September 25, 2016.
“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
In the Old Testament, and to a lesser extent the New Testament, there is a lot of teaching and writing devoted to the abomination of idolatry and serving other gods. In fact, this is the first of the Ten Commandments that the Lord gave the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai, that they should have no other gods before Him. This would be one of the biggest struggles that the children of Israel would have as history unfolded. Time and time again, the children of Israel would turn to other gods and worship idols in place, or along with, the God of Israel, forsaking their relationship with Him. Many times, it would seem that they didn’t even know that they had forsaken him (cf.Zephaniah 1, Jeremiah 7-10, Malachi 3). This practice was abominable in the sight of the Lord (cf. Ezekiel 16), and both Judah and Israel were sent into captivity because of their disloyalty towards God.
Idolatry is a concept that we tend to think we are far removed from today. After all, not many in the Western world set up wooden or metal figurines and bow before them. We don’t believe something that we make with our hands as a figure is actually going to help us do anything. Let me posit to you, however, that this is not what the ancients believed either. When we start to understand their mindset a little better, perhaps we can see how we can still fall into the same mindset of idolatry today.
Idolatry in the ancient world
As I implied above, we tend to think of idolatry in the ancient world in terms of the figurines that the people made and worshiped. It seems logical to us that they would truly believe that the wood or metal would truly have some kind of power, since these are the artifacts that we observe. I think this concept comes from (1) our lack of true understanding of their culture and mindset and (2) a bit of intellectual arrogance on our part which allows us to think. “Well, they weren’t as smart as we are, so I can see how they thought a piece of metal should be worshiped.” However, this is not what the ancients believed.
The physical idol that the ancients made was no more than the physical object itself. They were not so dumb as to think that they could actually create a god that should be worshiped by their hands. Rather, what they believed is that the idol that they made was a place that would be inhabited by the god they would worship, after ritual ceremonies had been performed to “open the mouth” of the idol so the deity could move in (for more on this, see Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, p. 35-36). If an idol was broken, there was no fear that the god who took up residence in the idol was dead, only that a new idol, or place of residence/localization of the god, had to be made.
Idolatry was not about bowing down to a statute, but rather in whom the worshiper put his or her believing loyalty. It was about in whom the person trusted and had faith. I think this is demonstrated by the mindset of the Syrians when they were defeated by Ahab, king of Israel, in I Kings 20:
“And the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.”
(I Kings 20:23)
After their first defeat, the Syrians reasoned that the gods of Israel must be gods of the hills, since they were fighting in the hills and lost. Notice here that they do not think that the gods of Israel are little metal statues, but rather spiritual beings that operate in cosmic geography. They acknowledge them as divine beings who have power over certain areas. The God of Israel would go on to defeat the Syrians again because they made this statement, which is an interesting story for another day, but the point I’m making here is that the concept of gods to the Syrians here is one of real spiritual beings (as opposed to metal statues) in whom they thought delivered Israel because of Israel’s loyalty to them and their power in the hills. Idolatry was about who the person put their trust in to deliver them. Since the divine realm was assumed in the ancient world, this often manifested in the worship of gods via idols.
What inspired me to write on this topic this week was a statement that was made in a podcast that I was listening to this week. The speaker said something to the effect of, “Idolatry happens when we copy the culture around us.” This got me thinking. Why were the children of Israel told to drive out the inhabitants of the promised land when they went in? Because if they didn’t, they would be “barbs in [their] eyes and thorns in [their] sides…” (Deut. 33:55). It doesn’t take very long at all to see that this is precisely what happened:
“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.”
When the people abandoned the Lord, they didn’t make up some new religion. They didn’t turn to new gods, or do something that would have been obviously different than what they saw around them. No, Israel’s turn to idolatry was simply copying the cultures that they saw around them. This is why, as we noted above, that often the children of Israel didn’t even realize that they had abandoned the Lord. Many times (though probably not always), the shift to idolatry was subtle.
If idolatry is not about a physical idol, but rather about where believing loyalty/trust is placed, and we see that idolatry often happens subtly, by copying the culture that one is surrounded by, we ought to take note of this and examine whether or not we too have slipped off into idolatry. I think there are three gods that are very prominent in at least America, if not the Western world, that Christians and non-christians alike have a propensity to serve. These three are not a comprehensive list, of course, but three of the big ones that I see. They can be so subtle that we don’t even recognize them as our objects of worship. Just because we don’t physically bow down to these idols, however, does not make the idolatrous worship of them any less abominable in the sight of the Lord.
Whenever we talk about money, we are quick to say things like, “It’s not wrong to have money,” “Money is amoral in and of itself,” and “It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself.” These things are true. However, these things also present a very real danger. When we start off the conversation about money with phrases like these, I think that we are setting ourselves up to miss the whole point that scripture makes about money. Often, we do this because, in reality, money has become our idol.
Was Jesus serious when He said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Mt. 6:23-25)“? What about when He said, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mt. 19:23-25)”? It is one of my pet peeves about verses like these when we immediately say, “But remember, it’s not a sin to be rich- money isn’t necessarily the problem.” When we make these statements, we tend to completely ignore the fact that Jesus was teaching that it is extremely difficult to be rich and righteous. Extremely difficult. Since we live in one of the richest countries in the world, and have more than 90% of the world could even dream of, we need to take this teaching seriously.
So how does money become our god? I actually think it is very similar to ancient idolatry. We don’t worship the physical money itself, thinking there is something magical about the paper that is in our wallets. Rather, we put our trust in money to give us peace, security and happiness. All three of these qualities, and others that we perceive money brings, should be supplied only through God, who is unchanging and not subject to being taken away in an instant. Yet we use savings as safety nets, and stress over our wages. We worry that we will not have enough to be stable (when really we only worry about this because the lifestyle we live is often more than what we need). We seek money to buy our pleasures, our toys and experiences, all to fill that hole in our heart that is never completely satisfied. Never satisfied by anything material, that is.
You might be thinking, “Well, good, that’s not me. I don’t trust in riches.” You might even be thinking, “I’m too poor to fall into the worship of money.” Both of these thoughts are common, regardless of income. But let’s ask some hard questions. If your savings account was depleted today, how would you react? Would you trust in God to take care of you? Or would you dive into deep anxiety and despair, not knowing how you will survive? When Jesus said, “you cannot serve God and money,” He did so to set up the next section of the sermon on the mount where He would talk about worry and anxiety (Mt. 6:25-34). Jesus clearly makes the connection between serving money and being anxious about the necessities of life. Thus, it would do us well to ask, “Do I trust God to keep me secure, or do I trust my money to do that?” Further, we should ask, “Is my happiness based in what my money can buy me, or is it based in my relationship with God, regardless of my bank statement?”
There is a lot more that could be said here, but I will move on for the sake of time and attention.
This is a god that I see in particular in the United States. Too often have many married christian values with American values, considering them to be one in the same. Many worship our nation in similar ways that the ancients worshiped the gods. In much the same way that we put our faith/trust in money to keep us secure, we tend to put our faith/trust in the American government and military to keep us safe and secure.
Now, again we are quick to jump to statements like, “It’s not wrong to love your country!” or “God has blessed us with a country where we can worship Him without fear, so why would we not defend it?” And again, these statements hold some truth. But we must realize that we are not Americans who happen to be Christians. We are Christians who happen to be Americans. Our citizenship is not on this earth, nor is it with the rulers of this world. Our citizenship is in the Kingdom of the Lord (see Philippians 3:20-21, Ephesians 2:19-22).
How do we know if we are worshiping our nation? There are probably many different questions we could ask, but I’ll just ask a few. Does it worry you if America is not the number one country in the world for various aspects? Do you get anxiously concerned if other country’s GDPs are higher than ours? Do you think the next presidential candidate will ruin this country’s morality/values? Do you think Christianity will end if America doesn’t support it? How upset do you get when this nation passes laws that are more and more unchristian? Sure, we have a right to vote and let our voice be heard, and we should exercise that right- but at the end of the day, what do you do when the nation continues down the post-christianity path? Do you say America is just not the same, or the way it should be? If so, then you may be confusing the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of America. We must be Christians first, not Americans. There will come a day when America is no more, if the world continues that long. Nations come, and nations go, but the kingdom that God set up will never fall. We would do well to remember the words of the psalmist:
“Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.”
Finally, this might be the most challenging and prominent, yet most subtle, of all our idols. It could even be argued that this idol was what led to the fall of man. The worship of self. This is woven into the very fabric of our culture in the Western world. We are taught from a very early age to be individualistic and to rely on yourself. We are taught that we can only truly trust ourselves. Phrases like “Trust no one,” or “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” are common vocabulary. We are not only exposed to, but even encouraged to worship ourselves.
But that’s not to say that the temptation to worship oneself hasn’t been around for a long time. It materializes in many ways. Pride, arrogance, jealousy, envy, contention, strife, fights, wars, etc. Even from the fall of man, the first sin was driven by the words, “you will be like God.” Man would no longer have to rely on God, for they could rely on themselves. Or so they thought. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
“This sin has been described by Saint Augustine as the result of Pride, of the movement whereby a creature (that is, an essentially dependant being whose principle of existence lies not in itself but in another) tries to set up its own, to exist for itself. such as sin requires no complex social conditions, no extended experience, no great intellectual development. From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it. This sin is committed daily by young children and ignorant peasants as well as by sophisticated persons, by solitaries no less than by those who live in society: it is the fall in every individual life, and in each day of each individual life, the basic sin behind all particular sins: at this very moment you and I are either committing it, or about to commit it, or repenting it…
… This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall. For the difficulty about the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed. The turning from God to self fulfils both conditions. It Is a sin posible eve to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of self- the mere fact that we call it ‘me’- includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry. Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself… But the sin was very heinous, because the self which Paradisal man had to surrender contained no natural recalcitrancy to being surrendered. His data, so to speak, were a psycho-physical organism wholly subject to the will and a will wholly disposed, though not compelled, to turn to God. The self-surrender which he practised before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome- of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now.”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, pp. 592, 595-596)
At the heart of the fall of man was the idol of self. This is our temptation as well. Think about it. When something bad happens, who do you trust to fix it? Do you immediately pray, or do you immediately start thinking of ways to take care of the problem? Or on the flip side, when there is a pleasure that you want to partake in, do you think about how it does or doesn’t glorify God, or do you do it to satiate your own desire? Perhaps when we feel compelled to sin, it is because we sit as king on the throne of our lives, not God. We want to serve ourselves, to satisfy our own desires, or to make ourselves happy.
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.”
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.”
We need to be very careful not to fall into self-idolatry.
As I said before, this is not a comprehensive list. I could go on to talk about the worship of sex (as emphatically portrayed in Hozier’s Take me to Church), the god of science or whatever we put our trust in to make us happy, to keep us safe or to teach us absolute truth. There are gods all around us, and consciously or not, we will worship something. Often however, especially for Christians, we don’t even notice idolatry. Idolatry can sneak up on us when we simply start acting like the culture around us. It will not be drastic. It won’t be something that you can easily see as wrong. It something that we are going to have to look inside and truly make a judgment about where our own hearts are and who/what we put our true faith/trust in. It is not enough to pay lip service to God. We must fully surrender and put our believing loyalty in Him. One day, every knee will bow before the only God who deserves worship (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11). It would be best that our knees bow before that day.
Suggested Reading: Ezekiel 16, Matthew 5-7.
“Little children, keep yourself from idols.” (I John 5:21)