how (not) to fight idolatry

Maybe it’s me, but it seems like idolatry is something of an obsession around the traps at the moment.

Various pastors of booming American megachurches keep banging on about it. It’s the ‘golden thread’ that’s meant to be weaving its way through the year at La Trobe Uni Christian Union. Even Byron’s getting in on the action with this terrific post about joyfully embracing less (and more!).

Now, it’s relatively easy to spot idolatry as it’s happening — ie. when career or family or even creation itself gets elevated to the place in our lives that belongs to God. (At least, it’s relatively easy to spot once we’ve got far enough down the track for it to be clear just how much of a grip it has on us … by which time it may be too late!)

It’s much harder to know what to do about it. Of course, repentance is the obvious remedy: turn ‘from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess 1.9).

But what does repentance look like? How do we stop idolising family (say), and drive it out of the territory it’s illegitimately occupying so we can love and serve God above all? In particular, if we’re to heed Jesus’ extreme-sounding words on the topic, must we turn our back entirely on our obligations to family so that they no longer compete with our devotion to God?

I can’t help but think of Isaiah’s caustic exposé of idolatry’s stupidity (Isaiah 44.9-20).

Isaiah underscores the folly of cutting down a tree, using half for firewood and then turning around and worshipping the rest (v 19):

No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’

I take it his point is pretty clear.

Notice, however, that Isaiah doesn’t say, ‘You shouldn’t have cut down the tree in the first place’. It’s important not to lose this. Sure, we sometimes need to play hardball with idolatry. But a general policy of ascetic self-denial is not the way to do it.

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2 comments

  1. Amen! I think by cutting the tree down we avoid learning what it means to live with the tree and still worship god.

    I think augustine’s words are so true. The good things that god gives us are too good!

    I think the the way to live with the tree is not to try and get rid of the tree ourselves but to rely on the one who gets rid of idols in our lives..

    How do I get rid of idols in my life? God will.. I read it somewhere the other day.. I think it was jer..

    1. Thanks Jenny. I guess the key question that we need to answer is: What will it look like to ‘rely on the one who gets rid of idols in our lives’?

      Even though you’re exactly right that God will get rid of the idols in our lives — it is his work to renew us in the image of his Son — I want to be careful that this doesn’t leave us an inactive, Let Go And Let God kind of approach here. I’m sure this isn’t what you mean, of course. It’s just important to emphasise that what it looks like for God to be at work in us is that we’re enabled ‘to will and to work for his good pleasure’.

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