In the news recently, I learned about a grandmother in Brazil who thought she was praying before a statue of St. Anthony, when she was actually praying to Lord of the Rings action figure — Elrond to be exact. We can debate the merits/demerits of praying to saints (I have never found it necessary), but clearly, praying to a toy is idol-worship.
What is an idol?
If you’ve read your Bible, you know that the third of the Ten Commandments states: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Exodus 20:4-6 (NIV)
From this passage, we can see that the earliest understanding was that an idol was a created thing in which the worshiper vested power and authority and from which the worshiper derived identity and security. The temptation in Moses’ day was to make an image of something from the natural world and to offer sacrifices to it.
Perhaps the most famous story from this time was that of the golden calf — where the Hebrews, freed from slavery in Egypt, were wandering in the desert. While Moses met with God on a mountaintop, the people grew restless and urged Moses’ brother Aaron to fashion a golden calf — an idol — to worship. In Exodus 32:4 reads, “Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” And they offered sacrifices and indulged themselves, inviting God’s righteous judgment.
How it all works
Notice that, although the Hebrews had a representative who spoke directly with God and conveyed His words to them, their devotion was already off-target. How do we know this? Because when Moses had been gone too long (in their view), they abandoned any sense of obligation to the God whose deliverance they had experienced, and whose saving acts they had seen for themselves. Moses was already an idol for them, long before they melted their jewelry for a little worship on the side.
Second, notice that the idol they made was far less demanding than the living God. Once they had offered their sacrifices, the golden calf didn’t forbid them from running amok. Idols are actually subject to the ones who make them. We’ve discussed previously how human beings are wired for worship. The ancient Hebrews knew they had to worship, so they concocted a means for soothing their spiritual urges that wouldn’t interfere with gratifying their physical ones.
Third, notice that the people God chose were all to ready to derive their identity from the golden calf — the god that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Except, of course, that hunk of precious metal had done no such thing.
If you think the Hebrews were stupid and primitive, permit me to tell you we are no better.
Idols? In the current year?
Yes, there are idols in existence in our time — and not just the sort when grandma accidentally prays to a Happy Meal prize. These idols are easier to see when you think less about someone actually praying to them, than about deriving their identity from them. Position, popularity, paychecks, and porn are just some of the idols of our time. Aside from the last one on the list, these aren’t bad things in themselves, but their out-sized role in a man’s life reveals the idol for what it is.
You know the thing is an idol when it commands your thoughts, your imagination, and when the thought of being without it fills you with dread. In my short life, I have seen parents make idols of their children, and men make idols of their wives. Even worthy things can become idols. For the most part it’s not the thing itself, it’s the authority we grant to it.
In his book Pensées, Blaise Pascal says, ” We make an idol of truth itself, for truth apart from charity is not God, but his image and an idol that we must not love or worship.” Look at that: even the attributes of God can become a false substitute for God Himself. This idolatry thing is more persistent than we thought.
A recent revelation
You may have noticed I haven’t been doing video blog posts recently. There’s a reason for that and it has nothing to do with laziness. I injured one of my vocal cords due to illness, and I compounded it by working through it. (Did I mention that I sing professionally?) That earned me three weeks of doctor-ordered vocal rest– as in, I spent two weeks not speaking at all, and not talking (much) or singing for three weeks. I’m still recovering and undergoing speech therapy to help me avoid straining my larynx, but I did manage to perform at a gig last weekend.
I’ve learned many lessons from this ordeal, but the most significant was how much of my identity I derive from my voice and all that I do with it. Sad to say that’s a form of idolatry. I didn’t enjoy it, but I am grateful for the way God comforted me and confirmed me as His, even if I couldn’t speak or sing His praise for a time.
(Another lesson was that people can’t read my lips easily. It’s because more often that not I’m smiling, grimacing, or sneering.)
So how can a man keep his heart from idols?
As with other forms of addiction, idolatry is about what one loves. This means we have to start with a frank assessment of our heart’s deepest affections. Do I love the creation more than the Creator? The gifts more than the Giver? If I find that I do, my next move is to confess, to change the channel in my mind, and to return to worship the true and living God.
Don’t worry that He’ll reject you. If you’re sincerely seeking Him, He will welcome you. Sin is a big deal to God — it’s so big He put to death His only son on a cross so that you and I could be made righteous and adopted into His family. (And Jesus rose from the dead, proving that the welcome — and the redemption that makes it possible — is genuine.) When you understand the radical nature of grace, and how deeply God loves you, loving Him is easy and idols look cheap by comparison.
Make God — the ultimate reality — your hiding place.
Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” So what does that mean?
It means you take your hurt to your heavenly Father. When the adversary accuses you or challenges your identity as a child of the Most High, you call on Him to confirm your identity.
It means you have a plan before temptation approaches: What will I do when…? You don’t isolate yourself, you don’t seek comfort in anything other than God, and you don’t squelch or attempt to suppress what your heart is saying to you. If you are redeemed, your heart is the homing beacon — the Bat signal — that summons your heart toward God. And you confront your pain, your discomfort, your hopelessness in the presence of Jesus Christ. Do these things and you can put your idols in the wood chipper.
So how about you? What idols have crept into your life? How do you plan to combat them? Add your comments below.