As a new missionary, I stayed in the Salt Lake Mission Home prior to going to Ireland. One night just before we went to bed, the elders in my room talked of their reasons for serving missions. One elder said he almost didn’t come on his mission because he couldn’t bear to leave his car. Having it was the most important thing in his life. Then one day he smelled smoke and rushed to his garage, only to see the car’s engine on fire. The loss prompted him to restructure his priorities.
The second of the Ten Commandments the Lord gave to Moses is “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” (Ex. 20:4.) While this commandment was initially given to fortify Israel against the idolatry rampant in the land of Canaan, it has great application for us today. Since the Lord has not rescinded the commandment, we need to look at our lives and see if we are worshipping graven images. There are “golden calves” all around today—tangible images like cars, and others that are more intangible. When anything wastefully dominates our time, compromises our loyalty, or confuses our priorities so that God and his work become second, we are flirting with idolatry.
“The phrase ‘before me’ in the familiar translation ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ is the Hebrew phrase ‘al-panai, which means ‘in front of’—either to the exclusion of another or ‘in preference,’ or ‘in addition to.’ The meaning is clear: those who worship the Lord should not make or adopt any other object to worship.”1
In both the first and second commandments, we are taught not to put anything above God in our lives. We understand, of course, that the Lord is pleased to bless us with material necessities and pleasures. The problem comes when we worship the created instead of the Creator. What, then, are the consequences of modern idolatry, and how can we guard against breaking this commandment?
President Spencer W. Kimball wrote: “There are unfortunately millions today who prostrate themselves before images of gold and silver and wood and stone and clay. But the idolatry we are most concerned with here is the conscious worshipping of still other gods. Some are of metal and plush and chrome, of wood and stone and fabrics. They are not in the image of God or of man, but are developed to give man comfort and enjoyment, to satisfy his wants, ambitions, passions and desires. Some are in no physical form at all, but are intangible.”2
I recently asked some Latter-day Saints, “What is the modern application of the second commandment?” The following represent a sample of the responses I received:
“The scriptures say to have thoughts of God always within our hearts. Many people now fill their hearts with thoughts of riches, power, and fame. They worship their possessions, loving things without life.”
“We serve ourselves much too often when we should be serving the Lord. We must not worship our time—a graven image that takes the place of God in many cases. God asks us to sacrifice our time, making sure that he, not our own selfish interests, is first in our lives.”
“The graven images I see people worshipping are clothing, cars, homes, hobbies, and recreation. The fact that I spend more time deciding what to wear each morning than I do in prayer is very telling.”
“Alma 1:32 says, ‘Those who did not belong to their church did indulge themselves in sorceries, and in idolatry or idleness.’ This is something that I had never contemplated before. Idleness as a possible form of idolatry, or that it could be equated as such.”
“Money is one of the most common images that people bow down to today. They bow down by giving up their integrity and honesty in dealing with others in order to obtain it. They bend their principles as they are bowing down.”
“Too often people make men their graven images. Because we are afraid of the opinion of others, we won’t serve others or be kind to those society looks down on. We worship others’ praise and honor; we desire above all else the prestige others can give us. We want the right titles and awards. We want to wear the right clothing. We want to fit in.”
Several respondents felt society’s emphasis on personal appearance could lead to a form of idolatry. While a clean and healthy body is important, some people go to extraordinary lengths to emulate the models fashioned by the world. Our society too often equates personal happiness with its definition of personal beauty. Beautiful men and women smile from advertisements in magazines, in newspapers, and on television. Trying unsuccessfully to emulate these unrealistic images, many people live in a state of perpetual discontent. One of my students shared the following story:
“I had just moved away from my high school, where I was a cheerleader and homecoming princess. I was involved in everything. At my new high school, I was nobody. I knew no one, and no one knew me. Everyone already had a circle of friends, and I felt that they had no room for me. I desperately wanted to be included.
“As I observed the ‘in’ crowd, I noticed that the girls who received attention were skinny and beautiful. Furthermore, slender girls graced the covers of magazines, billboards, and television screens everywhere. I looked at my body and realized it was not like theirs. I decided that the only way to gain back the popularity I had lost when I moved was to be skinny. So I began to diet.
“I was trying to shed only a few pounds, but then I read a magazine article that changed my mind. It featured gorgeous guys and discussed what qualities they looked for in a woman. The best-looking guy featured in the article said, ‘A girl can never be too skinny.’ I concluded that in order for the guy I was interested in at the time to pursue me, I had to be skinnier. I was still not associating with the ‘in’ crowd and did not know too many people. Obviously, I was not thin enough.
“I continued to diet and exercise and was still not achieving the acceptance for which I was striving. Finally, after five months of starvation and depression, I was hospitalized, weighing only eighty-nine pounds.
“I was deceived by society. Being skinny does not bring happiness, as is so often portrayed in the commercial world. Now I realize that happiness comes from within and accompanies spiritual growth. When one’s only focus is to gain popularity in the worldly sense, it is difficult to progress spiritually. I have found that true happiness is obtained only through striving to please the Lord.”
Another golden calf in modern guise is crafted when Church members counsel contrary to that of the Church leadership. Of Almon Babbitt, the Lord said, “There are many things with which I am not pleased; behold, he aspireth to establish his counsel instead of the counsel which I have ordained, even that of the Presidency of my Church; and he setteth up a golden calf for the worship of my people.” (D&C 124:84.)
Following counsel that deviates from the counsel of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is like worshipping a golden calf. Just as there is no life in a graven image, there is no saving power outside the truth God imparts through his appointed channels. The Apostle John gave us a way to discern such idols: “We [the Apostles] are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” (1 Jn. 4:6.)
Anciently the consequences for idol worship were grave: The cities of idolaters would be wasted, their lands made desolate, and the people scattered. (See Lev. 26:30–33.) Israel was warned that images were “vanity” and the “work of errors” and that there was “no breath in them.” (Jer. 10:14–15.) Worshipping graven images divided the heart (see Hosea 10:2), and worshippers would corrupt themselves (see Deut. 4:16). Isaiah called images “wind and confusion.” (Isa. 41:29.) These consequences are still in force. Worshipping modern graven images still results in confusion, corruption, and a divided heart. Since material possessions cannot save, trusting in them will eventually lead to a personal scattering away from God and his kingdom. The following true accounts illustrate the consequences of placing worldly things above God in our lives:
“I have a friend who was a gifted salesman, but he started to use his Sundays for selling. As he became more successful, he lost his testimony. He now belittles ‘foolish’ religious traditions. This has affected his entire family. They aren’t a happy family, but they do have money. He worshipped money, and now he is cursed with it.”
“A boy I know has devoted his life to body building, and he now has huge muscles. He didn’t go on a mission because he was afraid of losing the physique he was developing.”
“I know of a lady who, as a teenager, put alcohol and drugs above the Lord. Her obsessions later ruined her marriage and were passed on to her children. In time, she realized she needed to change her life. She came back to the Church and eventually went to the temple. But the damage was already done. Her worship of graven images is reflected in the way her children are living their lives.”
Key to countering the influence of modern images is keeping our hearts centered on God. If we do, we will live our lives in harmony with life’s real purposes.
While I was growing up I ascribed to the popular slogan “Life’s a Beach.” When I wasn’t surfing, I was thinking about it. Years later, after joining the Church, serving a mission, getting married in the temple, and having three children, I accepted a position to teach at BYU—Hawaii. The allure of the ocean returned, and I faced the challenge of controlling the time I spent in the water. It was easy for me to worship the ocean, the waves, and the freedom I felt while surfing. As a modern advertisement reiterates, “Too much is not enough.” I soon realized, however, that my priorities needed to be changed. I made the necessary adjustments to put surfing in its proper position in my life as a fun hobby and rewarding physical exercise.
In such instances, it is not necessarily the activity that is detrimental; the challenge is one of balance. These blessings are ours to enjoy, but when our participation slips into excess, we slip into sin. If by idolizing an activity we come to a less than valiant position in “the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:79), we have violated the second commandment.
We must also avoid the temptation to try “straddling the fence.” It is impossible to serve both “God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:24.) Abraham is an excellent example of one who, though blessed with material wealth, kept these gifts in proper perspective. He was able to do so because he gave his whole heart to Jehovah.
Abraham’s father Terah was an idolater. Despite such a background, Abraham remained faithful. And desiring “greater happiness and peace and rest … , [he] sought for the blessings of the fathers.” (Abr. 1:2.) Abraham’s righteous desires enabled him to turn his back on idolatry. Because he had actively embraced the gospel, he was able to acquire the greater blessings of the priesthood.
The story of Lot’s wife provides a somber contrast. While her feet were traveling the path away from Sodom and Gomorrah, her heart must have remained attached to the images she left there. By looking back, she lost everything. (See Gen. 19:1–26.) On one occasion Jesus said to a disciple: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62; emphasis added.) We cannot serve God and graven images at the same time. James described the results of trying: “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:8.) Embracing the gospel requires singleness of purpose. It means that we reach for the fruit of the tree of life without making secret reservations in the great and spacious building across the way. (See 1 Ne. 8, 1 Ne. 11.)
Satan was behind Korihor’s teachings that “man prosper[s] according to his genius,” and “man conquer[s] according to his strength.” (Alma 30:17.) Satan would have us believe that personal success consists in collecting as many “toys,” or material possessions, as we can. The abundant life, he advertises, is measured by the amount of images one has. He is also the author of Nehor’s belief that “all mankind should be saved at the last day.” (Alma 1:4.) Satan teaches that we should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.” (2 Ne. 28:7.) This is only idol worship in disguise. We can eat, ski, and be merry; eat, climb the corporate ladder, and be merry; eat and do anything at the expense of giving our complete dedication to God and be merry; for in the end (so we are told) there is no real consequence.
But there are always consequences—serious consequences. Idol worship gratifies present desires and keeps people from seeking eternal riches. Idol worship takes our minds off God. To combat idol worship, therefore, we need to focus on things that help us to “always remember” the Lord. Brigham Young offered one remedy:
“We are under the necessity of assembling here from Sabbath to Sabbath, and in Ward meetings, and besides, have to call our solemn assemblies, to teach, talk, pray, sing, and exhort. What for? To keep us in remembrance of our God and our holy religion. Is this custom necessary? Yes; because we are so liable to forget—so prone to wander, that we need to have the Gospel sounded in our ears as much as once, twice, or thrice a week, or, behold, we will turn again to our idols.”3
As we “meet together often” in the Church, we focus on positive images that instruct, intensify, and call attention to important aspects of the mission of Christ. (D&C 20:75.) For example, remembering that Jesus is the “rock of our salvation,” the “true shepherd,” “the redeemer,” “the living water,” “the King of kings” brings to mind strong images of our relationship with Christ. (See 2 Ne. 9:45; Hel. 15:13; D&C 18:11; Jer. 2:13; 1 Tim. 6:14–15.) A savior is one who saves; a rock is an immovable object; a shepherd is one who nurtures his flock; and so forth. Feasting upon such images separates our minds from the alternate images Satan would have us worship and imitate.
True worship encourages God’s children to emulate him. Alma asked Church members in Zarahemla: “Have ye received his image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14.) One writer notes that “an ‘image’ is not just an outward visual impression but also a vivid representation, a graphic display, or a total likeness of something. It is a person or thing very much like another, a copy or counterpart. Likewise, countenance does not simply mean a facial expression or visual appearance. The word comes from an old French term originally denoting ‘behavior,’ ‘demeanor,’ or ‘conduct.’ In earlier times the word countenance was used with these meanings in mind. Therefore, to receive Christ’s image in one’s countenance means to acquire the Savior’s likeness in behavior, to be a copy or reflection of the Master’s life.”4 Thus, without Christ’s image, we will not be among those who, when Christ appears, “shall be like him” and shall be received as his children. (1 Jn. 3:2.)
Moses seemed bothered when Satan addressed him as a “son of man.” He retorted, “I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten.” (Moses 1:12–13.) Knowing that he was created in the image of God strengthened Moses to overcome Lucifer’s temptations. Sons of men are sons of the world, and they give heed to worldly things. Not realizing their divine heritage, they give up their birthright to worship the images of the world. Sons of God, however, know that they are heirs to a celestial future and can thus envision heavenly riches. This vision helps them to worship only God and to follow his path.
In the second commandment the Lord proclaimed that he was “a jealous God.” “The Hebrew root kanah denotes ‘ardour, zeal, jealousy.’ … Thus, the implication is that the Lord possesses ‘sensitive and deep feelings’ about idolatry. (Ex. 20:5, fn. b.) The reason seems clear. The only power to save mankind from sin lies with God. Any false worship, therefore, cuts the sinner off from that power.”5 For this reason, the Lord sought to direct ancient Israel’s actions as well as their attitudes.
The Old Testament policy of not tolerating idol worship should be a model for us today. The Israelites were commanded not to bow down or serve idols. They were to break them, burn them, abhor them, and detest them. (See Ex. 34:13; Deut. 7:25–26.) If at some future day we look back on our lives and see that what we worshipped caused us to lose the blessings of exaltation, we would certainly “abhor” and “detest” those things we had treasured in mortality. When we worship things of this world, we rob God of our safe return to his presence. It is a matter of family; we are God’s “purchased possession” through the sacrifice of his Only Begotten Son. (Eph. 1:14; see 1 Cor. 6:19–20; 1 Pet. 1:18–19.) Moses declared that God “hath chosen [Israel] to be a special people unto himself.” (Deut. 7:6; emphasis added.) The Lord will not grant exaltation with those who have followed gods that cannot save.
Anything can become a “golden calf.” When activities or material blessings become so important that by turning to them we turn from God, we are breaking the second commandment. We are walking “in [our] own way, and after the image of [our] own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish.” (D&C 1:16; emphasis added.) The solution is to prioritize our loyalties and turn our affections back to God. A student wrote:
“In my own family I can remember times when my father spent long days at the office and helped very little with the children at home. He was under a lot of stress, and I don’t think he took his problems to the Lord like he should have. Rather, he spent more and more time trying to get money. It seemed as though he worshipped money, spending all his time and resources to get more.
“I don’t know exactly when things changed. But all of a sudden our family started to be together more. We prayed more as a family, and we were happier all around. It didn’t take long to realize that my father had turned to the Lord, and our family has been blessed ever since.”
In answer to a lawyer’s question, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus gave us the key to keeping the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (Matt. 22:36–38; emphasis added.)