Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Everybody’s an Idolater

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.”

Everybody’s an idolater. Well, almost everybody.

Christians are exempt. Of course we may struggle with temptation to idolatry of various sorts from time to time, but the characteristic pattern of the Christian life is not idolatrous. We do not continue in it. After all, idolaters will not enter the kingdom of God. Anyone whose life is characterized by idolatry is by definition un-Christian.

Also exempt are the relatively-innocent-if-imperfect toddlers who have yet to form coherent ideas about life. At worst they are idolaters-in-training. But every adult I know who doesn’t worship God through Jesus Christ is actively (and often enthusiastically) engaged in the worship of Something Else Instead.

I do not kid. Once you grasp the idea from scripture that idolatry is not merely the worship of sticks and stones but the exaltation and prioritizing of anything at all to the place in our lives that rightly belongs to the God of Heaven and Earth, then it becomes almost too easy to spot the particular form of idolatry in which each new acquaintance is currently engaged.

Idolatry in Practice

The most obvious are the Mammonites. When a man loves money enough to cut corners to make more of it, and to lose friends and family to keep it, he has already declared his true allegiance.

There are those who worship the Big Idea, the latest utopian or environmentalist fantasy. The specific brand differs, but ideologues are all over the place today, wreaking havoc in the name of a better world, enslaved to an idol as tangible to them as a statue of Baal was to the Israelites of Ahab’s day.

Some people worship relatively nice idols, like home and family, but they are idols all the same. I read an article written by an unbeliever who railed about Abraham’s choice to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God’s command. He assured his readers he could never do such a thing and that anyone who could is a monster. Choose Christ over kin? Not a chance. He was telling us he worships idols, though he doesn’t think of it that way, of course.

Autonomists are idolaters, those for whom the final word on what they are going to do is always their own preference, or what makes sense to them. It doesn’t have to be a wicked choice they are making. It certainly doesn’t have to hurt anyone or make the world a worse place. It’s simply that the choice must always be theirs. When nobody can ever tell you what to do, it’s because you have come to worship self.

Millions of men and women are in love with drugs, legal or illegal, or unhealthily passionate about their next glass of amber liquid, whatever variety that might be. They are not just alcoholics or addicts, but idolaters as well. In fact, addiction of any sort is also a form of idolatry. Whether or not you hate the idol 12 hours out of 24 is not the point: if it has mastered you, it’s still your idol.

Obvious and Not-So-Obvious

Workaholics are idolaters. That goes without saying. Their families may benefit financially, but suffer in their absence. Ask any of them what their father, mother, husband or wife really loves more than anything else, and they can tell you without hesitation.

The pursuit of the “good life” is idolatry. It’s one step above money-for-its-own-sake, but only one. With others their idol is prestige. They worship being worshiped, so to speak.

Authoritarians are idolaters, and by that I mean not those who exercise authority in life but would give it up for one reason or another if asked to, but rather those who love the predictability and false security of man-made rules so much that they will obey anybody who claims to possess authority and do their best to enforce that alleged authority on others, whether or not it is actually their job. They will choose the opportunity to lecture you over almost any other pleasure under the sun because they worship the sense of power it gives them. The Pharisees of the first century were authoritarians of this sort: they worshiped the rules above the God who made the rules.

I once knew a man who worshiped duty as an abstraction. It wasn’t duty to anything or anyone in particular; it was duty for duty’s sake, so that he could think about himself in a certain way that pleased him. We must do the things we must because they are things we must do. It was no more sensible or complicated than that. That compulsion was what defined him, and that was his idol.

Some people’s idols are just that weird, but watch them long enough, and you will see that they have them. Everybody does, except those of us who really know and love Jesus Christ and the Father to whom he graciously introduced us, and even we need to always be on guard against those things which would easily become idols to us if we allow them out of their place.

Eyes, Mouths and Ears

The psalmist who talked about the idols of the nations went on to write this about them:
“They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.”
The passage is about the futility of carved and cast images of humans and humanoids, animals and monsters; things in the form of created and uncreated beings with eyes, ears and mouths. But what it says is true of every form of idolatry, ancient and modern: anything you worship that is not God cannot appreciate your love or your worship, because it doesn’t actually exist anymore than Baal or Molech existed. Ideas don’t love you back. The environment doesn’t give a fig if it has more CO2 or less in it, even if humans are ready to kill each other over the issue. Compulsions don’t care for your welfare, or even for their own. Money doesn’t act on behalf of itself or control anything at all in the real world. These things are inanimate, dead, unreal, abstract and empty.

But here’s the interesting thing: worship any idol long enough and you become just as spiritually inert and insensate as the idol you worship. I am noticing this all the time now as I get older and watch the consequences of various choices the people I know and love have made. You can observe that people who trust in idols of one sort or another do indeed become like the inanimate things and empty concepts to which they are devoted. You can’t wake them up from their stupor or show them that anything else is more important than their deity of choice. They do not see, they do not hear, and they have ceased to live in any meaningful way. They march on robotically toward their idiot end.

Raising the Dead

This last year has shown us over and over again that the human capacity for intellectual and moral inertia is bottomless. We are surrounded by the living dead. I sometimes think the serious, growing Christians I know are the only truly alert people in the entire world. When you really worship the living God and nothing else, that life which comes from him can’t help spilling out in every direction: in heightened powers of observation, in grateful appreciation, in stimulated intellects, in open eyes and ears and willing tongues.

What can we do for the idolaters in our lives once we have shared the word of Christ with them and they will not hear it? Only pray. I think of the Lord’s observation that 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. He meant the idolatrous rich, of course, not the devout, godly rich who gratefully share what God has given them. He meant those who trust in riches, hoard them and rely on them; those for whom riches have become their god.

And then he adds this: with God all things are possible. Amen. Our Savior is the hope of an idolatrous world.

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