Let’s talk about modern idolatry. Not so much the Eastern varieties, but here in the West where we’re saturated with idols. They consume our time, thoughts, resources, and energy. But for the most part we’re clueless—unaware that they rule us. Call them our comfortable heart entanglements.
So I don’t mean the sort of idols I once saw being shaped in Kathmandu. A local pastor drove three of us by some idol factories where wood, ceramic, and metal figures were painted and clad with gold leaf. The skilled Nepalese workers were mainly targeting Eastern buyers.
Our Western idols—my concern here—are less overt but more expensive and time consuming. No need here for tiny incense burners or token offerings left on small platters. Instead our idols call for comfortable viewing rooms, lots of discretionary time, big garages, and reliable electricity.
But first, what is idolatry?
Here’s a paraphrased definition from the Bible that includes both Eastern and Western variations. An idol is anything that diverts our gaze from Christ—that keeps us from loving him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. An environment-based description may help. Idols are features of life not fit for heaven. Jesus has prepared a place for all of us who know and love him; but many of our present life choices won’t be fit for eternity.
In Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 Paul labeled one flagrant form of Western idolatry: “greed.” Or, to use an archaic term, coveting. It’s a driving appetite for wealth and the many apparent benefits wealth offers. For covetous Christians God can be a potential resource. So if ambitions for a nice car, home, entertainment devices, successful family, and maybe a boat, are met—and viewed as “God’s blessings to us”—then life is good. Heaven has already arrived!
James shared Paul’s critique in his own epistle but he framed it in broader and sharper terms: “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’” (4:2-5).
The question of what we most deeply love is central here. Paul wasn’t an anti-materialist—living as if having things was evil. No. He knew both sides of life: “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger; abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12).
And that brings us to the point of this entry. In whatever degree we are still captured by our own idolatry we’re certain to be missing the richest features of life that come in loving Jesus. Paul had this in mind when he cited Isaiah 64:4 as a promise to everyone with a Spirit-to-spirit love relationship with the Triune God: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). In other words God wants to share unimaginable delights with his true worshipers!
And with that we also must be reminded that Paul wrote to the same audience as those who were still “people of the flesh” and “infants in Christ” (3:1). So that they were not experiencing what Paul knew Christ offers us by his indwelling Spirit.
What do we want to do with this blunt but hopeful news? Should we stay faithful to our favorite idols—the many pleasing features of life that actually manipulate our spiritual choices—or do we receive the love God offers us through Christ and by his Spirit.
I like the advice offered in Hebrews 12:1-2, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…”
It’s an invitation God himself offers and regularly stirs in our hearts. Why not respond?
Thanks as always, Ron.
I’ve noticed recently more than a couple of Christian voices trying the narrow the definition of ‘idol’ down to the ‘Eastern’ type you mention.
This is a helpful corrective, not to mention a necessary challenge! Thank you.
Thanks, Huw. We can only wish that the problem was so narrow! Augustine famously said (working from memory here) that the human heart is an idol factory. Too true …