–March of 2004
A Theology of Idolatry
Man’s problem with idolatry is well documented. Since the moment that our first parents turned their eyes from the Creator to one tiny aspect of His creation, man has had a propensity toward idolatry. After the most miraculous delivery of any captive nation in the history of the world, the Hebrews bowed in the desert sand before a golden calf, crying, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Despite plague and punishment, Israel pursued her idolatrous ways until she had as many gods as she did cities. Every civilization and culture has had its evil tryst with idols. Mankind seems bent on turning away from the true and living God to a god of his own making.
Most 21st century Christians think that behavior like idolatry is far too unsophisticated or disgusting to be found among us today. They think of it only in terms of bowing down before a lifeless god of stone. Unfortunately, this leaves them easy prey for the more subtle forms of idolatry. Let me describe two of these forms.
Paul tells us in the New Testament that all covetousness is idolatry. Anything we are willing to value more highly than we value God or His approval is an idol. Today’s idol worshiper doesn’t bow down before the sun god, but lives a life that is marked by a passionate pursuit of things that have little or no eternal significance. They value the passing over the permanent. They live for the immediate. They crave the temporary thrill of buying a new home, updating their technology, or engaging in a new experience. Sports and entertainment are high on their list of priorities. The satisfaction of the flesh is a serious quest. The security of their future is a must. Though God gets their Church time and tithe, they live as if this world were the only one. Their idol is the trivial and they bow low before the altar of the insignificant. This form of idolatry values the temporal more that the eternal.
Another subtle form of idolatry is trusting for salvation in that which cannot save us. Israel illustrates this for us. God gave Israel the law to further His redemptive work among them as well as to protect and maintain their integrity as a people. But a danger arose when Israel found it easier to focus on the law (making sure not to do what offended God) rather than on the God who gave the law. Israel soon found more comfort in keeping and guarding the law rather than worshiping the Law Giver. Religious sects began to spring up for the sole purpose of explaining and defending the law. The end result was that Israel trusted in the law for salvation rather than in the God who gave it. This subversion of the Divine intent perverted the good that was to come from the law and brought about a subtle form of idolatry that left Israel worshiping the thing made rather than the Maker.
There are Christians today who find it easier to trust in the forms of godliness than in the God who gives power and meaning to the form. They find it easier to identify with a group, conform to a code, and embrace a creed, than to cultivate a relationship with the God who is at the heart of it all. Instead of living in the fear of the Lord they rest in the acceptance of man and man’s tradition. They have chosen the false assurance of religious conformity and missed the real assurance of “Christ in you the hope of glory.”
The trap of spiritual idolatry is subtle but avoidable. Take proactive measures to avoid it. Worship in a church that values and speaks God’s Word. Find friends that challenge you to know God intimately. And never forget that eternal life is in knowing the “true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.” Don’t settle for anything less.