“What is your favorite idol?”
"I don't worship idols!"
Hmm ... are you sure?
What is idolatry?
One useful definition of an idol is
“whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.”
I’ll have another question for you later, but for now, let’s consider what idolatry might look like.
The entry into idolatry can be subtle. Often it is as discrete as focussing on one quality of the true God and forming an image of that attribute.
For example, people make an image of a bull to represent a god’s great strength. Aaron “made ... an idol cast in the shape of a calf” (Exodus 32:1-6).
The prophet Isaiah writes of a person who cuts down a tree. With half, he cooks his food; with the other half, he carves a god. The prophet asks the rhetorical question: “Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” (Isaiah 44:19).
Christopher Wright comments that
“the primal problem with idolatry is that it blurs the distinction between the Creator God and the creation. This both damages creation (including ourselves) and diminishes the glory of the Creator.”
Most often, we think of idols as physical images humanly created to represent a god or an attribute of a god.
A few years ago, I visited Tactic in northern Guatemala.
On the hill overlooking the town was the Iglesia Cristo de Chi-Ixim, meaning “the church of Christ of Chi-Ixim.” Chi-Ixim is a Mayan term that is pronounced something like “she-sheem.”
On a patch of ground in front of that church is a large concrete cross. To its right is a blackened stone oven.
In the photo (see above), a man presses his forehead against the cross while a Mayan priest or shaman looks on. The fire burns his offering; the oven consumes his candles.
Chi-Ixim is the Mayan corn god.
Those people are burning offerings to the Mayan god Chi-Ixim. We probably agree that this is a graphic example of idolatry.
Idols are not always obvious physical images.
What follows this scene is puzzling.
From their offering to Chi-Ixim, those same people walk up stairs – maybe 50 feet (15 meters) and into the church or iglesia to do their Christian “thing.”
We probably find this puzzling, even contradictory – but those people don’t. From our perspective, their loyalty is not to God alone. To those people, they are merely covering their bases.
Dean Flemming relates the story of a colleague who had a chance encounter with a grandmother in a part of the Philippines where the local animistic religion was practiced widely.
He noticed a cross hanging around her neck and asked her if she was a Christian. “Yes,” she assured him, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ.” When she discovered that my friend was a Christian missionary, she invited him to visit her humble dwelling. To his surprise, she showed him a traditional spirit house behind her home that was intended to ward off the evil spirits. “If you are a Christian,” he queried, “why do you still keep a spirit house?” Her matter-of-fact reply: “I just want to make sure that all of the bases are covered.”
People who worship idols might also go to church.
Here’s the other question: “Has idolatry seeped into your life?”
“Of course not, I don’t worship the corn god Chi-Ixim or anything like it!”
Let’s think about that.
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Scalia’s Strange Gods. In it, she unmasks some of the “idols” of everyday modern Western life.
She presents “an idol as an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.” Here are some of these idols:
We can add: Family, Status, Education, Spirituality, etc.
Keeping this in mind, has idolatry seeped into your life?
Are any of these idols of self-centeredness claiming your loyalty that belongs to God alone?
Well, maybe – but just a bit.
Here’s what Jesus says on the idea – the idol – of prosperity (Matthew 6:24):
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
Usually, you can tell what people value and love by how they spend their time, money, and enthusiasm.
On that basis, average North Americans love their jobs, their houses, their vacations, and their bodies.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work, live in a house, take some well-deserved time off, or live a healthy lifestyle. But, I think it’s fair to say that in our culture, many of us do love these things excessively – we worship them. To us, they’ve become idols.
So, maybe we’re not so different from those burning corn to Chi-Ixim – we just have better smoke control.
Whoever you are, here’s what you can do.
Find a quiet place, sit or kneel, and speak these words deeply (Psalm 139:23-24):
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive [perhaps, idolatrous] way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
In the quiet, wait for the answer.
Is an idol being identified in your life?
Now, allow yourself to be led by God “in the way everlasting.”
Perhaps we’ll move on from here next week.
 J. A. Motyer, “Idolatry,” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 1980), 2:680.  Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 187.
 Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 214.
 Elizabeth Scalia, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2013).
Photo credit: John B. MacDonald, Guatemala (April 2012).
Signup below to stay in the loop with 'living theology'.Subscribe