“God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” Mark Twain
It is impossible to read the bible, especially the Old Testament, and not realize that idolatry is the sin God hates the most. When we read the prophets, we see endless diatribes against the idolatry of God’s covenant people. Book after book, prophet after prophet, we see the people of God lured by the idols of the nations.
Though we live in the 21st century, where few tribes and peoples worship idols of gold and silver, idolatry is still much alive. The only difference is that we have become more sophisticated in our idolatry.
When people were worshipping idols of silver and wood, it was easy to identify idolatry. But when we create and worship those idols in our minds, we can be easily deceived.
Worshipping the creatures
In Romans 1, Paul introduced us to the fundamental problem of humanity in relation to God. God has revealed himself in the things he has made. His invisible qualities – eternal power and divine nature- can be seen from the things that he has made. (Romans 1:19-20). As the Psalmist reminds us, “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalms 19:1)
However, though we see the things God has made (creation), we do not bow down to the God who made them like the boy drooling over the clay pot but forgot to thank the mother who made it. The invisible qualities of God the creator are there, but sin blinds our eyes to them. We are like Hagar who was dying from thirst but could not see the well of water before her (Genesis 21:14-19). Rather than seeing the glory of God through the created world, we only see the glory of the created world.
Since we cannot see beyond the glory of the creation to the creator, we begin to worship the creation. We worship the heavenly bodies and the phenomena of nature that keeps us in awe. As Paul puts it, “we exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Verse 23)
The whole religion of man is the worship of the creature. Whether it is the worship of the sun and the moon, the fashioning of images to represent any of the created things, or the deification of man, every human-made religion is a worship of the creature.
This is the human condition. Man cannot do anything about it. Even though we have the sense of the numinous – that there is something beyond ourselves- we cannot decipher it; we cannot pierce beyond the creation. We will only keep manufacturing idols, and when our ingenuity is stretched, we will make one for the ‘unknown God’ like the Athenians. There is something beyond, but how can we know it?
Behold your God
Man would have remained in this idolatrous state apart from God choosing to reveal himself.
The knowledge of God did not originate in the wisdom and philosophy of Athens, the wealth of Tyre and Sidon, or the military power of Babylon. It could not.
No matter the advancement in civilizations, we cannot pierce through. In Abraham’s words (in another context), “there is a great gulf fixed.” (Luke 16:26) That gulf is impenetrable.
Whether it is eastern or western, civilization can never penetrate that gulf. We would have all perished in our ignorance and idolatry no matter how rich, educated, and healthy we become.
However, God did not leave us in our idolatrous state. He chose to reveal himself. Since we cannot rise to him, he decided to come down to us. He revealed himself to Noah and then to Abraham and then to Moses. Through Moses, he called out a people for himself and revealed himself to them.
To those people, he declared himself as “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Through his commandments and his actions in history, he continued to reveal himself progressively to his covenant people- the Israelites. This revelation made them God’s special people(Deuteronomy 4). While all the nations were perishing in their idolatrous ignorance, Israel had God in their midst, revealing himself to them. This knowledge of God separated them from the others.
No other gods, No graven images
When you have the real thing, there is no need to go back to the fake. God repeatedly commanded his people to desist from the idolatry of the other nations. The first commandment prevented them from worshipping any other gods before him. The third commandment prevented them from molding an idol in the form of anything on earth, in heaven or in the waters. God has separated them from the nations and given himself to them. To worship idols will be to forsake the food on the table for the food in the dream.
But this was not all. In his condemnation of idolatry, he made sure to remind them that they did not see any form of any kind when God spoke to them at Horeb (Deuteronomy 4:15). God made this point to emphasize that they cannot create his image as an object of worship. Not only the things in the heavens, on earth, and in the waters, they were also not to create an image or idol of God.
They are not only to avoid worshipping false gods through images and idols; they must also avoid worshipping the true God through images.
To construct an image of God is to create God in our image and fashion him according to our thoughts.
Men love idols because we can control them. We shape them according to our likes and dislikes. We speak, and they listen. Idols cannot challenge us. Though we worship them as our maker, in the real sense, we are their makers. (Isaiah 41). When we are tired of one, we can move to another.
But the only God who exists is out of our reach. We don’t construct him; he made us. He speaks, and we listen. He reveals himself and our knowledge of him is limited to that revelation. He initiates a covenant, and we become covenant partners. He challenges us, rebukes us, and punishes us.
For the first time, humanity was confronted with a God who is in charge.
The revelation of the true God (the only God) did not deter Israel from following other gods and worshipping idols. Aaron’s golden calf (Exodus 32) was only a precursor. All through their history – until they went into exile- they could not avoid the snare of idolatry.
The other side of idolatry
As we saw, idolatry is not merely the worship of false gods; it is also an attempt to humanize God – to bring him to the level where we can control him as we control our idols. We want to bring God down to our level and create a mental representation of God.
In Psalms 50:21, God rebuked those who persisted in doing evil because they believe that God is indifferent to evil, just like them. “These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you.” They thought that God would be satisfied with the forms of religion (sacrifices, gifts) and care less about justice and righteousness. They formed a conception of God in their minds that reflected their hearts. Put simply, they made ‘God’ in their image.
Because they are evil, satisfied with religious externalities, and indifferent to justice and righteousness, they conceived of a ‘God’ that is exactly like that.
These men did not create physical idols and images. They did not seek to produce a visible image of God. However, they were producing a ‘God’ in their mind different from the God that has revealed Himself in the scriptures.
At the end of Job, we see God angry with Job’s friends. Why was God angry? “Because you have not spoken of me what is right.” (Job 42:7) These men have construed an image of God that is false. They created a ‘God’ in their image – a ‘God’ who is completely explainable within the capacity of the human mind. “If you are suffering, you must be a sinner under God’s punishment, period.” For them, it was only white or black, day or night; there cannot be any nuance in between.
Revelation: The Solution to Idolatry
If we combine all the brilliance of men, we cannot conceive an accurate picture of God. We will only be creating thousands and millions of idols. As John Calvin puts it, “The human mind, is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” Paul was clear that the world through its wisdom did not know God (1 Corinthians 1:21)
The greatest act of God’s revelation in history is the incarnation of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). God became a man. But what happened? He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. (John 1:11). God became man, yet in the blindness and darkness of the human heart (2 Corinthians 4:4); we could not see his glory. All we saw was a carpenter (Mark 6:1-3), a glutton (Luke 7:34), a liberal (Mark 7:1-4), at best, a prophet (Mark 8:28). Infact, we crucified him.
Even when he died on the cross to reconcile men to God, all the Jews could see was weakness and the gentiles only saw foolishness (1 Corinthians 1). Our wildest imagination cannot conceive of a God who will become man and die on a cross in the hands of men.
Yet, the incarnation and the cross of Christ serves as the most significant testimony that man cannot know God except he reveals himself. But even when he reveals himself, he has to lift the blindness and darkness of our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6) before we can see.
No wonder Paul insists that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
The only cure to idolatry is God revealing himself and God opening our hearts to see that revelation.
Looking beyond the revelation: The relapse to idolatry
But just as Israel was ensnared with idolatry even after God revealed himself to them, many of us today relapse to idolatry even when we have seen the revelation of God in Christ.
We relapse to idolatry when we begin to ignore God’s revelation of himself and start to conceive of God as we want him to be – that is, in our image.
How many times have you heard these statements in discussions with Christians?
- My God is not like that.
- My own God will not do that.
- I cannot believe in that kind of God.
- That is not the God I serve.
What do you notice? We are beginning to move away from the objective revelation of God in his word to a subjective creation of ‘God’ in our image. We often make these statements when someone confronts us with a truth about God that is very clear from the scriptures. Since we are uncomfortable with that truth (because of our mental image of who ‘God’ should be), we “kick against the goad”.
Instead of approaching the bible to learn what God says about himself, we first come up with the kind of ‘God’ with whom we are comfortable. Then when we see passages in scriptures that contradict that mental picture we have, we either misinterpret them, ignore them, or just hold on to our mental image nonetheless, like the researcher who holds on to his thesis even when all the facts tell a different story.
You don’t ‘have’ a God. There is only one God – the God who has revealed Himself in the Old and New Testament. If you do not worship that God, you are worshipping an idol. If you worship your perception of that God that is different from what is revealed in Scriptures, you are like those who ate, drank, and sat down to play before the golden calf (Exodus 32).
God does not give us any liberty to construct him in our mind, as we like. To do that is to plunge into idolatry.
In Isaiah 66:2, God tells us that he only esteems those who are humble and contrite in spirit. How do we know the person who is contrite and humble? They tremble before God’s words. They submit to God’s revelation of himself rather than mangle God’s words to conform to the idol they have in their minds.
It is time for us to ditch all the images of God in our heads, repent of our idolatry, and go to God’s word to learn what he has said about himself.
We cannot pick and choose what God has said about himself when we are comfortable with it. Contrarily, we must ditch our preconception of who God should be and go to scriptures to know who he is.
Does the ‘God’ you are worshipping exist? Are you like the Samaritans who worship what they did not know? (John 4:22) The Samaritans had an image of God in their head, but the true God is different from what they conceived him to be. The Jews had zeal, but it was without knowledge. You can worship ‘God’ passionately when all that worship is in vain because the ‘God’ you are worshipping does not exist.
Are you sure your worship is not in vain? Are you worshipping an idol while you think you are worshipping God? Do you worship the ‘God’ you are comfortable with or the God who indeed exist?
Idolatry remains the sin God hates most. It matters little whether they are physical idols or mental idols. Remember, no idolater will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9); they are outside the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:8).
May we all heed the command of John – dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)