We tend to think of idolatry as an issue belonging to times long past: the word conjures images of metal or wooden artefacts scattered throughout a home, or shrines laden with candles, incense and pictures. Truth is, idolatry has less to do with what we set in our homes, and more to do with what we set in our hearts.
I’m reading through Ezekiel at the moment – a prophecy-dense book mostly recounting the sins of Israel and her judgement, with occasional glimpses of God’s plan for their redemption. In Chapter 13 we see God condemning the false prophets of Israel: men who proclaimed false divinations and messages, and were hypocrites; and women who practised magic and confessed their own thoughts and words as God’s. In Chapter 14, God addresses the people of Israel directly (v. 4-7, 10a, 11):
“Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.
Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself.
And they shall bear their punishment – that the house of Israel may no more go astray from me, nor defile themselves anymore with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, declares the Lord God.”
Though we may not be living the same way as the ancient Israelites, there are certainly points of note which ring true for us as Christians today:
Idolatry is the natural, primary inclination of the human heart.
I daresay there isn’t any Christian – living or dead – who has lived an entire day, or even an hour, without finding more comfort, joy, or fulfilment, in something other than God. This is the effect of the curse of sin; we still exist in our fallen bodies, which have corrupted desires (Galatians 5:17, Romans 7:18), and so it is something we fight against day to day.
Setting up idols estranges (separates) us from God.
It’s as true 4000 years ago as it is for us today – when our heart sets its joy and trust in something other than God (physical, mental or conceptual), there is a very real shift in our soul. All of a sudden, our focus is on a new need, a new love, pulling us away from God.
God loves us more than we love ourselves.
In setting up an idol (whether it be looking to convenience, comfort, health, money, a spouse or career, to fulfil us) we are assuming we know ourselves best, and what is best for us. But this is a self-deception: God knew us before He even formed the earth (Ephesians 1:4), and as the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator, He is the one who knows what our greatest good is – ultimately, for us to know and love Him!
The longings and obsessions of our hearts are strong – some may even be based in good, godly things (like marriage), but become idols when we find we cannot be content, or happy in God, without them.
Trusting in God is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day striving – through prayer and faith, accountability and honesty – to love God more than anything else life has to offer.