“Modern Idolatry”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
I had the great privilege of growing up in the church, and learning the Bible from a very young age. I remember being in second grade and thinking about how strange it was that the Israelites used to bow down in front of an object and worship it. How ridiculous! God, through the prophets, argued this same point. For example, he describes a man who cuts down a tree, and then
takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44.15-17)
God’s sense of humor is on full display here, as he pokes fun at the bizarre spectacle of a man using his own hands to construct an object he will then worship, treating it as if it had some great power, when it was the worshiper’s own power that brought the idol into existence! Yet, at the same time he uses the very tree that became a “god,” as fuel to cook his food. The scene he has painted is a bit pathetic, depicting of a very confused person. Isaiah laments in verse 19 that none of these poor fools thinks to ask, “Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”
This picture is so clear that even a child can understand, and yet idol-worship was the norm, for most people in the world, for most of history. Why is that no longer the case? Simply because God elevated his people Israel and through them, culminating with his Son, taught the world the truth, that there is one God, not many, and he cannot be adequately represented by any image we could construct—nor does he want to be.
Yet even today, there is idolatry in many places around the world. The three “Abrahamic religions,” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all shun idols. However, within Catholicism and eastern orthodoxy in particular, many who call themselves Christians are at the very least toeing the line of idolatry, with “icons”—images and symbolic objects used in religious ceremonies—holding prominent positions in both their places of worship and in the worship itself. In fact, one of the complaints that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was the accusation that the Catholic Church practiced idolatry.
Nor is the problem today limited to people just getting a little too close to the line. In many religions still practiced today, chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism, idols are commonplace. This is also the case in many of the African religions and those of the island cultures and American natives, to the extent that their religions are still practiced. In these, manufactured objects are still revered as holy depictions of various gods and spirits, just as was the case when God told the ancient Israelites,
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… (Exodus 20.4-5)
While it’s easy for us to scoff at these silly people with their silly beliefs and practices, do we consider ourselves? It doesn’t appear in exactly the same way, with blocks of wood and golden calves and so on, but there is much idolatry in the modern world around us, too.
How can an increasingly secularized society be idolatrous? Consider the devotion many show to Almighty Science—not just the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but the idea that Science provides moral imperatives. Or the way many people idolize celebrities, or politicians, or Politics itself. How many people clearly worship sports, their careers, or money? This is more or less what Paul was talking about, when he said,
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 3.5-6)
Are those not among the greatest evils we see in this world today? Clearly, they are, and among them is another sin God was already diagnosing and prohibiting in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet” (Ex 20.17). Paul includes this in an offhand way, almost as if it’s not an incredibly profound statement about the motivations behind people’s actions and the way God looks at them. Covetousness, roughly equivalent to greed, is idolatry, because it is the elevation of something other than God, to the status and devotion that ought to be reserved for God himself.
As we’ve seen, some people put money on this pedestal, but greed is not the only thing in the modern world that is idol-worship, for all intents and purposes. What matters most to you? What keeps you up at night? What gets you worked up? What takes up your time? What takes up your money?
There’s no harm in having hobbies and interests, or in doing your job well, or in having a successful career. But we must be careful not to let any of these things become our idols. As Jesus told Satan when confronted with the opportunity to acquire control of all the kingdoms and glory the world had to offer, “it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Mt 4.10).