Though the word is more-or-less out of style, unless you’re counting reality TV shows that are also increasingly going out of style, the practice of idolatry is still going strong. In saying this, of course, I don’t simply mean putting little statues of wood and metal up in our homes and praying to them (though I do—and we have a store in our local mall that sells tons of them!). Human has this unique ability to worship… well, pretty much anything. And everything. Because we do.
I’ve had a lot of idols over the years, mostly of your average garden-variety types: TV, food, money, books… those sorts of things. But the thing I’ve consistently been challenged by, no matter how many years pass, is my tendency to idolize myself. I like to rely on myself, to trust that my smarts and grit are going to get me through pretty much anything. But that’s just dumb. Just like every other form of idolatry is dumb.
No idol can help us. No god of our own imagining can save us or direct us. And yet, we keep pursuing them. Why? Because idolatry is dumb, and we become like what we worship. This is something that Isaiah bitingly (and painfully) illustrates:
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:12-17)
I’m not sure God could have made the point any more clearly than he did through Isaiah: Idolatry is an intentional act, a conscious decision to take something that we know has no power and ascribe it supreme worth. We would rather cut down a tree, chop up half of it for firewood, and use the rest to fashion for ourselves a god to worship than to worship the one who created us.
But it gets worse: We actually go so far to, as the one described above, to actually go ahead and plant the tree, nurture it, wait patiently while it grows, and then make our idol from it. That’s an extreme example, but it shows the depths of our insistence that we will not worship the one we ought. Worse, because we feel so secure in our wickedness, we think no one sees what we do, especially not God—we say in our hearts, “I am, and there is no one besides me” (Isaiah 47:10).
That isn’t just dumb—it’s ludicrous. And yet we keep doing it.
We keep doing it because we don’t want to turn to the one who has made us. We keep doing it because to do so requires us to end our arrogance and stubborn refusal to admit that we are not “I am”—that we are no, in fact, God. That God is God.
This is one of the reasons why I get so frustrated when I hear people speak flippantly about coming to faith or about making “decisions”. When we are as willfully obtuse as the ironsmith of Isaiah 44, when we take things we know are not God and fashion them into little gods we can control, a call to have your best Friday or to live like no one has a case of the Mondays isn’t going to do it. Promising happiness, health, wealth and motorcycles won’t do it either. Those things just feed the beast—they’re another dumb idol.
Our ridiculousness cannot be overcome by a motivational speech. It takes a miracle. And thankfully God has done that in the sending of his son Jesus, who though we cannot see him now, is no dumb idol. He is walking amongst his people, and living in them through his Spirit. He takes our dumb, hearts and turns them away from our pitiful idols and points them toward himself. He gives life to dead things, and makes us see our idols for what they really are.
That’s something no one else can do. That’s something only Jesus can do.
Idolatry is dumb. Jesus is not.
Don’t ever forget it.