Tag Archives: Idolatry

Breaking down the anatomy of idolatry

Idolatry is a major theme in the Scriptures and in Christian thought. Most popular writers describe an idol along the same lines as Tim Keller does in counterfeit gods: An idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

This is a good definition, but whenever I compare it to the idolatry described in prophets like Jeremiah, I hesitate. In ancient Israel, the prophets had a very narrow and particular object in mind when they spoke about an idol: A piece of wood or stone or precious medal shaped like a human or an animal that represented some spiritual being.

How do we get from that narrow definition to Keller’s broad definition?

Ancient Israel’s matrix of power

When Jeremiah brought charges against Israel, he sought to undermine their entire worldview. Instead of trusting in their Creator God, they had begun to trust in a matrix of worldly powers. What “powers” did they turn to? They turned to false gods and the idols that represented them. They believed that those pieces of wood and stone had the power to make them safe and secure. They believed that the gods of the nations had some cosmic power over creation. They believed that certain rituals performed before the gods, or sacrifices brought before their idols, would secure for them what they really wanted and needed – the good life.

Jeremiah exposed the powerlessness of the idols. He mocked them:

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.

Jeremiah 10:5

He also showed the foolishness of their religious rituals and their incantations. No matter how many times they said “the temple of the Lord,” they were not secure there.

The rest of Scriptures expose the powerlessness of false gods. Oh, the spiritual beings are real, and they have real power (read the gospels if you doubt this) but before the Creator God they stand utterly defenseless.

Here we begin to see the idea of idolatry expanding just a bit. Idolatry isn’t just about making a statue. It’s also about the sacrifices and rituals we do to appease it. It’s about the spiritual being behind the idol who supposedly has the power to get us what we want.

While there’s a form of spiritualism that seems to be gaining traction in parts of the United States – and is certainly still dominant in many parts of the world – this is still not characteristic of the community in which I live. But Jeremiah is not content to simply expose the foolishness of Israel’s false religion. He also exposes the more concrete and material powers.

When the threat of the Babylonians arose where did Israel turn? They turned to the nations of Egypt and Assyria. They relied upon their armies. When enemies were at the gate, what did they trust? They trusted the wall around their city. They trusted their fortifications. In a war, these are very practical things to trust – armies and defenses. What else should you trust? But for Jeremiah, this represented another sign that they had abandoned God. Astonishingly, their success or failure in war had nothing to do with weapons of this world. If they returned to God, he would rescue them. If they held fast in their rebellion, their best weapons of war would be completely overrun.

In the mind of the ancient Israelite these powers were inextricably linked. The idols were linked to gods who were linked to nations who were linked to kings who were linked to armies. When you tapped into one source of power you were tapping into the entire matrix.

With this in mind we can see how idolatry can fit into a broader system of acquiring power, of using some created thing to achieve some ultimate good. Idolatry fits into a broader framework of false worship and misplaced trust.

The anatomy of idolatry

Today we use the word “idolatry” to talk about that whole system. For my own clarity, I have broken it down into the following pieces and parts:

An ultimate good: Idolatry always aims towards some end. In Keller’s definition this is the “what only God can give” part. This ultimate good is usually abstract. Examples: Security, wellness, justice, recognition, meaning, etc.

A divine being: This was central to the belief structure of the ancient near east, and in the paganism of Jesus’s day. The divine being was said to have the power to grant you the ultimate good if you pleased it. Today, divine beings are often unacknowledged, though I suspect they are still at play in unseen ways.

An idol – a symbol said to have power within itself: Here things begin to get concrete. When we imbue an object with some sort of mystical power or if we treat an object with a special reverence that ought to be reserved for God (i.e., prayer, allegiance) then we can begin to fall into an idolatrous mindset. Examples: Use of crystals to gain a connection with spiritual beings to gain wellness, the use of a rabbit’s foot for luck, outsized reverence to a flag.

A created power: Something in this world that has a limited power to bring us a glimpse at an ultimate good. Money, for example, really can give us a level of personal security (the lack of it sure makes security difficult). The right foods can make us healthy (if our ultimate good is health). The right (in another sense) can give us happiness and comfort (if those are our ultimate goods).

A ritual or sacrifice: This is something that we can do to gain access to either the spiritual or physical powers. Israel prayed to idols to get them into contact with the divine beings. They paid tribute to kings to help the acquire the power of physical armies. Some religious systems today have certain rote prayers or incantations, but less religious people still have rituals which help them acquire the power associated with money or status. In one of its most blatant forms, the powerful practice oppression in order to maintain their hold on power. Oppression becomes a sacrifice to the god of power to achieve an ultimate good of security.

How then should we treat created powers?

Sometimes idolatry is obvious – you might be an idolater if you’re setting up a statue in your house or praying to a false gods.

But what should we do with our relationship to the “created powers” all around us – money, clothes, food, relationships, etc.? How do we know if we are treating these things in a way that is idolatrous or not?

I think the key distinction is found in the way that we relate to those created things. We can either view them as gifts from a generous God or we can view them merely as things we can use, apart from God, to achieve an ultimate good. Money can either be a gift from God that we can enjoy or give freely back to him or it can be merely a means towards which we achieve happiness. Politics can either be a gift from God which we can use to love our neighbors, or it can be a way to gain status and power for ourselves. Relationships can either be a gift to be enjoyed to the mutual benefit of all involved or they can be used to increase our status or give us a sense of meaning.

If we receive the world as a gift from a generous Creator God, we respond in worship in service. If we view the world as a means to power, we are falling into the trap of idolatry.

God is a generous God. He gives us both the ultimate good and the gifts to enjoy that ultimate good. He even gave us Himself and it is there we find all the ultimate goods wrapped up together.

Food Won’t Save You

Food Matters

My diet has changed drastically from when I worked as a manager at Burger King in college. The changes came in a series of shifts that my wife and I made in response to health issues her or I have faced over the past decade and a half. The most recent shift happened about two weeks ago. In an attempt to lower my blood pressure without medication I have been cutting out more sugary foods and adding more spinach, celery, and kale. I have even choked down a couple bottles of beet juice.

What we eat matters and it matters a lot. It matters for our health. From a Christian perspective, it matters to God. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. How we treat our bodies isn’t just a question of health or disease, but a question of obedience or sin. We obey Jesus when we eat food that nourishes our bodies and prepares us for embodied works of service.

If we relegate obedience to the spiritual/cognitive realm, we fall into the platonic error of imagining that the body is unimportant. Our bodies matter to God. Therefore, what we put into our bodies matters to God.

Food Idolatry

False worship means worshipping the created thing instead of the Creator, worshipping the gift instead of the giver. For a health-conscious culture, and for health-conscious Christians, this is a real danger. “Worship” is a funny word that we often associate with specifically spiritual practices like singing and prayer, but here I mean something more expansive. We “worship” food when we mentally grant it divine attributes, when we come to believe that it can save us.

For some, food is the answer to all our problems: We seek the right diet to improve our health, our mood, and our body image. There’s an important aspect of truth here. Better food can make your life measurably better (and bad food can make your life measurably worse).

But food has its limitations. It won’t fix your relationships. It won’t give you peace with God. It can’t protect you from tragedy. Even for what it sets out to do – to make our bodies healthy – it is only one aspect of a whole matrix of complex factors: genetics, germs, environment, community, exercise, etc.

If you put your hope in food, it’s eventually going to let you down. You might make aging a little less painful, but you cannot stop the inevitable.

A healthy perspective on food

I don’t think that we’re left between the false dichotomy of saying either that “food is the most important thing” or “food doesn’t matter.” No, we need to simply view food for what it is: A good gift from a good Giver. That enables us to receive it with thanksgiving.

Note Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:3-5

“[False teachers] forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

God is good and he has given us the blessing of good food. That food, and the bodily benefits it confers, do not point to themselves, they point us back to our Creator. This perspective on food calibrates our expectations about what food can and cannot do.

The Food that Saves

Jesus said some shocking things while he was on earth, and perhaps one of his most shocking statements centers around food.

Jesus had just finished feeding 5,000 men with just a handful of loaves and fishes and a great crowd was following him asking him questions. That’s when he drops this bomb:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:48-51

Thinking that Jesus was advocating some sort of cannibalism the people questioned him amongst themselves. To that, Jesus doubled-down:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:53-54

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story concludes with this statement: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

My Catholic brothers and sisters say that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist and that eating the bread of the Eucharist really is eating Jesus’s flesh in obedience to his words in John 6.

Personally, I think that Jesus pointed us away from this interpretation when he states: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63).

What, then, is the logic of Jesus’s words? Simply this: We need Jesus. Specifically, we need his life and the eternal nourishment that he offers. The manna God gave Israel from heaven was a good gift and it sustained them in the wilderness, but it could not save them from death. It did, however, point them to the One who could.

Jesus is the bread of heaven. He is the food that saves. How do we “consume” this food? “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).

If comfort is your god… (Sermon brief on Jeremiah 1)

Tomorrow I will be preaching on Jeremiah 1, looking specifically at the patterns in Jeremiah’s call. Here I have attempted to crystallize one of the ‘big ideas’ of the text:

If comfort is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when it threatens your comfort.

If happiness is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you do do when it threatens your happiness.

If the approval of others is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when His approval is all you can expect to receive.

God will not only ask you to do things which promote your comfort, happiness, and approval of others. He will ask you to do hard things that threaten them.

Those who follow the pattern of Jeremiah follow the LORD simply because the LORD is their God, and they are not free to disown Him.

Two signs of political idolatry

Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods covers a variety of potential “idols” – created things which we may be tempted to lift up to the place of “god” in our lives – money, romantic love, success, etc. The one that I most resonated with (read: am frequently tempted by) is political idolatry.

Political idolatry happens when some political good turns into a supreme thing. “When love for one’s own people becomes an absolute, it turns into racism. When love of equality turns into a supreme thing, it can result in hatred and violence toward anyone who has led a privileged life” (98). Here the end justifies the means, political leaders become “messiahs”, and political policies become “saving doctrines.”

This is a description of an extreme condition, but there are many smaller steps which take you there. Keller offers two signs of political idolatry.

#1: Inordinate Fear

“One of the signs than an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, ‘What a shame, how difficult,’ but rather ‘This is the end! There’s no hope!’” (98-99)

I think this explains many of the extreme responses we see during each political cycle. The side perceived as losing threatens to leave the country and becomes agitated and fearful, even violent. If their “side” or their candidate is out of power “they experience a death.” The focus all their attention on where they disagree with their opponents, instead of finding some common ground. The result is a poisonous political environment.

#2: Demonizing the other side

“Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil” (99). The Bible views sin as the primary problem in the world. Political idolatry, on the other hand, turns a political ideology into the main problem. Instead of seeing God as the ultimate solution, it sees something else (a rival ideology, a political victory, a politician, etc.) as the ultimate solution. When this happens our opponents don’t just disagree with us, but represent the embodiment of evil.

At this point I want to push back on Keller a little bit. There are a few instances, I think, where a political ideology can be so opposed to God that there is simply no word other than “evil” to describe it. Nazis in Germany were not just following a “mistaken” ideology, but an evil one.

It’s standard these days, though, to justify extreme reaction to some political ideology or candidate by comparing them to fascism or Hitler. But this is rarely justified and just might indicate that some form of idolatry is at play.

The result of political idolatry being widespread in a culture (which I think it is), is “constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment” (101) and “increasingly poisonous political discourse” (101). Sound familiar?

Not everything is political idolatry

I want to offer one word of caution for those who would see political idolatry under every rock. Not all patriotism is nationalism. Not all political activism points to idolatry. Keller quotes C.S. Lewis,

“It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses – say mother love or patriotism – are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad… There are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage a fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.” (103)

Natural affections are not a problem in themselves and engaging in politics can be a way of showing love of neighbor or standing up for justice for those who are being denied it. The problem comes when those natural affections are given too much weight.

On a personal note, the election cycle has actually been redemptive for me. It has revealed pockets of idolatry in my own heart. But that revelation, while it hurt at the time, has enabled me to trust more securely in Christ.

Book Recommendations
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters

Book Review: Gods at War by Kyle Idleman

eae75-20132316godsatwar“Lots of good sermon material in there,” said Corky as he handed me a copy of gods at war by Kyle Idleman.

Indeed, Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart, written by a teaching pastor, reads like a sermon series, and a quality one at that. Idleman opens up the book by explaining that idolatry, far from being an obsolete sin, is really the root cause of many surface sins. It’s a root cause because idolatry is all about misplaced worship and disordered loves. In combating idolatry, the battle for our heart is won or lost.

After a few introductory chapters Idleman looks at a series of “gods” which battle for our hearts – modern day examples of idolatry. In three sections (the temple of pleasure, the temple of power, and the temple of love) he works through issues such as “the god of food”, “the god of money”, and “the god of family.” He concludes with the chapter “the god of me” where he contends that at the root of all of the other idols is the desire for us to be our own gods.

Each chapter concludes with a series of “diagnostic questions” to help the reader determine where they might be susceptible to false worship. For instance, concluding the chapter “the god of success” Idleman asks “What’s your operating definition for success? What goals… chart your course?” In light of the chapter, these are probing questions. They also make the book ideal for group study.

Idolatry is a big issue in the bible and it can be difficult to know how to apply commands against idolatry to modern day life. Idleman does a good job of bringing out some key applications. After reading the book in its entirety I would like to read a more scholarly approach to the same topic. How legitimate is the connection between commands against Old Testament idolatry and modern day vices? I still feel like there are some unanswered questions at this level. However, I was unable to find fault with Idleman’s applications. On the whole, his book answered more questions than it raised.

I intend to use this book for group study with our church’s youth group. It is written for adults but the ideas are relatively basic and fundamental. The ideas of the book get to the heart, rather, to our hearts. There is a battle raging for our hearts. It might be easier, sometimes, to deal with surface issues, but it is necessary to allow God to search our hearts and to cleanse us from within.
Book Recommendations
Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart

Not a Fan Updated and Expanded: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus

A “top-button” Truth

In gods at war Idleman offers a jewel of a metaphor for idolatry. In describing “the god of family” he observes that we are called to honor our parents, but are called to worship God. We are to love our children but only God is worth of worship. He describes this as a “top-button” truth:

“Sometimes I’m in a hurry in the morning and I button my shirt all wrong… Like everyone else, I take it from the top. I push that top button through the slot on the other side, except that, in my haste, I choose the wrong slot. I don’t recognize my mistake until I get to the bottom and realize everything is out of line.” (gods at war, p209)

This is what idolatry often looks like. We don’t get the top-button right (worshipping God) and so the rest of our loves, which might be legitimate in and of themselves, are out of place. Get that first button right – reserve worship for God alone – and all of our other loves line up.

7 Questions that Diagnose the Idols in Your Life (via gods at war)

While on our recent trip to South Carolina we stopped in Kentucky to visit some friends. At a restaurant on the river we met up with Corky, the pastor who performed our wedding. Corky is on the pastoral staff of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville and was gracious enough to give me a copy of Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart by Kyle Idleman, who is the teaching pastor of Southeast.

The book is all about idolatry and its modern manifestations. I’ve listened to several messages on idolatry, all good, but it’s always been a bit unclear to me what makes something in your life an idol, that is, something that misdirects my worship away from the Creator onto the created thing. gods at war provides some nice perspective and clarity on this and other points.

Idleman also offers a “spiritual arteriogram,” a list of questions which are designed to help the reader diagnose where his heart is, and what false gods (idols) might be receiving undo worship. Here’s his list:

1) What disappoints you?

“When we feel overwhelmed by disappointment, it’s a good sign that something has become far more important to us than it should be. Disproportionate disappointment reveals…” displaced longing.

2) What do you complain about?

Similar to above but this one is more about expression. That means this might be a good question to ask someone else for input on.

3) Where do you make financial sacrifices?

“Where your money goes shows which god is winning in your heart.”

4) What worries you?

“Whatever it is that wakes you – or for that matter keeps you up – has the potential to be an idol”

5) Where is your sanctuary?

That is, where do you go when you’re hurting?

6) What infuriates you?

7) What are your dreams?

What do you think of his list? What other “diagnostic questions” might you add?

Book Recommendation
Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart