Removing impediments to spiritual growth is incumbent upon all believers, especially those kinds that turn out to be self-generated. An example is idolatry and this post marks the first of a series on the subject.
But why write about idolatry of all things? Because it occurred to me during a commercial about the show “American Idol” that our culture (Britain has its own version of this I think) is increasingly idolatrous and the program is paradigmatic of a much broader and endemic attitude, namely the desire to rise up from the anonymity of the ‘crowd’ and then be adored (or worshipped, so to speak) for having done so by those who themselves remain anonymous and ‘unknown’. It also occurred to me that just as Israel passed through idolatrous nations and was directed by Yahweh to ‘cleanse the land’, so the Christian church exists in the midst of idolaters and given the task convincing them of their sins and to return to God. Finally, it occurred to me (and this is the disconcerting part) that just as many people within the nation of Israel fell into the very idolatry it was called to eliminate, so have many Christians become idol worshipers perhaps even unaware of it so ubiquitous are the idols that surround us.
But, exactly what is idolatry and what are its consequences? I think most of us have at least a vague idea about it, know that it’s bad and to be avoided, but this very vagueness inhibits us from detecting it in our lives and even denying we are capable of such a thing so complete is our devotion to God. We begin with a remarkable passage from the Old Testament:
1 Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth.
2 Why should the nations say,
“Where, now, is their God?”
3 But our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man’s hands.
5 They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
6 They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
7 They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a sound with their throat.
8 Those who make them will become like them,
Everyone who trusts in them. (Psalm 115:1–8 NASB95)
This passage describes idols as having mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands, feet, and throats but are in fact mute, blind, deaf, unfeeling and motionless all tantamount to being lifeless and impotent. These are idols in their most primitive form, the kind usually associated with the barbaric and unsophisticated practices of isolated tribes in remote parts of the world.
However, idolatry is far more subtle than this. First, placing anything before service and love to God and second, glorifying creation rather than the Creator, takes idolatry far beyond the backward and uneducated, but something all humanity, even amongst the most advanced cultures, is capable, and indeed, already guilty of as Romans makes clear.
Romans 1:20–23 (NASB95)
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,
23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…
25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the
creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
The word ‘futile’ in v21 helps ‘get at’ the meaning of idolatry. Besides ‘futile’, it can also mean empty and/or nothingness and the word, ἐματαιώθησαν, is translated as “vain in their imaginations” in the KJV. The point is that vain imaginations or futile speculations are about ‘nothings’ characterized by emptiness. This doesn’t necessarily mean, but it can, that what we vainly imagination doesn’t exist (we can, for example, make a tangible idol) but the qualities, in this case spiritual ones, that we ascribe to them are vacuous, a substitution of an intrinsic knowledge of God for empty-headed anthropomorphisms and representations of animals and insects.
What I mean is: thinking we ever really create something is a mistake because there is only one Creator and what we make, imagine, build or ascribe attributes to is the manipulation of something that is already ‘there’; we don’t ‘create’ the raw material. This is why making an object or imagining a possibility and then worshipping it is an abomination; this is the essence of idolatry, worshipping creation and our manipulations of creation rather than the Creator.
Now we might wonder that if idols are in fact the products of vain and futile speculations and therefore ‘nothings’ representing ‘nothingness’, then what’s the harm? The ‘harm’, devastation in fact, is the belief, the conviction that they are something worthy of the faith and trust that is to be reserved only for God. And this is the offensive part of idolatry because it is the extension of the self into, or onto, some kind of alternative object, representation, lust or, in its crudest form, something we make with our own hands (but in every case a ‘substitution’) and then becoming a slave to that idol (Gal. 4:8-9). It is self inflicted slavery and once a slave there is no freedom, only bondage and servitude. Paul taught that demonic forces hid behind idols so that worshipping the idol was tantamount to serving a demon (1 Cor. 10:19-20). And what better way to distract someone from the reality of God then by substituting an image, an idea in His place and saying they are one and the same?
This substitution, or exchange, is powerfully presented by Paul in Romans 1:25 where he says that a ‘lie’ is exchanged for truth and ‘creation’ with the Creator and then worship and service turned upside down. We must note carefully that this ‘lie’ is not just one among many but is the lie indicated by Paul’s use of the definite article (οἵτινες μετήλλαξαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν τῷ ψεύδει……(Romans 1:25 (NA27). It is, in fact, the lie of Eden (“you shall be like God…”) now encompassing the entire human race that sprung from Adam. Thus, idolatry driven by pride is in fact the most basic manifestation of all sins.
Paul’s’ reference to worship and service sheds more light on the nature of idolatry. We glean from the various Greek and Hebrew words translated by the English ‘worship’ that, along with praise, worship is awe, reverence, adoration, and most importantly perhaps, obedient service to what is perceived and believed by the worshipper to be worthy of such obeisance. So, embracing the ‘lie’ is giving worship and service that belongs to the Creator to something or someone that is infinitely inferior but nevertheless elevated to the status of God Himself.
The idea of service is important because it indicates the ‘doing something’ part of worship. As pointed out earlier, to worship an idol is to become a slave to it and becoming a slave means serving and servicing the demands of the idol which is tantamount to serving the self bound by sin and self-deception. It is especially significant to know that the word for ‘service’ Paul uses (ἐλάτρευσαν) is used in the Septuagint and refers to the service, not of the regular worshipper, but rather of the priests standing before God. Since we are in fact ‘kings and priests’ to God, rendering this sacred service to something, or someone, other than God is not just grossly sinful but simply repulsive.
Referring back to Psa. 115 we learn that since idolatry in whatever form it takes is a substitution for God, believed in and trusted as though it were God, the only antidote is believing and trusting in God Himself. Trusting in God is (at least in part) acknowledging that He is the only one deserving of such trust, capable of honoring the trust given and whose demands are worthy of any regard; our God, after all, “is in the heavens and He does whatever He pleases.” (Psa. 115:3)
At the very least this means abandoning any regard to self, selfish ambition or self-sufficiency because serving (or submitting to) an idol brings about a relationship whose parameters we determine since it is of our own making. And whatever it is we think, or hope, the idol will do for us is also of our own making, a very convenient arrangement but in the end merely self, self-sufficiency and self-exaltation projected onto a vainly imagined external reality. Believing in and trusting God on the other hand is a relationship that begins and ends with God, not us; i.e. God comes to us before we can ever come to Him. The parameters of the relationship are established by Him, never arbitrary or hidden from us, and are permanent. More on all of this next time.
By the way, those following this blog have probably noticed no posts have been made for some time. If you have ‘stuck with me”, thanks. Circumstances made it difficult to write but seem to have cleared up so more posts are forthcoming.
© W.G. Ryzek 2012