Idols at our Sunday Worship

August 24, 2018

Idols at our Sunday Worship

Alison shared with us last Sunday on idols, and asked us to reflect on what idols we each might have. She invited us to place a stone as a physical act of laying down our idols so that we might be able to pursue God more fully.

One question that came to mind as Alison was sharing was, “Why is the Bible so vehemently opposed to idolatry?”

Of course, humans choosing not to put their trust in God is as old as the hills. So it’s not surprising this tendency to let other things control us comes up top of the list in the Big 10:

…you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,…

It appears God demands exclusive allegiance. Centuries later we see Jesus rework this first commandment in the positive: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37) In other words, our total devotion (agapao) should be for God, not for our idols. And Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler is to tell him that it’s all or nothing. Apparently you can’t do half-measures with God.

That seems at first take to be a bit intolerant! Makes me want to shout out at the top of my lungs, “Ease up on the jealousy God! Relax! Don’t be so greedy! You should be thankful for what you do get of me!”

However, things start to clarify a bit when we read Matthew 6 – particularly when Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) 

It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s classic, You Gotta Serve Somebody, where the raspy-voiced poet presses the point that it doesn’t matter who we are, all humans are prone to idolatry because we were created to worship. It’s part of who we are. But we can only give our full allegiance to one Master.

It’s then the penny drops for me. God is not being intolerant or greedy. He just knows that we’ll end up a conflicted mess if we try to simply add our love for him onto all our other loves. God takes idolatry seriously because he knows the damage it can do to us. God’s dream for us is that we might flourish and become all we were meant to be fully free and alive. Anything that gets in the way of that dream is destructive.

You see, when we allow an ideology, belief, person, ambition, activity, substance, or habit to dictate terms, it will end up controlling and entrapping us.

Ultimately idols stop me from experiencing God’s liberating life. They inhibit my freedom to make life-giving choices. They reconfigure my priorities, attitudes, motives and actions in ways that are destructive to my personhood and relationships, and my capacity to worship and serve God wholeheartedly.

And here’s another danger: they sneak up on us unawares, so that by the time we realise they have an unhealthy grip on us we are already trapped.

Okay, fair enough. But couldn’t we just use softer language? After all, idolatry sounds awfully harsh. Particularly in a culture that prides itself on being tolerant and avoiding (at all costs) offending others. It’s like those other unpleasant words used in the Bible – sin and repentance.

While the word idolatry grates at me, I’m picking that’s probably a good thing. It causes me to take it more seriously and to realise the danger it poses to my well- being. You see, I’m all-too-often happy to accommodate the obsessions, compulsions and pre-occupations in my thinking and behaviour, minimising the negative impact they have on me and those around me.

Of course, there are other words that can help us understand what’s at stake, ones like addiction, control and slavery. But idolatry it still is.

When God’s good gifts become idols

One of the challenges in identifying our idols is that many of them morph out of some of the really good gifts of God – like work, family, food, affirmation, special relationships, security or comfort. If we’re not careful these good gifts, which were intended to bless us, can cross the line and become destructive. Kind of like healthy body cells morphing into cancer cells, which eventually turn on the body and kill it.

So at what point do these good things cross the line and become idolatrous and destructive? For example, when does wanting to help others become an unhealthy obsession with pleasing them? At what point does enjoying food end up being an addiction? Or when does the deep satisfaction and joy I get from my work (paid or unpaid) become compulsive?

That’s not an easy question to answer. But let’s take our work as an example, to get a bit of clarity. When life ends up revolving completely around what we do, we end up “living to work”. It becomes an addiction – which is why we use the word “workaholism.”

You see, when our work becomes all-consuming we really have embraced too high a view of our own work. We make work an object of worship – it becomes an idol.

We do this by giving our work more importance than it’s due. We separate our work and achievements from what God is doing and wants to do – basically pretending that we can re-arrange the universe by our own efforts. When this happens, our identity and value become so closely intertwined with our work that we can’t separate them. We become defined by what we do and achieve.

And there are other negative consequences that erode our physical, relational and emotional well-being. Stress goes through the roof, we struggle to rest and sleep well. Those closest to us get the butt-end of our time and energy.

Breaking out

As Alison implied on Sunday, discerning and confessing our idols is the first step to seeking liberation. Once we’ve done that we can access the Spirit’s marvellous resources for breaking their hold and restoring our allegiance to King Jesus. For only in Him, will we find true, abundant life.

image credit: Jean-Honore Fragonard. Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols. 1752. 

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