Remember the story of the golden calf and the people of Israel? Exodus 32 tells us how the people of Israel became impatient waiting for Moses to come back down Mount Sinai. They wanted a god they could see, so Aaron had them melt their gold and make a calf. They worshipped this calf by singing and dancing and burning offerings to it (vv 6, 18–19). As a child, I remember being appalled by the actions of the Israelites; after all, had not God just delivered them from Pharaoh and the Egyptians? And now they were worshipping an idol—worshipping something other than the one, true God, all the while Moses was on the mountain with God? Being shocked at their actions was a right response. However, now as an adult, and especially as a woman, I realize that while I do not worship a golden calf, I worship many idols, many things that take the place of my worshipping God, especially those connected to what I look like and what I wear.
Standing in the checkout line at Meijer, I see on the magazines the airbrushed celebrities wearing the latest designers, who are supposed to be my ideal for what to look like. When I turn on the television, I see advertisements for weight loss, for fitness regimes, and for food, all of which are supposed to encourage me to be healthy, and I see advertisements for clothes, shoes, makeup, and accessories that are supposed to make me happy. When I open social media, I see articles about and pictures of people who have been fat-shamed into eating disorders or suicide, which are supposed to encourage me to avoid both ends of the spectrum, and I see pictures of many people in name-brands, smiling and happy, which gives me the illusion that the smiles come from the things. And when I look in the mirror, I see how I have fallen short of the vision of perfection that assaults me on every side.
The me who is looking in the mirror has a lot in common with the Israelites in Exodus 32. The Israelites became impatient waiting for Moses, so they reverted to what they remembered from their time in Egypt, namely, wanting a god they could physically see, thinking that would make them feel better. Instead of trusting in the God of the universe for my joy, happiness, and contentment, I revert to what I can physically see: what the world around tells me is beauty and what I should want in order to show both beauty and success. And, not surprisingly, this does not make me feel better about life.
The reason for that is one we all know, that true happiness and contentment come from God alone. But in my impatience, I only want to go after things I can see. I am constantly told that if I am skinny, I will be happy. Thus, I count my calories, do my boot camps, do my weigh-ins, and constantly think about it. THAT is when it becomes the problem: the constant thinking about it. Instead of glorifying God in all I do, which implies thinking about God and what he has done for me, I think about me. Please note here that I am not saying being healthy is not important; it is extremely important to be a steward with the body God has given us. But when what we look like takes center stage, so to speak, it is no longer you or I wanting to be a steward to serve God better, but it is us making an idol out of our bodies.
So closely related to that is how I present myself to others, or what I put on my body. Why do I choose what I choose to wear and buy? Is it because it is on sale, because it fits well, because it is needed, or is it because it has a certain name or logo on it? As a high school teacher, I see what brands are important to students. As a woman who likes to shop, I know what brands and stores are important to me. But when wearing that brand or that kind of clothing becomes so important to you or to me that we think that it will give us happiness, THAT is when it becomes idolatry, because once again, it takes the focus away from glorifying God. It is so easy to justify buying something I probably should just keep on the rack, and just as easy, then, to put the smallest amount of money in the collection plate on Sunday. When what I want takes precedence over what God has commanded, I am guilty of idolatry.
The Bible has much to say on this. Matthew 6:25 speaks to both of the above topics: “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” Ouch. Right there, in one verse, my idolatry is shot down, because, as it states earlier in verse 21, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Another ouch. If I think only of myself and what I look like, or be focused only on what I wear, that will be where my heart is, not where it should be: seeking the kingdom of God FIRST (v. 33).
In order to seek the kingdom of God first, I obviously cannot think about myself. What then should I think of? Philippians 4:8 answers that: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The result of thinking of that instead of myself? Peace (v. 9) and contentment (v. 11). That peace and contentment do not come from being super skinny or fit or wearing the latest designer clothing; it comes from thinking on God and his word. What a comfort!
Being healthy and dressing well are not bad things. But when I stand in front of my mirror and think only about what I look like or how I am dressed, I am no different from the Israelites begging Aaron for an idol they can see. Neither they nor I are seeking first the kingdom of God; we are/were seeking our own happiness. Being aware of this idolatry in my life makes me want to work that much harder to remove it. To do that, of course, I need to be in the word and in constant communication with the author of that word. My whole goal is really summed up in Proverbs 31:30: “Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” I pray for the grace to be that kind of woman, and I pray for you to be that kind of young person.
*Jennifer is a teacher at Covenant Christian High School in Walker, MI, and a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church.