As a new missionary, I stayed in the Salt Lake Mission Home prior to going to Ireland. One night, 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—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 evaluate 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. We need to look at our lives and see if we are making and worshiping graven images. There are “golden calves” all around today—tangible images like cars and others that are more intangible (see Ex. 32). When anything wastefully dominates our time, compromises our loyalty, or confuses our priorities so that God and his work become second, we are worshiping idols.
“The phrase ‘before me’ in the familiar translation ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ [Ex. 20:3] is from 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?
Golden Calves Today
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 asked some Latter-day Saints, “What is the modern application of the second commandment?” The following responses are a sample of those 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 worshiping 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 form of idolatry.”
“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 man their graven image. Because we are afraid of others’ opinions, 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 be popular.”
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 beautiful men and women who smile from advertisements in magazines, in newspapers, and on television. Our society too often equates personal happiness with its definition of personal beauty. Trying unsuccessfully to emulate these unrealistic images, many people are constantly discontented. One of my students shared the following story:
“I had just moved away from my high school, where I was involved in everything. At my new school, I felt I was nobody. I knew no one, and no one knew me. I desperately wanted to be included.
“As I observed the popular 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. 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 lose only a few kilograms, but then I read a magazine article discussing qualities the men in the article looked for in women. The best-looking guy said, ‘A girl can never be too skinny.’ I concluded that in order for the guy I was interested in to pursue me, I had to be skinnier. I was still not associating with the popular crowd and did not know many people. Obviously, I was not thin enough.
“I continued to diet and exercise but still did not achieve the acceptance I wanted. Finally, after five months of starvation and depression, I was hospitalized, weighing only 40 kilograms.
“I was deceived. Being skinny does not bring happiness. Now I realize that happiness accompanies spiritual growth and comes from within. When one’s only focus is worldly popularity, it is difficult to progress spiritually. I have found that true happiness is obtained only through striving to please the Lord.”
Another modern golden calf is crafted when Church members take counsel contrary to that of Church leaders. 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 our prophets and Apostles is like worshiping 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 prophets. 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).
Consequences of Worshiping Graven Images
The ancient consequences for idol worship were grave: The cities of idolaters were wasted, their lands made desolate, and the people scattered (see Lev. 26:30–33). Israel was warned that graven images were “vanity, and the work of errors” and that there was “no breath in them” (Jer. 10:14–15). Worshiping graven images divides the heart (see Hosea 10:2) and corrupts the worshipers (see Deut. 4:16). Isaiah called images “wind and confusion” (Isa. 41:29).
Worshiping graven images still results in confusion, corruption, and a divided heart. Since material possessions cannot save, trusting in them will eventually lead away from God and his kingdom. The following true accounts illustrate the consequences of placing worldly things above God in our lives:
“My friend, a gifted salesman, started to use 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 worshiped money, and now he is cursed with it.”
“A boy I know has devoted his life to bodybuilding, and he now has huge muscles. He didn’t go on a mission because he was afraid of losing his physique.”
“One woman, 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.”
Guarding against Idolatry
Key to countering the influence of graven 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 if 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 Brigham Young University—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. 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 balance. These blessings are ours to enjoy, but when our participation slips into excess, we slip into sin. If by idolizing an activity we become less than “valiant in the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:79), we have violated the second commandment.
We must also avoid the temptation to try centering our lives on both God and worldly images. 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 desired “greater happiness and peace and rest, [and] 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 traveled the path away from Sodom and Gomorrah, her heart 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 secretly making reservations in the great and spacious building across the way (see 1 Ne. 8, 1 Ne. 11).
Satan would have us believe that personal success is having many material possessions. Our lives, he advertises, are measured by the number of images we obtain. He is also the author of Nehor’s belief that “all mankind should be saved at the last day” (Alma 1:4) and the teaching that we should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us” (2 Ne. 28:7). These beliefs are only idol worship in disguise. 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 remember the Lord. Brigham Young offered one remedy:
“We are under the necessity of assembling here from Sabbath to Sabbath, and in Ward meetings, … 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,” we focus on positive images that instruct and that 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 fountain of living waters,” and “the King of kings” brings to mind strong images of our relationship with Christ (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. Feasting upon such images fortifies our minds against 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. Children of men give heed to worldly things. Not realizing their divine heritage, they give up their birthright to worship the images of the world. Children of God, however, know that they are heirs to a celestial future and can thus envision heavenly riches. This perspective helps them to worship only God and to follow his path.
The Lord proclaimed that he is “a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). “The Hebrew root kanah denotes ‘ardour, zeal, jealousy.’ … Thus, the implication is that the Lord possesses ‘sensitive and deep feelings’ about idolatry. … 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 attitudes as well as their actions.
The Old Testament policy of not tolerating idol worship should be a model for us today. The Israelites were commanded to break idols, 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 worshiped caused us to lose the blessings of exaltation, we will certainly “abhor” and “detest” those things we treasured in mortality. When we worship things of this world, we rob God of our safe return to his presence. 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 to 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 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 make money. It seemed as though he worshiped 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).
D. Kelly Ogden, The Old Testament, Religion 301 (independent study student manual, 1992), 149.
The Miracle of Forgiveness (1969), 40.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 146–47.
Andrew C. Skinner, in Studies in Scripture, Volume Seven, 1 Nephi to Alma 29, edited by Kent P. Jackson (1987), 301.
In Old Testament: Genesis–2 Samuel, Religion 301 (Church Educational System manual, 1981), 128.