August 14, 2015

Knocking Down American Idols

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[intro]”No Christian should ever succumb to the idolatrous notion that the right party will bring in utopia. That is not where our ultimate confidence lies.”  — D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance[/intro]

It was the word “idolatrous” that caught my attention—an archaic word choice for these modern times. After all, very few classical idols remain, and even fewer are called out as such. Sure, in third world areas there may be some people who still use statues of false gods as objects of worship, but nobody compares, say, Buddha to ancient gods like Zeus or Athena (nor is that my goal). And in fact, the very word “idol” has been secularized, and now usually refers to a celebrity of some sort. They are not worshipped, but are held up as objects of admiration for their particular skills.

And yet idols still exist, and many people–including Christ followers–may be idolators without even realizing it.

Understanding Idolatry

The Bible lays out the groundwork for two forms of idolatry: physical idolatry, involving the worship of a statue, and heart-idolatry. Physical idolatry is easy to grasp. It’s the Israelites, fresh out of Egypt, melting down their jewelry to form a golden calf and calling it God (Exodus 32). It’s Ahab and Jezebel, leading Israel in worship of Asherah and Baal (1 Kings 18). It’s Nebuchadnezzar, creating a golden statue of himself and ordering everyone to worship it (Daniel 3). And, like I said, it has mostly vanished from the world.

Heart idolatry is more subtle. Much like how Jesus says that lust is the same thing as adultery (Matthew 5:28), Colossians 3:5 says that covetousness is idolatry. It’s hoping for and relying on something other than God for fulfillment. Do you think eating a piece of chocolate will magically make your day better? It may be an idol. Do you think the world would be fixed if your candidate were elected? That candidate may be an idol. If you’ve ever thought, after a spectacular vacation, “Now I can die happy,” that event may be an idol. Even our style of worship can be an idol; if you can’t focus on Jesus at a Gospel-proclaiming church with a different style of worship, then you’ve probably made Riv an idol.

The Consequences of Idolatry

Some of these heart-idols seem harmless, of course. Each Sunday, gifted teachers and musicians help lead Riv in worship…so what’s wrong with preferring Riv to, say, a geographically closer but more mundane church?

Well, nothing, if it’s true preference. Most of the things we turn into idols are themselves morally neutral. Neither pipe organs nor electric guitars nor banjos nor kazoos are morally superior to each other. It’s when these things become a barrier to the gospel or are put above the gospel that things become idolatrous.

And idolatry has consequences. I love the NIV (1984) translation of Jonah 6:8:

“Those who follow worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” – Jonah 2:8

Other verses—and, in fact, other translations of Jonah 2:8—are even harsher. Psalm 16:4 says the sorrows of idolators shall multipy. Psalm 135:18 says that those who make and worship idols become as blind, deaf, and mute as the gods they worship. And Galatians 5:21 says that full-blown idolators have made it evident that they are showing the works of the flesh, not the spirit, and that they will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So there’s a spectrum to the consequences of idolatry. At best, you miss out on some of the blessings God wants to give you while here on Earth. At worst, it means you’ve never actually surrendered your life to Jesus—you’re still a slave to the flesh. And the more you rely on something false as an idol, the more you’ll become blinded to your own idolatry.

Identifying and toppling personal idols

If you’re feeling convicted of your own idolatry, that’s fantastic! It’s a godly sorrow, and it brings forth repentance that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Even if you feel like you’ve kept yourself generally pure in this area, it’s worth looking into your own life for a moment. What idolatrous tendencies do you have? What grace are you forfeiting?

For some, politics is an idol. More specifically, they think that if their candidate gets elected, then everything would be better.  this is true on all sides of the political spectrum. Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Tea Party—any political system or politician can be lifted up in an idolatrous fashion. Just to mention one relatively recent example, think of the hope-based marketing that got President Obama elected in 2008; a lot of people continue to be disappointed in his failure to usher in a new age of peace and tolerance.

So if politics is your idol, take a deep breath and remind yourself that God is the one who allows or stops someone from becoming a leader (Romans 13:1). And look at the other guy’s policies. You may prefer your candidate, but if the other guy wins, then keep watching…at some point, there will no doubt be a policy that benefits you. Thank God—literally—that we live in a country that still gives us a voice. And remember to pray for our leaders, whether you agree with them or not.

For singles, marriage can be an idol. On Valentine’s Day and at weddings in particular, it’s easy to believe that meeting “the one” will make you instantly happy and will solve all your problems. This is worse when it’s compounded by the extremely common sin of pornography, which puts your sexual needs at the forefront and all but eliminates the needs and desires of your partner.

If marriage is your idol, meditate on 1 Corinthians 7. Take a week or a month and read it over every day. Think about what it means when it says that marriage makes life harder; when it says that marital sex is not about personal fulfillment, but about your body belonging to your spouse. And look around at the blessings God has provided to you as a single. How many opportunities have you been granted to develop friendships or develop a hobby or serve God because you don’t have to worry about another person?

For parents, children can be an idol. I laughed when I realized that some parenting friends have charts of when their infants ate and slept—almost as if their lives and success now revolved around their babies’ digestive habits. For these friends, it’s largely science, but for some, their children can become entirely too central to their happiness. Do your own feelings of success revolve around your child’s perfect grades or their athletic prowess? Are you more concerned with raising kids that make you look good than with raising children who love Jesus? Or if you’re dealing with infertility, does your happiness depend on being able to have children at all?

If your kids are your idol, memorize Psalm 127. (Don’t worry, it’s short.) Remind yourself of its truths: that God is the one who builds the home, and that children are a gift and blessing to it. Thank God for the children he has brought into your life, and live your life such that they will fall in love with Jesus. And remember to enjoy them for who they are, not who you want them to be

I could go on, of course. Success, money, fame…there are countless ways in which we can take neutral (or even good) things and exalt them to a position higher than Jesus. Whatever our tendency—and I think we all have something we want to make an idol—the important thing is to remember that only God gives us everlasting life and purpose and joy and peace.

Image Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis

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