God forbids all idolatry. This prohibition is the single most repeated rule in all of Scripture; it’s the First Commandment (You shall have no other gods besides me); God laments its practice, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?” (Jer. 8:18), and God tells us to put to death any prophet who promotes it.
However, we live in a world that largely ignores God’s principal command. After all, when was the last time you spied your neighbor bowing before her secret backyard shrine to Baal?
But foreign gods are not merely metal deities, idols are mostly mental deities; the imagined bridges we build to link us to whatever we think will make our lives most magnificent. We dream, “If I was better looking [or richer or more liked], life would be glorious.”
Idols expose our resolve to find freedom from God, to do “whatever is right in our own eyes.” From the beginning, we humans have obsessively—almost neurotically —hollered our Declaration of Independence from God by worshipping idols, be they metal or mental:
- Adam and Eve ate the apple so that they would “be like God.”
- The Tower of Babel was built “to make a name for ourselves.”
- Israel’s first act after God’s amazing liberation from Egypt … was to make a golden calf
But after Israel’s exile, it seems they finally abandoned foreign gods. In fact, when Greek King Antiochus IV required worship of other gods, Israel revolted. By the time of Jesus, there is not one single mention in any of the gospels of Israelites worshipping foreign gods.
This was God’s chosen time to send Jesus to earth.
So Why Did Jesus Come Then?
Scripture says that “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” and “When the proper time had fully come, God sent His son” (Rom. 5:6 and Gal. 4:4). What was so right and proper about two thousand years ago? Why then? Why not earlier?
Just off the top of my head, I can think of many times that seem better. For example:
- What if God sent his Son immediately after Adam and Eve ate the apple? It would have saved centuries of suffering.
- What if Jesus came right before the Noah’s flood? Would have saved thousands of lives.
- What if He came right before Pharaoh enslaved the Children of Israel?
But my plans are not God’s plans, and my ideas fall flat before His Ideal.
Every human trouble was birthed out of evil worship. Jesus came because there was one more idol to kill. That’s why Jesus came then and not before; because of our most ominous idolatry.
Perhaps the greatest enemy of Jesus was the Pharisees. But they began well. Their name means “one who is separated.” They wanted purity. They fought pagan assimilation. They taught the Bible in local synagogues. What’s not to like? What was in them that opposed Jesus?
The philosophy of the Pharisees shrouded the most insidious idol of all: the idol of myself. Which is another declaration of independence. Which is self-reliance, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-pity, self-care, self-love; which is self-ism; which is idolatry.
Even though Baal worship was finally banished, and Scripture was taught in every village, and worship practices were better than at any other time in Israel’s history, Jesus said, “It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matt. 11:24).
The Pharisaical mental-idol-bridge was, “I must feel good about myself.” In their idolizing frenzy for self-justification, they refused the gift of God’s-justification. But the counterfeit failed: despite all their hard work, they didn’t feel good about themselves. That’s why they sneered at everyone (“Thank you god that I’m not like this fool.”), even mocking Jesus.
The most dangerous idols are always us, ourselves, self-ism. From Eve’s “You will be like God” to Babel’s “Let us make a name for ourselves” to the pharisees’ self-justification. We desperately desire to escape from God’s control of our lives.
“Self-isms” are counterfeits. They work for a bit—in the short run, the self-confident get more promotions—but like all scams, they are ultimately exposed for the frauds they are. London Bridges falling down.
Every mental image of God—bridges to our independent, “glorious” life—will fail. Those bridges can’t bear the weight of a God-created life. We don’t need self-esteem or self-love. Our one and only need is God’s love.
In His love, we have a confidence that cannot be shaken, an esteem that cannot be stolen, a love that banishes fear, and a Father who names us Himself, and then He calls us by name.
And the final idol dies.
Self may be the final idol to go, but I found that removing the idol of self meant letting go of many modern day idols found on the shelves of my mind and heart. Merely identifying these idols was a journey in itself. Careers, spouse, family, bodily habits, theological understanding, and even my Bible were all found on the shelves at one point or another.
Christians seem to be skilled at transmuting their understanding of God into their idols before worshipping those idols, often never knowing the difference (“I know God loves me because He gave me more of what I love most”). Others observed includes religious institutions, political ideologies, lifestyles, even one’s health. The examples are almost limitless. In this tumultuous time, I wonder who discovered previously unknown idols on the shelves of their mind and heart? Will the people cast aside their idols before it is too late?
You are doing great just identifying the long list of modern idols. That is the best place to start, and your list is terrific.
Although, I also think all our idols revolve around a kind of worship of ourselves: if I get that career (or spouse, family, health, habit, theology, etc.) … then I’ll be happy (or respected or liked …).
Our worship is a devotion, and God calls us to devotion to Him. CS Lewis once said, “Aim and earth and you’ll get nothing, aim at heaven (worship of God), and all the rest is thrown in.” God is all we need.
Thanks for your comments, they are always good and always a great contribution!
This one takes some ruminating! How do I become more aware of “self” idolatry whilst not losing touch with the “me” that God created and loves and wants to fulfil her potential? I’ve spent many painful years trying to find the me that God made and the world almost broke. Then a few more years being way too involved with myself and not leaving much room for God. I don’t have answers right now as much as hunches to explore and I would be cautious of anyone being too quick to confidently give me their answer. My beginning is in trying to build a habit of confession and examen and embracing that fact that balance is an ever wobbling journey, not a static and perfect state of being. Thanks for the reminder Sam, be well.
Thank you so much for your personal sharing. It’s a good reminder that all this theological talk must, in the end, be personal and not just abstract.
And thank you for the reminder of embracing the fact that we are “wobbling” and God understands. He could snap His fingers and stop the wobbling, but He mostly loves it when we turn to Him, just as a child can turn to a Father when she falls off her bike.
I’m not sure you want to publish this even though I am not trying to be political. I have sensed friends who are leaning toward worshiping/reading about/witnessing about our Constitution. They believe that God influenced it, but that is not in their current dialogue.
I agree, for some people, politics may be their golden calf that brought them out of the land of Egypt; but the political god is on both sides of the aisle.
But Scripture says, “Thou shalt have not other gods besides [or before, or in the presence of] me.
God never promised unlimited choices (in fact his law DOES limit choices), but God also never promised a legal freedom of religion. Christianity was born and raised in a time when it was outlawed (at times) and persecuted (at times).
Recently, while meditating/praying I began to experience the most wonderful sense of FREEDOM before the Lord! Freedom from worrying about my appearance, physical status (age 84) or anything else. God loves me; He accepts me in Christ. Paul says: “You died…and your life is hidden with Christ in God!” (Col. 3:3) Growing in TRUST in Him…and His LOVE and acceptance! Such Freedom! Jesus declared on the cross: “It is FINISHED!” He has accomplished all! Just requires our cooperation and trust!!
I love your sense of Freedom, but (maybe) even more I love your understanding of Freedom.
The world thinks freedom is absence of any restrictions; which means freedom is about ME.
God says that kind of freedom is like a fish out of water; literally the un-freedom of a fish out of water. Because God’s freedom is a fish IN water, with the “right” kind of restrictions (like being in water) that he made.
Which means knowing his love, care, right-rules, repentance, and acceptance that his ways (like living in water) are better than our ways (like trying to be a fish out of water).
His freedom is freedom indeed.
I love the analogy of the fish IN or OUT of the water. I think I will use it with my 9 year old grandson. Stay dialed in to the Holy Spirit in your soul and keep writing!
I don’t think I created that fish metaphor, I have a vague memory I heard it elsewhere. But I DO think it is great imagery for real freedom in God; it is the freedom to be exactly who God made us to be, in peace, love, joy, and in the right way.
I can truly understand that God wants us to put away the idols that we worship, but have a difficult time when you write, “God wants us to put to death any prophet that promotes it – (idol worship).” If that is the case we shall have a lot of blood on our hands, and I cannot believe that the God and Jesus that I have come to know would ever desire that.
Words can be very dangerous and misleading, but perhaps I am misunderstanding????
Thanks so much for commenting.
Yes, after the cross, God calls us to act differently; after Jesus said “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
And yet … in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures), God is abundantly clear about his hatred of evil. When God formulated the Ten Commandments, he forbade idolatry first and foremost, partly because every sin that has ever been committed arose out of some form of idolatry. If we don’t kill idolatry, we will never be rid of pillaging, oppression, racism, murder, adultery, or rape.
In Deuteronomy 13, God says:
I know this seems harsh, especially this side of the cross. On the other hand, even in our secular society, what we do about a person who opened up a public school that purposely taught: murder, theft, oppression, and rape?
God is saying, any and all idolatry dishonors Him and inevitably leads to sins against humanity.