Growing up in small-town southeast Missouri, the tallest building I had ever seen was our town’s three-story red brick high school. Now in my purview was a gray jungle spattering the horizon, with yellow lights placed perfectly like stickers in rows. Bright lights, big city.
The jutting skyscrapers and surrounding city felt like Oz. But unlike the movie where this magical land was just a dream, this was real. And this material city had a certain allure to it. One that I haven’t been able to get away from since. Looking upon the urban panorama as a child, I had no need to click my heels. I was home. It had captivated me. Why?
Underneath the awe, it promised me something that I thought I wanted. Fulfillment, significance, worth. Even as a young boy, those yearnings were there. And they were being tugged at.
All of us could make a short list of the things that have caught our fancy. But many of us could take that same list and wax eloquently about how things have failed to deliver what they pledged. That’s the problem with allurement. All that glitters really isn’t gold. Sometimes our magnetisms are just gold-plated rubbish.
The Bible calls our misguided pursuits of what charms us idolatry. And we aren’t talking golden calves here either. As a Christian, idolatry is anything that supplants God in my life with a lesser god. It’s an inverted move of the soul. When our hearts engage in idolatry, we have to ask ourselves the question that the Avett Brothers sing: “Are we growing backwards with time?”
Theologian Doug Stuart masterfully explains idolatry’s attraction in Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary). He says there are a few things in an idol’s appeal:
Idolatry obliges: Fashion your god out of stone or wood or precious metals and a god would enter the idol. No need to wait on a god to answer your prayers anymore. Summon him and get what you want without delay.
Idolatry gratifies: The motive of idol worship was to get what you needed, when you needed it. It was entirely centered on the person seeking — not the one being sought.
Idolatry numbs: Ancient idolatry took the place of fervent spirituality. It stimulated vain religious hullabaloo. It anesthetized individuals because what kept you good with the gods was not relational but sacrificial. Bring your gods a scapegoat for your sin and you were exonerated.
Idolatry indulges: Find a divinity that meets your needs and bow down to it. Or better, find a few idols that meets your specific desires and worship them. The glut of deities available created a smorgasbord approach to spirituality. And why not? One God over all? Hogwash, they would say. Find whatever works for you.
Idolatry reassures: Worshiping an invisible deity was not comforting. A god you could see — now that was the ticket. Tangible divinities make more sense, don’t they? Surely, the gods would want us to see them instead of placing our faith in the unseen.
Idolatry impresses: With an invisible deity, it was almost impossible to astonish your fellow man with your sacrifices. An unseen God who looks at the heart — above all else — has no usefulness in vain, repetitious activities. But bring a costly sacrifice to a lifeless idol? It was a sight to behold. And the bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the show.
It’s easy to see what the central “thing” is in idolatry. It’s not the wooden or golden deity esteemed. It’s actually us. It’s the individual. Our personage is principal when we chase after blessing. We are the “blesser” and the blessed – we fashion divinity for our own sake.
So what’s the big deal? The raw truth about replacement gods is that they don’t deliver. The illusion of interim happiness is just that – a mirage. And therein, we find the treadmill we all run upon.
We run from one promising oasis to another only to find its promise evaporates before our eyes. But we are so desperate to belong, to be loved, to feel significant, to feel secure, the never-ending hunt overtakes us. Before we know it, we are knee-deep in our own despondency and we scan the horizon for something new that allures. Something novel that will once-and-for-all deliver the goods.
In its truest sense, idolatry is a fatal attraction. It’s not that it literally kills us in an instant (although, I guess it could in some instances). It is more a slow slink backwards within the soul. It’s the actuality of the question the Avett Brothers sing about: “Are we growing backwards with time?” We are. And it’s more than “growing” backwards – it’s that we are “dying” backwards. It’s a dawdling succession of little deaths, decision by decision, day after day.
Pastor and author Greg Dutcher says it this way: “Idolatry … is not a showboat. It does its best to work in subtle ways. Like a puma lying low in the gentle grass, taut muscles held in place like a coiled spring, sin waits in the ‘safest’ of places. … it waits patiently for a chance to creep in unaware.”
That is why it is a fatal attraction. We are typically naive to its creep. And at the right time, it pounces on our insecurity. It ambushes our anxiety. It attacks our uneasiness.
The good news is that there is a new way to be human. We can reverse our worship and find what is behind the delusion of our self-made gods. But first, we need a deep diagnosis. It’s one thing to understand the category of idolatry. It’s another to isolate what deity (or deities) you bow down to.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.