One of Calvin’s big Christmas gifts this year was a ball pit. It’s a small, circular, walled pen, filled with approximately 200 blue and white plastic balls. It’s similar to the ball pit I used to play in at Burger King as a kid; all that’s missing are the yet-to-be-discovered germs, the lost socks buried at the bottom, and the half-eaten Whopper Jr.
However, Calvin doesn’t just sit in the pen and play with those balls very often. He spends more of his time chewing on them with his seven teeth, and ultimately popping them. If I had to guess, he’s probably deflated and crushed 20-30 balls so far. And while I’m glad he’s having some kind of fun with this toy (and chewing on those plastic balls may soothe him while he’s teething), that’s not exactly the purpose we had in mind when we gave him that gift.
I’d argue that a great deal of sin can be described in the same way: a good gift, used for something other than what the gift-giver intended. We see this principle at work in Exodus 32; a story of one of God’s peoples’ most infamous acts of sin.
Way back in Exodus 3 – during God’s first conversation with Moses – God promises that he will free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But they won’t leave Egypt with a whimper; they’ll leave triumphantly. Specifically, we read in Exodus 3:21-22:
“And I (God) will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.”
Sure enough, God’s promise is fulfilled in Exodus 13:35-36:
The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.
Not only did God free his people from slavery; he freed them in style! God’s victory over Pharaoh was undeniable in every way. Compared to years of bondage under harsh conditions, the Israelites are now on top of the world.
However, by the time we get to Exodus 32, we see how the good gifts God had given his people can be misused.
After Moses is absent for some time (conversing with God on Mt. Sinai), the Israelites quickly stray from God’s commands. They have no clue what’s happened to Moses, so they approach his brother Aaron and ask him to make them idols. Of course, this is in direct contradiction to God’s words in Exodus 20:3-6 concerning worshiping other gods and making images; nevertheless, Aaron quickly agrees.
But what materials can Aaron use to make the Israelites’ new god? Exodus 32:2-4 gives us the shocking, sad, and ironic answer:
So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, you sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he 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, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
The Israelites took the good gifts God gave them (silver and gold jewelry), misused them in disobedience to God, and thus committed a heinous sin against God.
But before we pile on the Israelites too heavily, are we all that different? How often are we tempted to misuse good gifts God has given us in evil ways?
God blesses us with a great income that enables us to provide for our families and be generous to our neighbors – but instead, we burn through it all laying up meaningless treasures on earth. God graciously gives us opportunities for worldly success that we’d never have if he hadn’t put us in this time and place – but we respond with an arrogant attitude of self-accomplishment. God gives us sex – a beautiful gift for uniting husband and wife into one flesh, and bearing children – but we degrade it into lust. God blesses us with food to sustain our bodies – but we allow it to rule over us in the form of gluttony. God gives us wine to enjoy – but we go too far and commit the sin of drunkenness. Sin often takes the form of abusing, corrupting, and perverting something good that God gave us.
So, what do we do? How do we avoid falling into this common trap?
We fix our eyes on the God who gave the gift. Rather than worshiping the gift itself, we worship the giver. Had the Israelites remembered the power, glory, and goodness of the God who gave them their jewelry, they may not have been so easily tempted to use it to worship a knock-off. I’d challenge you to remember the God the Israelites so quickly forgot about – and who we’re also prone to forget about without regular and intentional reminders. Read God’s Word. Participate in corporate worship on Sunday mornings. Surround yourself with others striving to fix their eyes on God as well.
But ultimately, our true hope in the face of sin isn’t us trying harder to remember God; it’s knowing the best gift God has ever given: his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus was not corrupted or hijacked by sin the way so many other good gifts of God are, because Jesus is God in the flesh.
And because Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead, we can be confident that our sins are paid for. We can be confident that even when sin still rears its ugly head, we remain in good standing with God by faith – not our imperfect works. We can even be confident that as bearers of the Holy Spirit, we’re being transformed by God’s grace to (slowly but surely) learn to accept and use God’s gifts on his terms, for our good, and for his glory – rather than being doomed to fight a losing battle for the rest of our days.
Calvin doesn’t need a Savior for chewing on, deflating, and crushing plastic balls from his ball pit. But we do need a Savior for misusing God’s gifts to us. Thankfully, God gave his greatest gift – Jesus Christ – for just that purpose.