An idol is always a very shabby substitute for love

Chapter 2    LOCALIZING reality in an idol

An idol is something we worship instead of honoring the reality that it represents. A statue in a park, or a family photo can be a helpful reminder of someone who is important to us.. It only becomes idolatrous if we use it as a substitute to avoid a personal relationship. We can do that with God or with another human being. People can also set themselves up as idols as a means of keeping others at a distance.

In the form given to Moses the commandment was "You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . you shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:4-5). The word 'jealous' would be like the disappointment of a father if his child made an idol instead of coming to sit in his lap as usual. Obviously God does not appreciate us talking to some representation, instead of engaging him in personal conversation.

It wasn't long after being given the second commandment that the whole nation was seduced into idolatry. When Moses stayed away too long on Mount Sinai the people wanted a God they could see, so Aaron made a golden calf for them to dance around (Exodus 32:1-6). As their high priest he should have taught them to pray.

An idol is always a very shabby substitute for love. We should hear God saying "don't pick on one aspect of all that I am, and caricature me with an idol." The idol says "Come and prostrate yourself before me in this place, and make a donation to the priest." Viewing God as a forgiving machine is also a form of idolatry. As opposed to any form of idolatry, God invites us to "Come and meet with me and let's talk face to face"

The commandment also goes on to explain that idol worship has very bad consequences. We can imagine how disfunctional a family would be if the children talked to idols of their parents, instead of chatting at the family table.

A problem with this second rule is that zealous preachers have focused on the words "in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus 20:4). In Sunni Islam the mosques have beautiful geometric designs, but no trace of decoration in the form of a flower, or tree, or bird (these are allowed in the Shia mosques of Iran). The Taliban in Afghanistan took this to extreme when they allowed no picture books for children, or videos or movies. In Britain under Cromwell the Puritans went around smashing priceless statues and stained glass windows.

Obviously the Taliban interpretation of "likeness" makes the visual arts impossible, and it is certainly not the generally agreed meaning of the second category of moral judgment. Calvin had no objection to paintings and sculpture (Institutes I.9). But there is a wide spectrum of interpretation in different denominations concerning the use of statues, paintings, icons, and pictures of Jesus in Sunday Schools. As we have seen, what counts is the very personal love relationship that God is concerned to enjoy with us.

Any kind of idol is inevitably a caricature. Even a lifelike statue can only catch one pose, but the person in real life walks, laughs, talks, cries, gets angry. Similarly, even if an idol could catch one small aspect of what God is like, it would be a terrible falsification of the life and love of God.

Another problem with idol worship is that it allows a worshiper to localize God in one place. "This is where you live. I will come and see you when I feel like it, or need you. Frankly, I don't want God around in my work, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, at the bar."

At its worst a church building can become a shrine to localize God in one place. For some, perfecting and beautifying the sanctuary takes precedence over knowing God in a personal way. Faith should result in the freedom to talk to God any time, any place (driving a car, flat on your back in hospital), and without fancy ecclesiastical words. God does not want to be put on a pedestal, and he far prefers loving intimacy to humble prostrations. Idolatry makes it impossible to relate to a loving God. He wants to come and sit down with us, enjoy his children, and laugh, sing, and be at home with us. For that we may need a building (especially in sub-zero Canada) to gather in for teaching and worship, but it should never be a box to localize God in one place.

When we listed the ten categories of moral judgment in a form that a religious person or an atheist could subscribe to, we began with:

1 There is only one supreme being, original cause, or reality

2 This should not be localized or worshiped as an idol

What would idolatry mean for an atheist? Obviously humans are the product of whatever caused our world. But among the Greeks the beauty of the human form became a supreme object of admiration. Others make an idol of the human mind. "These people are to be honored because they are bright and intelligent. And those people can be ignored because they are not truly human." This kind of idolatry becomes even worse when a particular race or people like the Aryans are idolized and others like the Jews should be exterminated.

To gain power, instead of serving the genuine needs of their people, dictators love to make themselves the focus of their people's worship. As soon as we see huge pictures of a leader, massive parades of soldiers saluting him, and the adulation of his entourage, we know that the man has become an idol. Democracy becomes impossible if an elected representative is given the honor that only belongs to God.

But idolatry can also skew our respect for others and for human institutions. There is nothing wrong with flowers, or jewelry, and photos of our children, or flying our national flag. But things have gone wrong when a man localizes his love for his wife in the flowers and jewelry he gives in lieu of genuine affection. Women rightly object when men are devoted to their breasts rather than to them as persons. Parents can make idols of their children's photos and achievements instead of being open to them and hearing their heart concerns.

When our national flag takes on a personality of its own, and more attention is paid to flag waving than to serving one's country, it has become an idol. Many soldiers have been killed uselessly in the attempt to plant the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes to fly on a hill instead of focusing on winning the battle.

What is the opposite of making an idol of God? In the commandment given to Moses there is the word (khesed): "showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exodus 20:6). This word later became very important in the worship of the temple (e.g. Psalms 107), and one of the songs uses this word for the love of God in each of its 36 verses (Psalm136). In chapter 11 we will see how Jesus took the ten commandments and restated them as two positive invitations to love.

The second category of moral judgment is that both in personal relationships, and in our relationship to God, it is heart to heart conversation that is essential, rather than the stereotyping of an idol.

Chapter 3     PRETENDING to be what you aren't