All That Glitters May be Ash

by Roberts Jacobs

But al thyng which that shyneth as the gold is nat gold. – Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

While Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly not the originator of the saying “all that glitters is not gold”—many actually attribute the adage to Æsop—the truth of these words transcend time and place. In fact, just the other day one of my friends told me a story from his childhood that beautifully captured the truth of this proverb.

As a kid, my friend had one aunt who was really into Christmas. Now, let me clarify. Not only did she decorate her home so that it looked like the inside of a New York department store, but she also wrapped her gifts like the ones you see in the F.A.O. Schwarz catalog: high-quality paper, seamless folding, wire embedded ribbon, the works. When he reached the age when he became aware of the gifts, my friend remembers being mesmerized by them. What could be hidden beneath such beautiful wrapping? Surely it was something amazing. On one Christmas Eve, he finally got the opportunity to find out what lay beneath the bows.

With awestruck wonder, my friend was handed a big, beautifully wrapped box. What sort of toy could justify such elaborate wrapping? How much money could this gift have cost? The questions pooled in his mind as he carefully began to remove the ribbon and the paper. As he opened the box, my friend’s emotions shifted from excitement to confusion. Beneath all the ribbon and wrapping, under all the glitter and gold, he found a single Spiderman sticker.

Clearly this must have been some kind of mistake. A magnificent exterior should always indicate an equally magnificent interior…right? Unfortunately, that which is alluring on the surface is often not as pleasing on the inside.

Not limited to just Christmas gifts, this principle also applies to idolatry and sin. As part of his prophecy, Isaiah indicates that our idols are often beautiful works of art on the outside, forged, shaped, and crafted by an artisan’s touch. However, those who choose to worship idols “[feed] on ashes” (Isaiah 44:20). Though the idol may be pleasing, even tantalizing to the eye, it ends up being insubstantial, unable to fulfill or satisfy like ash. Yet, we often keep running to idols and sin to satiate the deep longings of our soul, knowing from past experience that they are insufficient for the task.

Though idolatry and sin cannot quiet the longings of our heart, there is something (rather someone) who can. After performing His second miraculous mass feeding, Jesus poignantly points out His sufficiency to His disciples who had begun to worry about having their needs met:

“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (Mark 8:19-21).

Through the feeding of the five and four thousand, Jesus over and over demonstrates His sufficiency to meet our needs. Yet, like the disciples, we often forget His abundance. When we choose to engage in sin and the worship of idols, we demonstrate that we “still [do] not understand” that He is the source of all that will satisfy.

Now I know that some of you are thinking, “Robert, I have been waiting for Jesus to fulfill me, but I am still alone.” Or, “I still don’t have that special friend.” Or, “I still do not have a relationship with my child as I imagined it.” I understand how you feel, but let me ask you to consider something. Is the problem that Jesus has not met your need, or is it that he has not met your need exactly as you have envisioned it?

Oftentimes we attempt to script God, telling Him how to meet our needs. The truth is that when we try and force God’s hand like this, we have made ourselves into an idol, asserting that we know how to better manage our lives and the world around us than Him. But as Isaiah says, worshiping this kind of false God—though it may be tantalizing—will leave us only with a mouth full of ash.

As we enter into a hectic holiday season, I would encourage all of us—myself included—to truly reflect upon who we are worshiping. On the outside, we may be singing songs and talking about the advent of Christ, but do our other actions reflect a heart truly enthralled by His lordship?[1] Often, our actions instead reveal that we have made ourselves into an idol, demanding that God bend to our will. My prayer for each of us is that we yield to Jesus, a choice beautifully described by Helen H. Lemmel in her 1922 hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus:”

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

[1] For more on the connection of our heart and our actions, see