January 2, 2009
To whom them will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.
We have heard of people enslaved to idolatry, who feel the need for a “god” they can see or feel, whose representation they can touch. You have, perhaps, felt sorry for them and were assured in your soul that you were definitely not like them.
But think again. In this world we are all too easily enamored with tiny trinkets instead of seeking the real treasure of the knowledge God. We are each tempted to want to touch something tangible that will bless us spiritually instead of seeking the true touch of God’s Spirit. We also have often substituted mental images of Christ instead of the Spirit’s and the Word’s communication to our souls of the real Christ. Here are the three ways idolatry touches us all today: through worshipping the wrong things; through seeking good luck through tangible items instead of God; through substituting encounters with the real Christ with encounters with “imaginary christs.”
In a pagan mindset possessing an idol in the supposed form of some god represented a special devotion to that god, but it was in truth trying to put something else in the place that only the one true God can really hold. For the Jew it was a direct violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Whatever form this took, whatever material was used, it was an essential downgrade of the one and only God’s true nature. No material form, regardless of the material used, can adequately represent God.
The New Testament also describes greed as a form of idolatry, essentially wanting to hold on to material things rather than trust in a providential and omnipotent God and bend our hearts and our pocket books to his cause. We also can become idolaters by letting the devil bond our souls and values to the world that is passing away, instead of letting Christ bond our hearts to our eternal home in heaven with God. Since we have an entirely new life in Christ, Paul pointed out the entire incongruity of a Christian getting caught up in the worship of earthly things. He wrote:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Anything in our lives that competes with our devotion to Christ and our love for him is in effect an idol: ego, pride, reputation, the adulation of peers, possessions, vacations, travel, automobiles, meals out, new clothes. Isaiah pointed out the idolatry was not just a rich man’s problem, but the poor man could also participate fully in it, and the same is true for us. Someone might think they are not greedy because they seem to have so little, but greed is worshipping the wrong things, whether you have them or not. You may, in fact, even give them away for all the wrong reasons and still be completely guilty of greed because you really wish them back. As Paul wrote, “If I give all I possess to the poor … but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3).
Secondly, the idolater was a fearful person. This is another way that idolatry affects us: in setting up a selfish, fearful, and superstitious mindset in our Christian walk. Superstition is a combination of false beliefs and self-centeredness and we twist every issue around to be about us personally. The idolater keeps the idol nearby not out of real love for the god, but for the hope of good luck. The selfish person remains in an immature state and has never gotten beyond himself. Whatever happens in his life or in his world is about him in his mind.
Christians can also get caught up in a lifestyle where they operate on a similar basis: dominated by selfishness, they are fearful of missing out on something, so they look for those lucky talismans or charms or idols they can stroke. This may morph into a more sophisticated form of networking and power plays, but it is still the same stuff – seeking to manipulate a system for our benefit rather than live by faith and trust in God for his glory. When this happens, when we are more focused on our self than God, we are especially in need of a new revelation of the greatness and love of God. James wrote:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
He must increase and we must each decrease, but paradoxically that is the path of true development, to value God above ourselves and put his interests ahead of our own and then to walk in faith, and not be dominated by our ambitions, by our fears, or by our pride.
Finally, the idolater wanted something tangible to represent his god to him, and some degree of idolatry can be evidenced by our substitution of an artist’s rendition of Christ rather than to know and follow the real Christ found in the Scriptures through faith. Paul wrote that the Spirit frees our souls by shining his light shine in our hearts, revealing to us the glory of God, in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). In the First Century world there were not drawings of Christ, certainly no photographs, and Christ had ascended to heaven so he could not be seen on earth, so what did he mean by the phrase “face of Christ”?
The face represented the person, and then as now we recognize out friends through their faces. A sad day came in church history when the church substituted the preacher and the word for the priest and the sacrament, for in so doing they also substituted a superstitious image of Christ for the real, living Christ. It is personally a concern of mine that some Christian book stores seem to be selling as much Christian jewelry and decorations as books these days. We may be going down the path again of trading in the true and living Christ for a religious trinket.
For centuries Christians followed Christ without anybody drawing a sketch representing his face, but still they had a sense of his unique personhood through the Word and through His Spirit. All the artistic representations of what Christ looked like came centuries after his earthly ministry and were all based no fancy not fact. So we might do well to put them out of our heads and hearts, and instead go to the real Christ through faith. To read his stories and listen to his Spirit’s voice, to appeal to him through faithful prayer, and to follow him as he leads us.
Idolatry substitutes the eternal, personal Christ who seeks to reveal himself to us through his word and by His Spirit, for anything earthly, temporary, and inferior to God. There is no representation we can ever make of God that would do him justice, but neither do we need to. We can come to him through faith in Jesus Christ and meet him through his word and commune with him through his Spirit, and know the living, reigning Lord.
Where do you struggle with these issues? Is greed a problem? Do you believe having the right things is more important than knowing and serving God? Are you dominated by fear and self-centeredness, instead of the love of God and living for his glory? Have you traded in meeting the living Christ daily through his word for some Christian trinket?
Christ invites you today to know Him, to worship Him, to follow Him. The Scripture says that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). More than anything else the world offers, we need God.
Lord, forgive us when we have been enamored with earthly things. Forgive us when we have let worldly things represent you to us instead of meeting you in your word and communing with you through your Spirit. Let us put aside these false things and respond to your invitation to know you. Amen.