All true Christians recognize their inability to keep God’s law, but in practice, many tend to think they are “better” at keeping some commandments versus others. One commandment for which this is commonly true is the Second: “You shall not make unto yourself any carved [or graven] image…” Debates have raged for years about how images of Christ and forms and elements of worship might violate the Second Commandment, and many excellent works on those topics are readily available. But rather than entering that debate, I want to take a different approach by considering what I believe to be the most common violation of the Second Commandment, “putting God in a box.”

No one reading this post has made an idol out of wood, stone, or precious metals and bowed down to it. Idolatry in that sense has never plagued modern Western culture. Most debates about the Second Commandment revolve around externals.  Images, circumstances and elements of worship, things we can touch, hear, and see – Christians rightly view them as being addressed by the Second Commandment. Though debates about such issues have raged for centuries, the focus has tended to shift toward external matters.

Most Christians today understand and apply the Second Commandment in terms of “idols of the heart.”  Those who grew up in evangelical culture frequently heard, “Do not replace God on the throne of your heart [or some similar statement] with false idols [e.g. money, power, wealth, fame, etc.].”  Such a statement is certainly true and valid but does not go far enough in exposing the internal origin of idolatry, especially in light of the Second Commandment. It deals with idolatry to some degree but again focuses on externals, things existing in the material world. This type of idolatry is just as much a violation of the First Commandment as the Second because the person has rejected the one true God for another god altogether (money, power, wealth, fame, etc.).

A few years ago, I heard a man express his view on images of Christ as follows: “They are permissible if used for educational purposes, and we are permitted to picture the man Jesus in our minds… I do not see how we cannot do so because it is the natural way we think.”  The first part of that argument is common enough in Church history, but more important to me was the second part.  The man was exactly right in what he said about humanity’s natural way of thinking, but what he failed to acknowledge was that man’s natural way of thinking is now post-Fall, corrupted and polluted by sin. After the Fall, every man naturally and sinfully tries to capture and condense God into something understandable for himself by “putting God in a box.” Whether through external images or internal conceptions, the natural man desires a god he can fully understand and, therefore, fully control.

Consequently, I believe the most common and overlooked violation of the Second Commandment is “putting God in a box.” “To put God in a box” is first and foremost an internal sin of the mind and heart, which occurs when any person makes a mental (and thus man-made) image.  Rather than using hands to make idols, people use their minds. They remake God according to their limited, misguided, or self-serving understanding of him. In other words, people wrongly try to condense the infinite God into a finite being or concept – comfortable to consider, fitted to their desires and needs, and easily manipulated by their religious efforts.

Nearly every heresy and false gospel in the history of the Church has one common denominator – violating the Second Commandment by remaking God into something he is not. Research the following: Gnosticism; Arianism; Eutychianism; Catharism; health, wealth, and prosperity gospels; Mormonism; Christian Science; and many others. These heresies and false gospels did not begin with faulty reasoning; they resulted from violations of the Second Commandment, when men sought to remake God, “putting him in a box” of their own making.

Perhaps the Bible’s most well-known and notorious instance of idolatry is the golden calf (Ex. 32).  Many people assume the Israelites had abandoned the LORD and set up for themselves another god.  The text, however, shows something quite different.

And [Aaron] received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.  And they said, “These are your gods who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”

The Israelites were not seeking to worship a different god; they were seeking to worship the LORD. The word “gods” (elohim) in this passage is how God referred to himself in Ex. 20:2 so the word “gods” (elohim) itself was not a problem. The Israelites were not primarily trying to be like the other nations in their worship, though their actions did reflect the “natural” thinking they shared with all of fallen humanity. Even the making of a calf, golden or otherwise, was not wrong in and of itself. Instead, the Israelites’ great sin occurred when they desired in their hearts, conceived in their minds, and then acted with their hands to reduce God to something other than he is. 

The great temptation for believers, then and now, is to think of idolatry as something that starts “out there” rather first being a problem “in here” (i.e. one’s heart and mind). Jesus taught his disciples – and us – that sin is first an internal and spiritual problem before it is ever acted out in the physical world.  If that is true with murder, lust, coveting, and all other commandments, why would it not be true for the Second Commandment? When I think of the Second Commandment in those terms, it truly pains me to think about how many times I have “put God in a box” and how often I am tempted to do so even now. How about you? Have you ever thought of your sin in those terms?

Brothers and sisters, know with certainty that your sin is forgiven in Christ Jesus but please pray that the Holy Spirit would guard your hearts and minds against violations of the Second Commandment. When you think about God, cast aside all the pictures, movies, sentimental stories, and artwork that have influenced (and limited!) your understanding of the LORD your God. Understand him according to his own self-revelation, both in the written word and in the Incarnate Word. Learn from Israel that God cannot and will not be limited to an image (Ex. 32), nor will he be confined to a box (1 Sam. 4)!

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