Virtual idolatry

[Photo credit: Laura Ferguson]

[I desire to be writing more regularly, and that is my plan, but I tend to take on more projects than I can handle at times and end up cutting out certain things (like writing).  Still working on that.]

Some of the young people in our church decided to do a “read through the Bible in a year” plan this year, and our pastor encouraged others to do the same, particularly if they didn’t have regular Bible reading habits. I figured it couldn’t hurt (just kidding, I thought it would be helpful since I haven’t read through the whole Bible before) so I’ve been listening through the Bible on the way to work in the mornings.

While listening through the first few books and into the books about the nation of Israel and their first kings, the idea of idolatry constantly struck me as odd. I was reminded of how often and consistently the Israelites left the worship of an invisible God who brought them out of Egypt and decided to worship idols, whether self made or from the countries they were currently living in.

I’ve always found it strange. For as long as I can remember, I don’t think I’ve understood how somehow could pray to a piece of wood that they carved to look like a sun, asking for just a little more warmth. Or how someone could give up some of their money to try and appease the piece of stone that their religious leader chiseled into a face, thinking their city might not get attacked because of it. And even worse, how people could literally take their own children and kill them to try and guarantee that some metal statue would give them lots of kids (or whatever). How does any of that even make sense? People feared and loved these supposed “gods” that never talked, moved, listened, motioned, or did ANYTHING, and sacrificed their time, money, energy, and even human lives to them. It just seemed way too preposterous to me for there to be any rationale behind it.

That, of course, is not true. There was a rationale (of sorts, although I shy from calling it a “rationale” because some of the idolatry (like child sacrifice) was disgusting, senseless and horribly flawed) behind the idolatry in the Old Testament stories and I hope to bring it to light in this post, and show how we can be just as idolatrous as the Israelites, despite not having any idols of our own. Or at least not like they did.

Let’s start out by looking at a few of the OT accounts of idolatry. For the sake of saving your screen space and not having you read passages you might already know, I’ve put hyperlinks on the references so you can read them if you need a refresher.

The Golden Calf

Exodus 32:1-6

Bulls were symbols of strength and fertility to many societies (calves are young bulls). Just as God had promised Israel to be numerous, He blessed them with exponential population growth during their time in Egypt, despite their slavery. Against the odds, they obviously had no problem having large numbers of kids (there were an estimated 1.5-3.5 million Israelites that left in the Exodus). Along with this abundance of childbearing came a kind of strength in numbers, to the point where Egypt forced the Israelites into slavery and tried to kill off the baby boys in order to try to weaken the Israelites. So we can see that Israel’s choice of a strong, fertile image as the focus of their idolatry in the above passage was no mistake. Strength and fertility were relatable to the Israelites.

Baal Worship at Peor

Numbers 25:1-9

In this account, we see a different idol that Israel worshiped. Baal was a false god that was worshiped in the area of Canaan and was viewed as a weather and fertility God. An argument could be made from this text to stay away from immoral people because they have a corrupting effect on Christians, and although that’s true (1 Corinthians 5:6 & 15:33), that’s not what happened here. The Israelites chose disobedience through pursuing forbidden relationships with the ungodly Moabite women, and then their worshiping of idols followed.

Solomon Turns from the Lord

1 Kings 11:1-8

Solomon was the wisest person to ever live, but he did not follow the Lord with all his heart. He had a problem with desiring women and had 1,000 total wives and concubines. He desired sexual relationships so much that he was willing to participate in the idolatry of his wives. The particular gods he built altars for were called abominations by God, and were associated with fertility, sexuality, war, and child sacrifice.

So how does this all relate to us? We don’t worship idols in our culture like they did, so this doesn’t seem to apply to us. But on the contrary, our culture is much more sophisticated than to be caught bowing ourselves down to anything, so in the same way idolatry applied to the Israelites, it applies to us.

The Israelites weren’t actually worshiping gold or a calf, they were celebrating and worshiping what the idol represented (fertility and strength) rather than thanking God for his strength, and his blessing them with a large population. They weren’t worshiping a stone god called Baal, they were encouraging what Baal represented and their lusts dictated: immoral sexual relationships. Solomon didn’t care about his wives’ foreign gods as much as he lusted for having relations with 1,000 women.

The Israelites were merely objectifying their lusts for immorality and showing their pride in themselves. They took their lusts and pride, made idols that represented their lusts and pride, and then praised those idols as being the givers and maintainers of the objects of their desires (sex, strength, peace, good weather, etc).

They treated idolatry as if worshiping and honoring an idol, an object that represented some kind of pride or lust of theirs, would somehow empower or appease the idol they set up as a god, when in fact they were only nurturing and encouraging their own lust and pride.

We can see then that idolatry is an overflow of self sufficiency that says we don’t need the true God, we need the fulfillment that our sin provides. We can be happy without Him. Our enjoyment doesn’t come from His desires, but from our own.

Our culture is driven by lusts and pride, but we don’t have physical idols to proclaim as our gods. Instead, we skip the gold calf making and bowing to statues and go straight to the source of idolatry to revel in our own lusts and pride. Rather than recognizing God as the source of our life and our provider, we credit our intelligence, efforts, money, ingenuity and charisma. Rather than being content with what God has given us and where he has placed us, we allow our joy to be dependent on things like funny videos, great tasting food, exotic vacations, likes on Facebook, fashionable clothes, or the success of our favourite team. Rather than finding satisfaction in God’s design for sexuality (one man and one woman in marriage), we find all kinds of gods that excuse our lusts for immoral relationships, even going so far as to call them the God of the Bible like the Israelites called the golden calf they made (Exodus 32:4).

This virtual idolatry isn’t just a cultural problem, it’s a human nature problem. It’s sin. As Christians though, we aren’t bound to be idolatrous, we no longer need to be lead away by our lusts and pride to sin and idolatry.

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

Romans 6:6

1 Corinthians 10 says we should “not be idolaters like some of [the Israelites] were” and that we should “flee from idolatry”. Paul echoes Romans 6 later in the chapter and assures us that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability.

Christians have no excuse. We’ve been given a new heart that isn’t bound to fulfill our lusts and pride. We have access to God’s word like never before and we have the Spirit who guides us to understand what God wants from us as we read his word (John 16:13). Any desire that we entertain, value or pursue more than or outside of God’s desires for us is inexcusable.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

1 John 2:15-17

The world is filled with lusts and pride, which can easily lead us to be idolatrous. We must not love anything this life offers as if it is what sustains or satisfies us. God must be and is our only God, and anything short of acknowledging His sufficiency is idolatry.

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