing us to sexual images so much so that it’s become part of standard marketing practices. This issue of misunderstanding the gift of sex is one of my biggest struggles with living in America, and Israel certainly wasn’t free from this issue either, but more on that later.
The Corruption of a Gift
So then why do Christians practice things like abstinence? Is God just trying to ruin our fun? This couldn’t be any further from the truth. The answer is exactly what so many of these psychological studies are now concluding. When people give into their sexual desires without restraint—they watch porn whenever they feel like it, they sleep around with multiple partners, or even get themselves into polyamorous relationships—they become deeply dissatisfied and in many cases it can even lead to clinical depression. It’s almost as if God, being our creator already knew all this and was trying to prevent us from such terrible things. And yet we’ve taken this gift of sex and corrupted it beyond belief. This is contrasted by a plethora of both physical and mental benefits that come with saving sex for marriage, such as not becoming a parent before you’re ready, not developing irreversible addictive habits as a young person, and actually being satisfied by your spouse. You don’t need to believe in God to see the rationale in all this. Still, there’s so much wisdom in obeying God, however I continue to struggle because the culture I live in wants nothing to do with Him. These sins are not unique to America, and this unhealthily appetite for sex is another thing we have in common with Ancient Israel.
So much of Deuteronomy is Moses urging the Israelites not to abandon God, lest they adopt the sins of the surrounding nations. But what do we find all throughout the Old Testament? Israel woefully adopting the sins of the surrounding nations. One of the most detestable forms of this was temple prostitution. In Israel, the Lord’s Temple was the most sacred place because it was literally where God dwelled on Earth in order to commune with His people. However, over time as Israel fell further and further into the influence of foreign nations such as the Canaanites, they adopted their ritual customs. This included acts of prostitution within the Temple to fertility gods and godesses, such as Baal and Asherah. This practice started outside of Israel, but slowly creeped it’s way in over time. Worshippers would enter the Temple and find themselves paired with a prostitute where they would then perform detestable acts in God’s very household. In the New Testament, we learn that for those who believe in Jesus Christ as their savior, their bodies become a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:1617, 6:19). So in a similar manner, when we as Christians defile ourselves with sexual impurity, we are also committing prostitution in the Temple. I myself have experienced years of struggling with pornography, and I keep coming back to this idea that by watching porn I’m not only worshipping the pagan Gods of my country, but I’m even committing adultery in God’s very Temple. Even at this point in my life as a 23 year old, I am already so sick and tired of habitual sin. My battles with pornography over the years have left me mentally scarred and disgusted, frankly speaking. I pray that my country will wake up from the gods and idols they’ve chosen to worship because they have torn me apart in ways I never imagined possible. The gravitas of sexual sin leaves my stomach feeling unsettled, and God certainly has His own ways of describing such depravity.
They will eat and still be hungry.
They will play the prostitute and gain nothing from it,
for they have deserted the LORD
to worship other gods.
“Wine has robbed my people
of their understanding.
They ask a piece of wood for advice!
They think a stick can tell them the future!
Longing after idols
has made them foolish.
They have played the prostitute,
serving other gods and deserting their God.
They offer sacrifices to idols on the mountaintops.
They go up into the hills to burn incense
in the pleasant shade of oaks, poplars, and terebinth trees.
“That is why your daughters turn to prostitution,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
But why should I punish them
for their prostitution and adultery?
For your men are doing the same thing,
sinning with whores and shrine prostitutes.
O foolish people! You refuse to understand,
so you will be destroyed.
“Though you, Israel, are a prostitute,
may Judah not be guilty of such things.
Do not join the false worship at Gilgal or Beth-aven,
and do not take oaths there in the LORD’s name.
Israel is stubborn,
like a stubborn heifer.
So should the LORD feed her
like a lamb in a lush pasture?
Leave Israel alone,
because she is married to idolatry.
When the rulers of Israel finish their drinking,
off they go to find some prostitutes.
They love shame more than honor.
So a mighty wind will sweep them away.
Their sacrifices to idols will bring them shame.
It’s time to realize how serious God is about sin and learn from the mistakes of Israel. Just because we’re living in a foreign nation doesn’t mean that we can just begin adopting false idols. God is looking for true worshippers all throughout the Earth. Will you be one of them?