This is adapted from my fourth talk on Isaiah...
Idols are everywhere in the evangelical world. Well, teaching about idolatry is.
Everyone is talking about the dangers of false gods. This can be a very good thing. Personally, I've been helped as I've considered my sinful patterns to be far more than 'bad choices.' I'm constantly falling for false visions of 'the good life'. "Career success", "people-pleasing", "the need to be right" - a thousand loves can capture my heart. And, while I may imagine that I've chosen these things, in fact they've chosen me. They dominate and enslave me, and as I continue to serve them, they harden my heart and steal it away from the true God.
This is a profound and helpful diagnosis of our problems. But below I'll offer three caveats to all this idolatry talk. It's not that idols-speak is wrong or damaging - not at all. It's that idols-speak cannot bear the full weight of all our pastoral needs.
Idols-speak - the way we tend to do it - can under-appreciate the true depth of our problems. And more than this, if we look to it for our solutions we can miss our true hope for change.
Three Caveats About Idols-Speak...
1) The Old Testament has a language for over-reliance on the flesh AND for idolatry.
The Old Testament constantly speaks of our foolish trust in man, in money, in power, in giftings, in intelligence, in beauty, etc, etc. But, by and large, it reserves the term "idolatry" for false gods, foreign conceptions of god, foreign conceptions of worship.
It's true that Ezekiel 14 speaks of "idols of the heart" but even there we're thinking of false religion and foreign gods. So in the OT there's idolatry AND there’s false trust in things.
Sometimes we read of idols in the OT and immediately spiritualize it: "Jeremiah was so right - I need to spend less time on Facebook." Well... maybe you are in danger of idolising Facebook. But the ultimate false-god to which you're liable to look is not Social Media. It's Satan.
Within days of receiving the ten words from Sinai, the people were worshipping a golden calf and proclaiming that this Satanic image had saved them (Exodus 32). This event is in Scripture as a warning for us.
We imagine that ancient people might have fallen for Baal or Molech, but it takes an iPad to really capture our imaginations. But this is just chronological snobbery. If God's people of old were in danger of mistaking a foreign god for the living God, then that's got to be a danger for us also. The real idolatry has always been to get God wrong. And this remains today.
Of course we have all sorts of functional saviours today - and they can have a god-like grip on us. But such false faith has always been the case, and the OT has (separately) dealt with it. The ultimate idolatry is having our God look more like Baal than Jesus. This is a danger for every age.
2) The New Testament knows all about idolatry as a fundamentally theological problem.
When the LORD walked among His people as Man, their greatest problem was their understanding of God. They did not recognize their Messiah and so they did not know the God they claimed to serve (John 8:19). These biblical, religious members of God's people belonged to the devil and had a theology to match (John 8:44). We are fools if we think that our struggles are different.
Of course "greed is idolatry" (Col 3:5) and "Mammon" is a rival to God, but the NT's conception of idols goes well beyond sex, money and power. 1 John, for instance, is full of the desperate need to confess Jesus as Christ, Jesus' coming in the flesh, Jesus as the Son of God, etc, etc. That's why it finishes with the admonition, "Keep yourself from idols." There is a constant theological battle which we must fight to understand God in Christ. Apart from Him, we are possessed by the spirit of anti-Christ and begin to worship an anti-Christian god. Once again we must insist - this is not a danger for other people. It is our danger. Constantly.
Someone who is convicted by modern idols-speak might well confess to "worshipping parental approval." (And that may indeed be a problem for them). But, again, the real danger is worshipping the devil. I mean that seriously. It is not as though Christians have their doctrine of God sewn up and now we can focus on the lesser objects of our devotion. In Old AND New Testaments, the deepest danger of idolatry is that we will worship Satan. Which means we really need to get God right, don’t we?
3) Idols-speak as a solution is man-centred.
If my problem is defined as, 'Me worshipping the wrong thing', what’s the solution? You might imagine that the solution is now 'Me worshipping the right thing.' Thus, we might have quite a “God-centred” diagnosis of sin (to use the lingo of many who engage in idols-speak), but we’re in danger of recommending a "man-centred" solution.
I don't see this so much in the preachers and writers who champion idols-speak, but I do notice it in, for instance, the accountability groups that take this teaching on board. There exists the distinct impression that my false worship caused this problem, so now my true worship will solve it. I must put away my idols and refocus my devotion towards God.
Yet this is tragically ironic. For if my hope lies in turning my worship from one object to another, I have cast God as the ultimate idol. There He sits, passively, waiting for my worship. He was passive and displeased when I worshipped money. Now He's passive but pleased with my true worship. But in both cases, He’s the passive one, I’m the active one.
The trouble is, a passive God is the Bible’s definition of an idol. In Isaiah 64 the prophet gives us a profound definition of the true God:
Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
The living God works while we wait. It's the idols that wait for us to work. That's the fundamental distinction. The living God is alive and He gives life. The false gods are dead and simply take your life.
But here's the perennial danger - and it can be exacerbated when idols-speak is the be-all and end-all of discipleship - I cast God as a dumb idol to whom I make all the offerings.
It works like this: imagine a Christian, convicted of their over-commitment to career progression. They publicly repent of this "idol" in their life and now determine to offer up true service to God, because, well, God is God and, you know, our Maker has certain claims on us. Right there, the danger of idolatry is immense! Because right there, there's every possibility that God is cast as the passive recipient of our resolute worship.
Who has delivered the sinner from their idolatry? And how?
Even if idols-speak proves helpful in diagnosing our problems - and it definitely does - we mustn't rely on it to solve our problems. Christ in His word must come to us again to cleanse us from sin and refocus us once more on the invisible God who Christ alone reveals. We must move off centre-stage, sit down in the audience and watch Christ work redemption for us.
When we are the ones who wait for Christ to work, then we're experiencing the living God. Then we are weaned off idols - both small and great.