“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images… They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (Rom 1:21-25).
Paul defines idolatry as a foolish exchange. “They exchanged the glory of God for images” and “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Coincidentally, ABC Night Line featured a story this week on “American Idolatry” and interview Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. [SEE STORY]
Driscoll defines idolatry as follows:
“An idol is someone or something that occupies the place of God in your life,” [Driscoll said. “[It] gives you identity, meaning, value, purpose, joy, love, significance, security. When the Bible uses the word ‘idol’, that’s what it’s getting at.”
A. SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT IDOLS?
1. It’s the ultimate slap in God’s face. It’s the first and greatest sin (Gen. 3). The fall was in essence our first parents’ unwillingness to live as mere creature under the sovereign lordship of the Creator. They wanted to be “like God” as the story of the forbidden fruit and sneaky snake goes. How arrogant! How ungrateful and irreverent stance before our Maker! As Paul says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21).
2. It’s the first & greatest commandment. The command above all commands to keep is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any other gods before me” (Exod 20:2-3). God’s commandment to worship Him alone is not mean-spirited, angry or jealous (well, there is a tinge of holy jealousy), but rather out of a love that knows what’s best for us as creatures. Keeping God as our supreme treasure and object of worship leads us to greatest joy and satisfaction. John Piper is right: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”
3. Idols always come up short! Idols never satisfy! They can’t deliver on their promises. They can never fill the God-shaped hole in our heart. As the saints have discovered throughout history,
“O God, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” -Augustine (c.400)
“God is the fuel that people were made to ‘run on’ – if the correct fuel is taken away and some lesser fuel is ‘put in the tank’ there will be running problems.” -C.S. Lewis
“There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man, and only God can fill it.” -Blaise Pascal (c. 1660)
4. Idols ultimately destroy us. We cannot live without God. Someday God will be the all-pervasive reality (Heaven) and we will either finally live as we were always meant to live (getting life from God and giving glory back) or we will spend eternity without God. Each day we are being made more and more fit for heaven or for hell. God will be the ever-flowing water of eternal life in heaven, so we best be getting used to the taste now.
B. THE BAD NEWS ABOUT GOOD THINGS
What makes idolatry so dangerous, so subtle, so sneaky and so hard to resist is that it is usually very good things we turn into idols. Rarely are our idols purely, obviously Evil. We take God’s greatest gifts to us and ask them to give us things only God can give us. Great talent. A career or job we love. Our favorite sport. Our spouse or children. As Kierkegaard pointed out, idolatry happens when we turn good things into Ultimate things. So, we should all ask ourselves daily: Who or what do I love most in my life? Am I at risk of turning them into an idol?
C. SOME REAL LIFE STORIES OF AMERICAN IDOLATRY
1. Doug lived, ate, breathed baseball. He was an all-state player who was predicted to go pro right out of high school. The girls were crazy about Doug because of his talent level. Doug learned to love the attention in the halls at school. He lived for those game days in the spring when everyone would come up to him in the halls and wish him good luck or congratulate him the day after another magical performance. This was especially true of his relationship with his dad. Dad was hard on Doug, never taking an interest in Doug outside of his baseball life. The only time Doug heard his dad say anything nice was after a good performance on the field. This only increased Doug’s determination to be the best baseball player he could. During the off-season Doug would go into a little funk, as everyone’s focus was on other sports. But spring was always around the corner. Until the injury that is. Just after being drafted by the Chicago Cubs following his high school graduation Doug was in a car accident. Doug would never play baseball again. Doug quickly descended into a deep depression. The praise of people was gone. His dad was increasingly disinterested in Doug now that he wasn’t “making him proud.” The thing that brought Doug most joy, meaning, purpose, self-worth, value and significance was stripped away from him. Doug’s life felt empty and he no longer wanted to live. Doug had put baseball in the place of God.
2. Katie always seemed to have a boyfriend. She rarely was single for more than a couple weeks. Katie’s parents were distant and rarely showed her much affection or attention. Katie loved the way boys seemed to take a special interest in her. For she was stunningly beautiful. She would eat up the attention. Looking forward to the next date always gave her an emotional buzz. Notes on her car window. Love notes stuffed in her locker. Flowers on Valentines Day. Walking hand-in-hand through the hallways at school. She lived for these things. Unfortunately, the guys in her life never seemed to live up to her expectations and quickly let her down. Break-ups were frequent followed by deep pain and emptiness. Every break-up felt like another part of her soul was being torn from her body. She wondered what’s wrong with her. Her self-esteem grew less and less. Each break-up led to the same conclusion: “Why give my heart away to another when they are only going to eventually break it when they leave.” But the emptiness in her heart would eventually drive her to despair UNLESS she could find another temporary boyfriend to fill the void, to give her value, show her affection, boost her self-worth even if for only a moment before the next disappointment. Katie has placed boyfriends in God’s place hoping they can satisfy her longing for love, affection, significance, value and worth. She will always be let down; for even the greatest guy in the world is limited in his capacity to love. The greatest marriages are NOT made up of strong, healthy people but weak, fragile people both finding their value in God who is able to meet both their needs.
3. David gets his self-worth and value from other people’s approval. When people get upset with him his entire being is threatened. He lives in a constant state of anxiety, doing everything he can to please everyone, not upset anyone, and avoiding criticism. He’s constantly paranoid that so-and-so is made at him or that somebody is spreading bad rumors about him, threatening his reputation. David is incredibly insecure all the time. The problem with basing your self-worth on other people’s opinions is that you’ll NEVER please everyone. There will always be people who don’t understand you and draw the wrong conclusions. David does not realize that his own value and worth as a person is secure in his identity as God’s beloved Son, created in his own image. There is nothing David can do to earn God’s approval. God loves him simply because He made Him and has died for Him. David needs to smash his idol of “Human approval.”
4. Valerie is obsessed with her body image and physical appearance. She gets every fashion magazine, loves watching “America’s Top Model” and practically lives at the mall. She’s only 16 and already thinking about cosmetic surgery to fine-tune her facial features. Oh, by the way, she’s incredibly beautiful as it is. But she is completely obsessed with how other people view her and, more importantly, how she views herself. She worships daily at the altars of her massively large closet, the bathroom mirror and weight scale. It’s hard to blame her. We hear constantly in American that “Image is Everything.” She is just going with the flow. Sadly, her behavior and focus is quite normal for teenage girls in America. The problem is that she derives her significance and self-worth from her physical beauty. And physical beauty is temporary and quickly fading. She will hit her prime in a few years and then she will live a long, losing battle with time and gravity. Wrinkles and gray hair are inevitable (even if cosmetic surgeons deny it). If Valerie continues to worship physical beauty and youthful appearance and find her own worth and significance in it, she will be one sad and bitter old lady someday. Valerie has put her physical appearance in the place of God.
5. Others place their security in their bank account. When the economy crashes, they’re life seems threatened. They worship money.
6. Still others get their worth, meaning and purpose from their career. If their business fails, they feel like they are a failed human being. They worship success.
7. Many parents find meaning and purpose in parenting. They are irreplaceable and needed for the 18 + years they are raising their kids. Suddenly, when the kids leave home they find they have no purpose. They grow depressed and look for something else to give them meaning and purpose. Hopefully they discover God’s purpose for their life in that search. For the past 20 years or so they have been placing their kids in the place of God.
8. Other things we put in the place of God include: comfort, being needed, pleasure, sex, religious performance, personal achievement, independence or freedom, power or control and the list is literally endless.
D. SO WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT THIS?
Hear God’s Word from Jeremiah 2:10-13:
“Has anyone ever heard of anything as strange as this? Has any nation ever traded its gods for new ones, even though they are not gods at all? Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols! The heavens are shocked at such a thing and shrink back in horror and dismay,” says the Lord. “For my people have done TWO evil things: They have abandoned me—the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!”
How should we respond to this message? We should…
1. Search our own hearts and uncover our own personal idols. We’re inviting you to do this over the next week.
2. Repent of our sins of idolatry and ask for God’s forgiveness.
3. Lay our idols (or, perhaps “smash them”) at the foot of the cross in humble gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice.
4. Behold the all-surpassing glory and majesty of the one true and living God to whom all praise is due. We will spend the entire night in worship next Wednesday. May we get a perspective of how pathetic our idols are in comparison to God’s matchless glory!
5. Recommit ourselves to living lives free from idols and making God our source of identity, significance, joy, pleasure, meaning, security and so on.