1Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:1-4)
Most of us probably do not often think of idolatry as a serious temptation. We seldom feel inclined to carve little statues, bowing before them with incense burning, and aiming our prayers in their direction.
But is it possible that idolatry is about something more subtle than what the King James Version of the Bible poetically refers to as “graven images”?
Idolatry in its broadest sense refers to any attempt to meet a need by external means that can only ultimately be satisfied by the invisible force of love and light that religious traditions designate using the term “God”.
I create an idol when I look to any human relationship to give me a sense of belonging in this world. When I expect that you will satisfy my emotional needs, that you will affirm me, support me, make me feel good about myself, you have become my idol.
When I seek ultimate satisfaction and gratification in my career accomplishments, my status, my educational level, my talents, or any external achievements that win the accolades of the world, I am an idolater.
I am engaging in idol worship when I demand that my country, my government, or my police force provide me with a sense of absolute safety and security. When I believe that I can establish peace by building walls and creating a huge weapons stash I am creating an idol.
When I look to my church to give me an awareness of the divine, I am worshiping an idol.
The problem with idols is that they simply do not work, or not for long. They cannot fulfill the demands I place upon them.
The Bible affirms in a variety of places the wisdom of the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes,
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
This is not nihilism any more than it is clinical depression. The writer of Ecclesiastes has taken a clear-eyed look at the realities of the world and discovered that, in the end, they all fall short of yielding ultimate satisfaction. He has sampled the best the world has to offer and found that it is all wanting.
The reality of the human condition is that we were created for something more than the temporal, physical, material, sensual, even emotional, gratifications of this life. We are transcendent beings with an innate capacity to live in communion with God. There is a part of us that is able to settle for nothing less than eternity.
We yearn for gratification, contentment, peace, security, a sense of safety, and a sense of well-being that is not transient. None of these things can be given to us in any lasting form by the fragile passing realities of the physical or emotional realm. We will only find our way to an abiding sense of the goodness of life, when we give up worshiping idols and turn to the one true God in whom we discover the unchanging reality of that life-force which is the true meaning and purpose of all human beings.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. (Exodus 20:4,5a)
God is jealous, not because God needs our worship and attention. God is jealous because God alone is worthy of our complete attention and absolute allegiance. Only allegiance to the invisible reality of love and light we call “God” has the power to bestow upon us an unshakeable steady awareness of goodness and blessing. No idol will ever meet this need.