Have you been involved in any idolatry lately?
It was John Calvin who so very rightly said that the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols.” As such, C. S. Lewis was also perfectly right when he said that God is the “great iconoclast” who must keep shattering our idols, even smashing the false images that we may have of God.
We are all idolaters. At its most basic and simplest, an idol is anything that takes the place of God. All non-Christians have all sorts of idols – often themselves. But Christians too can have idols. We too can put all sorts of things first before God. As Os Guinness put it:
An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions toward them. If this is so, how do we determine when something is becoming an idol? Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is in itself perfectly good… An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero – anything that can substitute for God.
Yesterday on the social media I put up a post about how some biblically illiterate Christians would have rebuked Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego for refusing to bow down before the statue of Nebuchadnezzar because of their faulty understanding of what Scripture teaches about the believer and the state.
I included a pic of those three young Israelites standing while all those around them were bowing down to the large golden image. One fellow came along and asked this question: “What do you see as the main gold statue of today?” This is how I replied to him:
Yes a good question. There would be many of course, and it partly depends on where you live. Here in Victoria for example there is no question that many have made an absolute idol out of Dan Andrews, the corona alarmism and porn-panic, and whatever the lamestream media says about it. Whatever Dan says they will willingly do. Why do I suspect that if he told people to get into box cars – for their own ‘safety’! – plenty of them would do it, no questions asked. And I deal with these sorts of folks routinely alas. So statism in general can be one such false god and idol. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/
I want to take that reply a bit further here. What I said there would be fully applicable to far too many Christians. And I encounter these sorts of folks all the time. Just recently I had to deal with one such fellow on the social media. He kept arguing with me, insisting that the Bible teaches that we must always obey the government – end of story.
I kept trying to reason with him and share all the biblical examples of this NOT always being the case and how we often read about godly saints of God having to defy the state, disobey rulers, question bogus authority, and resist ungodliness in government. The three young Hebrews are one crystal clear case in point.
But this guy kept arguing and refused to budge. It did not matter what I said or how many Scripture texts I shared with him. Indeed, I offered so much biblical material that I was just waiting for him to back off, admit he was wrong, and acknowledge what the Bible does in fact say on these matters.
Did he? Nope. Instead, he just completely switched tack. He dropped the cherry-picking of Bible verses altogether and went on about ‘yeah but we are in a health crisis – we must obey’. Good grief! So now it all came out. He was not in the least interested in what the Bible teaches. With these remarks he spilled the beans: he was in panic mode over corona!
He was another one of these Christians who seems to believe ‘my country right or wrong,’ at least when it comes to a public crisis. He was living in fear, soaking up all the corona alarmism and panic-porn daily being dished up by the media and by our dodgy political leaders.
At this point I decided it would be wise to cut him loose. You know you are completely wasting your time when someone comes along spouting a lot of nonsense, and when you answer them fully, rationally, repeatedly and biblically, they just change the topic and keep arguing.
So that may well have been his big idol – not just the all-wise and all-powerful state, but saving his own skin. It was all about personal safety and longevity. Now of course the desire for self-preservation is strong, and in a sense a good thing – it helps prevent us from doing stupid things like standing on the tracks as a speeding train approaches, or leaning too far over a 32nd floor balcony.
But like any good thing, it can become an idol. Personal preservation when put over everything else just becomes another form of idolatry. Indeed, while we should be sensible and wise in taking proper precautions and not being reckless with our health, the biblical message is the exact opposite of self-preservation.
Christ demands of us that we die to self, deny ourselves, and even be willing to lay down our own life if necessary. Saving our neck is not the greatest good, and can easily become an idol. And there are plenty of related idols that can arise here. In this case these folks have let fear of corona utterly consume them.
That is the only thing that now matters to them. And whatever it takes to stay “safe” – whatever that means – they will do. So many believers are simply living in fear. If the state told them to wear a mask the rest of their life, stay at home permanently, and snitch on their own parents, they would do it – all to remain “safe”. Safety has become their idol, and they are paralysed by fear.
If these folks calling themselves Christians had even a fraction as much fear of the Lord as they do of corona, we would all be much better off. But they have taken their eyes off the true and living God and focused exclusively on what is happening all around them.
Let me repeat: it is of course quite right to not take unnecessary risks and to be reckless concerning public health and safety. That is one thing. But over-the-top reactions by both individuals and governments, including draconian and damaging lockdown measures, is quite another.
Let me very briefly speak to that point from another angle here. Just as I was writing this piece I was alerted to a brand new article. Brendan O’Neill has just interviewed Dr John Lee, a clinical professor of pathology at Hull York medical school. In it the pathologist said this:
The Covid-19 crisis had been brewing for two or three decades. It is encapsulated in something called the precautionary principle, sometimes known as the better-safe-than-sorry principle. It holds that if there is even a suggestion of any potential harm to human health or life or the environment, you should take avoidance measures. This approach is taken even in the absence of solid scientific knowledge of the way harm may occur, and without full assessment of the potential impact of the precautionary measures themselves. Better-safe-than-sorry is only reasonable guidance for life if you know what you mean by all three terms – better, safe and sorry.
The lockdown is a case in point. Supporters of the precautionary principle have hit the jackpot, through the combination of a sensationalist media, a hugely risk-averse government that does not want to be blamed for anything, and scientists who are happy to go along with the principle. It takes much more courage to stand up and admit you do not know much about something, and so should not do anything, rather than say we should impose things on people without proper understanding.
The government was panicked into taking these measures. There seems to have been no assessment whatsoever of the effects of lockdown before we entered it. That violates a key principle of medicine: first, do no harm. You do not perform surgery on someone unless you know that what you are doing is going to be better for them than what they are already facing. There is a term in medicine for taking action without that knowledge: negligence. The government was negligent in putting us into lockdown with no assessment of what that would do. https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/08/07/our-government-should-not-be-copying-totalitarian-states/
Getting back to my discussion on idolatry, as I say, it is a good thing to take proper steps to keep yourself and others safe and healthy. But one’s own desire for these things can easily become idols. The truth is, even good things that we may pursue can easily turn into idolatrous fetishes.
C. S. Lewis often said that whenever we allow something to become a god it will become a demon. As he put it in The Four Loves: “We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred.”
Let me again quote from Guinness as I wrap things up.
By this definition, all the obvious candidates are potentially idolatrous – wealth, fame, pleasure, power, and so on. We can recognize ways in which we disobey God out of loyalty to them. But many nonobvious things can work as idols as well, causing us to ignore or distort God’s commands to us. For example, work, a commandment of God, can become an idol if it is pursued so exclusively that responsibilities to one’s family are ignored. Family, an institution of God Himself, can become an idol if one is so preoccupied with the family that no one outside of one’s own family is cared for. Being well-liked, a perfectly legitimate hope, becomes an idol if the attachment to it means that one never risks disapproval. Even evangelism, carrying out the Great Commission, can become an idol if people are misused – Christian or not Christian – in the zeal to do it.
To summarize, idols will inevitably involve self-centeredness, self-inflation, and self-deception. Idolatry begins with the counterfeiting of God, because only with a counterfeit of God can people remain the center of their lives and loyalties, autonomous architects of their futures. Something within creation will then be idolatrously inflated to fill the God-shaped hole in the individual’s world. But a counterfeit is a lie, not the real thing. It must present itself through self-deception, often with images suggesting that the idol will fulfill promises for the good life.
As I just read this morning in my daily reading, Scripture makes it perfectly clear as to how terrible and damaging idolatry is, and how useless idols are. One of the key passages on this is what we find in Jeremiah 2:12-13:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.
Or as we are told in 1 John 5:21, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”