I remember being at church camp as a teenager and hearing the speaker tell a story of a little girl with a fake pearl necklace. Here is my version of this popular and often-told story. A little girl bought a plastic pearl necklace with the money she had been saving all year. She loved her pearls and felt so grown up when she wore them. She only took them off when she went swimming or took a bath. Though the pearls weren’t real, that didn’t matter to her. She had bought them all by herself.
This little girl had a loving father. One day he said to her, “Honey, do you love me?”
“Yes, Daddy,” she said. “You know I love you.”
“Then will you give me your pearls?” her father asked.
“Not my pearls!” the little girl practically gasped. “But you can have my toy horse.”
“That’s okay, Sweetheart. I love you,” he replied. And then he kissed her cheek. About a week later, the father asked his little girl again, “Do you love me?”
“Daddy, you know I love you,” she said.
“Then will you give me your pearls?” he repeated.
“Not my pearls. But I’ll give you my baby doll.”
“That’s okay. I love you,” the father answered. And once again he gave her a kiss on the cheek.
This same routine happened again and again, and the little girl began to wonder, “If Daddy loves me, why does he want to take away something I love?”
Then one day the little girl walked up to her father with tears in her eyes and held out her fake pearl necklace. “Here, Daddy. This is for you,” she said.
The father reached out a hand to take the necklace, and with his other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a velvet case. Inside that case was a strand of genuine pearls, chosen with love and care for his daughter. He had had the pearls all along but was waiting for his daughter to give up what she had so that he could give her something even better.
As we read God’s strong reaction to idolatry in Scripture, let’s not forget His heart behind it. He sees us settling for a fake when He wants to give us the real thing—and we’re not talking about a necklace. The stakes are much higher; they echo into eternity.
The second chapter of Jeremiah lays out clearly God’s heart regarding idolatry:
5 This is what the LORD says:
“What did your ancestors find wrong with me
that led them to stray so far from me?
6 They worshiped worthless idols,
only to become worthless themselves.
They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD
who brought us safely out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness…”
10 “Go west and look in the land of Cyprus;
go east and search through the land of Kedar.
Has anyone ever heard of anything
as strange as this?
11 Has any nation ever traded its gods for new ones,
even though they are not gods at all?
Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols!
12 The heavens are shocked at such a thing
and shrink back in horror and dismay,” says the LORD.
13 “For my people have done two evil things:
They have abandoned me—
the fountain of living water.
And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns
that can hold no water at all!” (Jeremiah 2:5-6, 10-13)
Idolatry’s precursor is forgetfulness. When we neglect to remember all the ways God has shown Himself in our lives, we make ourselves easy prey for the world’s counterfeit offerings. In these verses God warns His people to ask, “Where is the Lord?” We too can become apathetic when our circumstances overwhelm us, turning to people, money, and human wisdom to try to make sense of our problems. I know I’ve been there. How about you?
The fountain of living water and the cracked cisterns are one of the many great physical illustrations God gives to help us understand what happens when we trust in the things we can see and feel instead of yielding ourselves to Him. Like in the story of the fake pearls, we tend to hold tightly to what we think will help us through. We put our trust in people, jobs, status, money, and any number of things that may seem safer to trust than God. We dig in our heels with empty systems that aren’t really secure and make our own feeble attempts at feeling safe and loved. But it’s all just a cracked cistern—and a cracked cistern is leaky! It’s probably filled with sludge and dirty water like the cistern Jeremiah was lowered into. Yet because it’s tangible, we’ll settle for it over the fountain of living water.
One of the best ways to guard against a counterfeit is to learn to spot a fake, and the way we learn to spot a fake is by studying the original—the genuine article. Experts spend many hours studying a genuine bill in order to identify counterfeit dollars; likewise, we can spot counterfeit gods by studying the truth of who God is. Be intentional in studying the character of the one true God. Begin by listing as many character traits of God as you can think of—traits such as almighty, caring, faithful, gracious, holy, infinite, just, loving, majestic, never changing, omnipresent, omniscient, self-sufficient, wise. (If you want, think of one word for each letter of the alphabet.) Over a period of time, look up each word in a Bible concordance and read some of the passages listed for that word. Praise God for these wonderful attributes, acknowledging that idols could never compare to our awe-inspiring God!