Thursday, July 5, 2007


Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals.

Be certain that you do not forget the covenant that the Lord your God made with you. Obey his command not to make yourselves any kind of idol, because the Lord your God is like a flaming fire; he tolerates no rivals.

Our ancestors refused to obey him; they pushed him aside and wished that they could go back to Egypt. So they said to Aaron, 'Make us some gods who will lead us. We do not know what has happened to the man Moses, who brought us out of Egypt.' It was then that they made an idol in the shape of a bull, offered sacrifice to it, and had a feast in honour of what they themselves had made.

You know that while you were still heathen, you were led astray in many ways to the worship of lifeless idols.

'It is my opinion,' James went on, 'that we should not trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write a letter telling them not to eat any food that is ritually unclean because it has been offered to idols...'

So then, about eating the food offered to idols: we know that an idol stands for something that does not really exist; we know that there is only the one God. Even if there are so-called 'gods', whether in heaven or on earth, and even though there are many of these 'gods' or 'lords', yet there is for us only one God, the Father, who is the Creator of all things and for whom we live; and there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created and through whom we live.

(Exodus 20: 4-5; Deuteronomy 4: 23-24; Acts 7: 39-41; 1 Corinthians 12: 2; Acts 15: 19-20a; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 -- all GNB)

The belief that God is not to be depicted in the form of an image is integral to the biblical worship of God. Its basis is in the Mosaic Law. The idea of the jealous nature of God is usually mentioned in connection with idol worship.

God is not to be conceived of as essentially remote from the world and therefore in need of material representation. Rather he is a God that we cannot master or control, least of all in visible form. Imagination is not permitted free rein when it comes to describing God, for all things have been created by him, are subject to him and cannot, therefore, be compared with him.

In the New Testament, idols are not merely alternative gods, but unreal gods and therefore false as distinct from real gods. Paul believed there was not truth or reality in the gods represented by idols. He believed demons were behind idol worship. Offerings to idols are in fact offerings to demons. Demons are not the same as the gods the idolatrous worshipper worships; rather demons deceive worshippers into acknowledging them to be gods. John in his apocalyptic vision sees the whole of humankind worshipping demons and idols (Revelation 9: 20). Satan is behind all paganism -- sophisticated or primitive, materialistic or magical.

Humans are not free to choose whether or not they will worship gods. In this sense there are no atheists. We are all committed to someone or something within or outside ourselves. The choice we make is between the true and living God, and one or more from a pantheon of false gods. Some 'gods that are not God' are noble. They may include service of our fellow-humans, or attainment in the arts, or the advancement of knowledge. But when these -- or anything -- become ends in themselves, we are worshipping idols.

The most common, and most insidious, idol is the self, the ego. When we are enslaved to ourselves, we may become famous or rich or influential, but decrease in stature in the process.

Idolatry, then, is the worship of anything created, instead of worshipping the Creator. In our culture, modern rivals to God include the 'five p's' -- popularity, power, prestige, prominence and patriotism -- together with wealth, physical beauty and bodily pleasure. Idols are objects of extreme devotion, whether they be the 'almighty' dollar, sport, drugs, sex, science, or whatever.

Idols detract from God, and distract us from worship of him alone. Idols do not point us to him: none yet have extolled his greatness and power and glory. God is jealous, not because he has some personality defect that requires our adulation, but jealous for our good. Right here is the most important single issue for any human person or group: to let God, not gods rule us; to worship and enjoy him -- not them -- forever.

The Christian faith does not argue there is nothing good in other religious traditions or teaching. Christians do not say there are no points of common understanding between various religions. The followers of Christ do not say Christianity is all light and all other ways are, in fact, systems that are entirely in the dark. What Christians claim is that God has revealed his plan of salvation in and through the Christian faith and that the locus of that salvation is to be found in Jesus Christ.

God is immediately near in his created world. There is a mystic immanence which touches all. The Holy Spirit of God is near to all. He is touching us at every moment. And, in response, some may be touching him. Even so, there may be touch but no truthful perception, no vital fellowship and no living relationship. The Divine may be near but not apprehended. There may be contact but no communion. Pregnant events may be near to birth but nothing is born.

Graham Houghton, 'Idolatry and the Image of God'

Now, what if that which you are worshipping as a god -- that is, looking up to and relying upon in an ultimate sense -- is not in fact God -- that is, does not have the power to sustain and satisfy and fulfil your life? This is at the bottom of all human tragedy -- people set their ultimate hopes on that which does not have the power to save or fulfil. And when this happens, just as Jesus said, that which is 'built on sand' collapses and goes to pieces and ends up in disintegration.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said: 'Let God be God.' On first glance, a phrase like that sounds like so much religious doubletalk and 'gobbledegook'. But on deeper reflection, I realised it stated the most important imperative of life. What could be more important, really, than letting one's god be the true God -- letting the One who is God by nature function as one's god, in fact?

John Claypool, 'God for Each of Us'

Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth... Idolatry is always popular among religious people, but idols made out of things like the Denomination, the Bible, the Liturgy, the Holy Images, are apt to seem so limited in real power even to their idolaters that there is always the hope that in time they will overthrow themselves.

It is among the unreligious that idolatry is a particular menace. Having ushered God out once and for all through the front door, the unbeliever is under constant temptation to replace him with something spirited in through the service entrance. From the moment the eighteenth-century French revolutionaries set up the Goddess of Reason on the high altar of Notre Dame, there wasn't a head in all Paris that was safe.

Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking

What about people who say 'I believe in God' when their mental orientation, overall purposes and conversational obsessions reveal that in fact they believe primarily and earnestly in the ladder of promotion, the achievement of the maximum number of personal comforts and the promiscuous pursuit of the opposite sex? Conversely, what about those who say 'No, I don't believe in any God', then their mental orientation, daily activity and daily chatter reveal that they believe passionately and profoundly in money, cars and betting on horses? Surely they, too, are guilty of lying. Their gods are money, cars and gambling. To call one a believer (a theist) and the other an unbeliever (an atheist) would be most misleading... For practical purposes they are both polytheists.

Harry Blamires, 'Where Do We Stand Against Current Idolatries?'

It is painfully apparent that radical Christians have not always been true to the whole counsel of God's judgment. An ideological selectivity intrudes, a political bias which undermines the credibility and power of prophetic witness. The idolatries of the establishment are attacked while the idols of the anti-establishment receive less critical treatment. The evils of the majority culture are assailed, but the sins of the counterculture are often passed over. The political prisoners of right-wing dictatorships seem to generate more interest than those languishing in the gaols of leftist regimes... Prophecy is, in fact, profoundly anti-ideological.

Jim Wallis, 'Idols Closer to Home'

In Latin America, the doctrine of Seguridad Nacional [means that] every trend toward change is interpreted as a threat to 'national security', every proposal to extend food and shelter and education to those now denied it is seen as a communist plot. Consequently, in the interests of national security, any measures are legitimate to thwart the proponents of change, from persuasion to arrest to exile to torture to execution. It is carefully concealed from the people that such 'security' is only for the few who have power and want to keep it, and that it really means insecurity for the rest...

The doctrine of national security is what the Bible calls 'idolatry', which is a fancy name for worshipping a false god. It says that in this case, the nation has become a false god, and that won't work. Whenever we say 'anything goes...' in defending a nation, we have made the nation into a supreme object of our allegiance, and that is what we call a god. Our national temptation, in other words, is never atheism, but always to polytheism, to the creation of other gods in addition to the true God.

Robert McAfee Brown, Creative Dislocation

Idols [such as] work, alcohol, consumerism, pornography [and such like] mottle so many of our lives. The one God who is the maker of heaven and earth is not in competition with our decent, proper use of any creatures. Both we and all other creatures come from this one God, so in God's eyes there is no strife among us... The problem of idolatry is that we easily lose perspective, lose our sense of God's overriding presence and so fixate on something less than God. This something less can be our selves, with their so many virtues and anxieties, or it can be something external that we think will make us happy...

We are not what we eat, what we wear, what we earn, what others think of us. We are possibility, the potential, the humble yet wonderful creature of God brought into focus and warmed from the core by a force, a most gentle power, that we cannot see or grasp or name or deny, a force that has given us the best moments of our lives, the times we knew why Genesis says that God looked on our creation and called it very good.

John Carmody, Towards a Male Spirituality

A poor French sculptor had just completed a very beautiful clay model. That night it became bitterly cold and wet, and he was afraid that the model might be damaged by the frost. At length he took his blankets and, wrapping them around the model, lay down again. In the morning he was found dead, but the model was intact...

Sadhu Sundar Singh, The Spiritual Life

We are made in the image of God. And while sin has marred that image to a greater or lesser degree, it means that, despite where and how we might worship God, there remains something of that image in us, calling us, attracting us to reaches higher than ourselves... to higher plains of moral integrity and being than that of the gods we worship.

Graham Houghton, 'Idolatry and the Image of God'

To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.

St John of the Cross

The English Cloud of Unknowing develops the picture of the soul suspended in prayer between two 'clouds': below is the cloud of forgetting, the veil which hides created concerns and lesser loves; above, the cloud of unknowing, the darkness of God which can be passed through only by the 'dart of longing love' answering the obscure ray of grace which kindles it like a 'sparkle from the coal'.

Rowan Williams, A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality

Lord, help me to understand that an awesome war is going on inside me all the time, as the God who made me does battle with the gods I have made.

Lord, you are the divine surgeon, who is horrified by that which is destroying me, who desires my wholeness and fulfilment, and who labours unceasingly to get rid of any spiritually cancerous growth which is taking over my mind or spirit.

Only you, my Creator, can fully satisfy and genuinely fulfil me, the creature. You have made us for yourself -- not for other gods -- and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Rescue me from depending for my salvation on anything which does not have the power to save, or relying ultimately on something that is ultimately unreliable.

You, Lord, are my God. Help me to love you with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. May you be my heart's desire, the object of my greatest devotion, now and always. Amen.

A Benediction

Now may God who is the living God, the Creator who made all things, who redeems us from all idolatries, who gives us peace, make us holy in every way and keep our whole being - spirit, soul and body - free from every idolatry at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls us will do it, because he is faithful. Alleluia. Amen.

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 (adapted)

Rivers in the Desert ed. Rowland Croucher pp. 187-194

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