Idols: Prioritize nothing ahead of God.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 March

What happens when worship goes anywhere but towards the Almighty.

Idol /'aɪ.dl/ n. Image or representation of a [false] god, used to worship it.
2. Person or thing that’s greatly loved, revered, or worshiped.
[Idolatry /aɪ'dɑl.ə.tri/ n., idolater /aɪ'dɑl.ə.dər/ n.]

It’s often said humans were created to worship. It’s something humans do instinctively; so much so, most people on the planet believe in a god of some form. Thus if we’re not worshiping YHWH/“Jehovah”/“the LORD,” the one true God, we’re just gonna latch ourselves to some other god, or something else, and worship that.

Might be a spouse, parent, child, friend, or some other loved one. Might be a pop star. Or a position in business or government. Or power. Wealth. The pursuit of the perfect high, whether from drugs or sex or adrenaline. The pursuit of a comfortable existence. Some possession or hobby or philosophy you intend to devote all your time and life to. You name it, you can make an idol of it.

Anything we prioritize above God, or pursue instead of God, is an idol.

Now yeah, this is a relatively recent definition of “idol.” It’s not the definition we see in the bible. The authors of the scriptures definitely meant the statues of pagan gods. The LORD banned them, you recall. (Arguably he banned people from making them of himself too, which is why throughout Christian history, different movements keep trying to get rid of Jesus statues and paintings.)

Exodus 20.3-6 = Deuteronomy 5.7-10 KWL
3=7 “For you, there mustn’t be any other gods in my presence.
4=8 Don’t manufacture any idol for yourself;
any form from the skies above, from the land below, from the water below the land.”
5=9 Don’t bow down to them. Don’t serve them.
For I’m your LORD God: I’m El-Qanná/‘Possessive God.’
I have children suffer consequences for their parents’ evil
—and the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—when they hate me.
6=10 But I show love to a thousand generations
when they love me and observe my commands.”

The problem with limiting the definition of “idol” to paintings and statues, are kinda obvious:

Not every god has a statue. Ancient middle easterners made loads of statues of their gods. Most cultures do. But some cultures don’t: They recognize their gods as too holy to be depicted by inadequate human art. Pharaoh Akhenaten, fr’instance, ordered the Egyptians to only depict his god Aten as a circle. So not every organized religion is gonna have a god-statue. And if all we do is get rid of statues, yet do nothing about the problematic underlying beliefs, we’ve really done nothing.

Certainly not every disorganized religion has a god-statue. Wealth-worshipers don’t set up a shrine to Mammon in their homes; nor even their summer homes. But they’re as devout a worshiper as any adherent of any other religion. It’s just when they’re Christian, they don’t always realize all the compromises they’ve made to the gospel in favor of their stuff. Or they may totally recognize their devotion, but would never call it “worship.” (Even if it is; too crass.)

Um… we have statues. Every so often some Christian will read Deuteronomy 5.8 and say, “Wait, I have images of Jesus round the house.” There’s the crucifix on the wall. Ikons in the office. In the rec room there’s a kitschy figurine of Jesus playing soccer with neighborhood kids. Christian art is everywhere; doesn’t it violate God’s command?

I wasn’t kidding about the figurine. Amazon

I would say no. Because the command isn’t, “Don’t make images.” It’s “Don’t make other gods.” In the scriptures, the Hebrews were permitted, even ordered, to make various images. Like the gold cherubs the LORD instructed Bezalel to build into his ark. Ex 25.18-19 Or the bronze snake he instructed Moses to put on a pole. Nu 21.8-9 So obviously it’s okay to make statues and ikons. It’s just never okay to worship them.

An ikon or statue of Jesus is meant to point us to Jesus. If it’s doing its job, it’s fine.

Iconoclasts (using its original definition of “ikon-breaker,” not “rebel”) object, claiming none of these images do a proper job. Paintings of white Jesus suffer from a rather inherent problem: Jesus isn’t white. White people are gonna consider this an irrelevant historical inaccuracy… that is, till they’re offered a painting of black Jesus. If one painting makes ’em uncomfortable, yet the other doesn’t, it’s not pointing to Jesus as well as they imagine.

Iconoclasts rightly worry we might slide into worshiping the Lord’s image, and not so much the Lord. I agree it’s something we need to be on our guard against. But I wouldn’t just limit our concerns to only crucifixes and ikons. Plenty of Christians actually turn our other Christian paraphernalia, like books, music, preachers and teachers, beads and candles—even our bibles!—into things which take priority over God. If we won’t put God before everything—if we can’t even temporarily set it down, much less hand it entirely over to him—we’ve made an idol of it.

Yeah, there’s a lot of idolatry hiding in plain sight in Christendom. It’s why we’ve gotta stay on our guard against them.

Ideas, idols, and destruction.

The ancient Greeks used to personify ideas. We do that too, y’know. In the United States we have this 225-ton statue in New York Harbor of a French woman holding up a torch, who’s meant to represent “Liberty” enlightening the world. If you want us to draw an image of liberty, sometimes people depict a convict or slave getting released… but more often our drawings are gonna look like the statue.

Thing is, the Greeks would go one step further and worship these ideas. Certain Greeks would worship éros/“romance,” and speak of it as if it were he, a person. Over time it became the god Eros, one of the sons of the love-goddess Aphrodite. Myths were created about him—marrying then abandoning Psyche, shooting Apollo with an arrow that made him rapey, etc. The Romans called him Cupid, and our culture mixes him up with medieval paintings of putti/“baby angels.” But still.

The Greeks did this with anything they considered of value. The uranós/“sky” became the sky-god Uranus, and gi/“land” became the earth-god Gaia. Being áris/“warlike” became the war-god Ares. The concept of plútos/“wealth” became the wealth-god Ploutos. The largely unknown ádis/“afterlife” became the afterlife-god Hades. And so on. If a god didn’t exist, but the Greeks figured there ought to be one in their pantheon, they’d just invent one.

Y’see the Greeks believed ideas are more real than real things. (’Cause Plato of Athens taught them so.) The idea of wealth was more real than actual wealth. So if you nurse that idea—cherish it, love it, worship it—it might become physically real. Treat it like a god, and it’d turn into a real live god. Yeah, it’s wishing stuff into being, but you’d be surprised how many people believe it possible. Even Christians.

Paul referred to these ideas as ta stoiheía tu kósmu/“the world’s basics.” Ga 4.3, Cl 2.8 (KJV “the rudiments of the world.”) Simple concepts… but blown out of proportion, because instead of mastering them, people worship them, and get enslaved to them.

More than that: Evil spirits will take advantage of our inappropriate worship, and trick us into getting more and more entangled in it. When we worship an idol, more often than not there’s a false god, a demon, behind that idol, manipulating us into worshiping it even more. 1Co 10.19-22 We Christians are empowered to throw these demons out of people’s lives, Mt 10.8 but too often we’re clueless about them. We just assume it’s a harmless fixation.

But in practice it’s far from harmless. That’s why God ordered the Hebrews (and us) to worship nothing but him. He’s the only being worthy of worship, who’ll actually improve the worshiper. Everything else corrupts.

Worship anything else, and it doesn’t just warp the worshiper: It warps the object of worship. We humans were never meant to be worshiped, and can’t handle it. It gives us way more power than we were ever meant to handle. The smart ones flee. Or deflect it, or insist the worship is misplaced. But too often people accept it… and let it destroy us. Politicians, entertainers, even spouses and children, let the power go to their heads. They actually crave or demand it when it’s missing. The Greeks believed worship turned into food for the gods, so when you stopped worshiping them, they starved. Any celebrity will admit worship is a lot like food, and sometimes they starve for attention. In fact it’s more like heroin. Makes people desperate when gone. Once they’re hooked, the craving gets ’em to do unspeakably evil things just to get that adoration back.

Humans aren’t the only ones who go nuts this way. Demons also get addicted to receiving worship, and also do whatever it takes to receive more. But while worship will take a physical toll on a human, demons are spirit, so it won’t burn them out: Instead they’ll burn us out. They’ll go to crazy extremes to get their worshipers to go to crazy extremes. They’ll deprive us, force us to make sacrifices, take and take and take, and never give back. If the Holy Spirit isn’t within us, they’ll try to physically occupy us… and once we’re all used up, they’ll simply move on to new worshipers.

All the more reason to examine everything in our lives, and make absolutely sure none of them take priority over God.

Get rid of your idols.

So do a basic examination of everything in your life. Is there anything you simply can’t give up for God—or would find it very, very hard to give up? That’d be your idol.

For most parents, it’s their children. It’s why so many parents who’ve lost a child have quit Christianity. They’d give up anything for God, but never their kids. For some of ’em, it’s why they turned to Jesus in the first place: They were worried about their kids, or didn’t have good answers for their kids’ theology questions, so they went to church and made deals with God. And they’re so pissed God didn’t hold up his end of the bargain—even though God never promised ’em anything. On the contrary: Jesus kinda expects us, where necessary, to forsake children for him. Mk 19.29 Did we somehow miss the point of the story where Abraham sacrificed Isaac? Ge 22.1-19

For many, it’s also a loved one: A spouse, a parent, a close relative, a good friend. If they die, so does their faith. “I prayed and prayed for my 115-year-old great-grandfather to not die, and God let him die anyway; I bet there must not even be a God.” I understand their grief, but man do they sound stupid. Even so, this happens all the time.

For many, it’s money and possessions, whether physical or intellectual.

And for most, it’s a total blind spot. We really don’t know what’s got their hooks in us. Our friends can see it; we can’t. We might have to ask somebody else, who knows us well enough to know what we’re hooked on. We may not believe them—“I’m not addicted to Facebook; I can stop whenever I like; you’re blowing it out of proportion”—but y’know, sometimes we’re in denial and they’re absolutely right.

How do we test to see whether they’re idols? Simple: Do without them for a week or two, or a month, or 40 days. Go on a fast. No caffeine for Lent. Take a deliberate break from those friends you revere so much. Practice prioritizing God above them: Turn off your phone during prayer time!

If God truly comes first, it won’t be as hard as you think. If he doesn’t… well, here’s your wake-up call.

Regardless, whatever idols we find in our lives, need to be destroyed. Before they hinder our relationships with God any further. Before they destroy us first.