REGARDING THE MATTER OF TODAY’S IDOLS
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”
1 John 5:21
“Humans have turned away from the creator God and have worshipped and served created things instead. They have even created for themselves second-order images of created things, thus worshipping objects twice removed from the creator God and thereby abusing their own God-given human powers for a purpose that reverses and undercuts their genuine human vocation. Human skill and ingenuity were designed to work for God’s purposes in the world, not to generate alternate gods for people to worship instead. ‘Sin,’ then is not simply the breaking of God’s rules. It is the outflowing of idolatry.”
Jeemes, you’ve got to be kidding!
I have been privileged to travel to Thailand several times over the years. It is a beautiful country with charming (though often complicated) people. Thailand’s population today is roughly 65 million people, of whom 95% are Buddhist. When I walk the streets of Bangkok during my visits, I am always fascinated by the artistry and religious traditions of spirit houses—San Phra Phum (literally houses for the spirit of the land)—typically small roofed structures, resembling Thai temple architecture, mounted on a pillar or dais. They are everywhere: outside peoples’ homes, inside malls, or beside business enterprises. The size and complexity of such structures vary according to the social influence, wealth and cultural “throw-weight” of the property occupants. Why do the Thais have them? They are shrines to spirits who protect the property and the people who live, work or shop there. The Thais dutifully provide daily offerings to the spirits and gods housed in such structures and I have seen an assortment of offerings ranging from beautiful flowers and food to red Fanta soda (apparently a favorite of the gods).
When I mention the word “idol” to a western audience, this is the type of word-picture that generally forms in their minds: carved statues in foreign lands, vestiges of long-discredited beliefs in deities, spirits inhabiting natural objects or ghosts. Invariably, they think of spirit houses erected to honor strange gods. In our cultural hubris, we view idols as primitive, manmade objects worshipped by equally primitive, unscientific religious followers.
Our typical reaction in the modern Western world: how can people be so gullible as to place their faith in such objects?
Would you be insulted if I suggest that our modern existence is plagued with just as many—if not more—such idols? They abound, I respectfully suggest, in the conveniences of our materialistic society (our cellphones, our computers, our television sets, our information and shopping patterns, our dependence on government handouts, our cars, our jobs, our diseases, our fears, our reliance on opiates, our disrespect for authority, our relationships), and, our churches.
All these, in truth, are mere modern spirit houses garnished with a technological and secular veneer.
What do I mean by idols? Any object, behavior pattern or relationship that denies the Creative God of this universe His rightful place in your heart and life. Such idols seek to become your personal god by making something else more important to your significance, purpose and happiness than God.
How do these idols derive their power? I further respectfully suggest that our present notion of “Sin” (the accumulation of human wrongdoings) is more properly seen—through a spiritual prism—as a force or power let loose on the world (with death as its ace card, Romans 5:21), and powered by human idolatry and wickedness. Therefore, the powers and authority God originally intended for his human creation, (chiefly to worship Him), through idolatry, we have voluntarily handed over to nongods. To idols. That is the counterfeit power, the self-indulgence, that undergirds today’s world. That is the derivative (and alternative) source of energy that fuels our respective spirit houses.
That is the bad news: the good news is that Jesus Christ triumphed over each and every idol—including death—allowing us as believers to freely worship the Creator God in spirit and in truth. Our idol-based fetters were broken on the cross. Potentially, every spirit house in our lives has been dismantled.
I realize that the preceding paragraphs cover a lot of territory. Please be assured that I am fully aware (perhaps more than any of you reading this article) that I stand guilty as charged. I spend far more time looking at my computer, cellphone or sitting in front of the television watching old Perry Mason reruns and sporting events, than in engaging in true worship to God—the sole reason for which I was created.
I frequently bow my knee to my own self-ingratiating spirit houses.
What are yours?
In his first letter to the Christians in the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul addressed this same issue. He warns believers to flee from idolatry by recounting the experiences of the Hebrew children in the Wilderness, which he uses as an example (1Corinthians 10:1-14). I have been attending church for the last sixty-five years and in all that time I’ve never heard a sermon preached on this passage of scripture. In these verses, Paul highlights four areas, in particular, where the Hebrew children became idolaters. I suggest to you that these same four areas (either solo or acting in combination) continue to ensnare us today: in short, they constitute the building blocks of today’s spirit houses.
First, the distractions of entertainment. “And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose to play.” (1 Corinthians 10:7). The word play in the Greek (paizo) means to sport as a boy (Strong #3815), derived from the Greek verb root to strike in a single stroke, hit or sting as a scorpion. The idea is that the Hebrew children became so preoccupied with serving their personal needs and desires that they ignored God as their sole source (Exodus 32:6). To bring the idea forward into our modern world, what happens in Sinai stays in Sinai. Having been divinely delivered from the enslaving Egyptian idols—the spirit houses of the Nile—the Hebrews sought sustenance in human-derived activities rather than completely relying on God; they amused themselves with human-created recreations and diversions rather than spending quality time with God.
Many commentators have noted, for example, that one of the by-products of our current pandemic is that we have been forced to alter our usual regime of restaurants and partying as well as tempering our American obsession with sports. This sports idol, in particular, has deep spiritual roots in today’s American culture: even when pro and college athletes perform before mostly empty stadiums, wear masks and keep their distance. Of course, the obsession with college football has roared back, with almost every conference now playing on weekends. The pandemic has done nothing, apparently, to clear the blurred line between greed and games meant to be played by kids.
Second, sexual immorality and the idolatry of spiritual fornication. “Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell.” (1 Corinthians 10:8). Paul’s reference here is to an incident in the Wilderness wandering experience that left a deep moral scar on the Jews. As a strategic initiative of a pagan king, Moab women entered the Hebrew camp and seduced them. They committed sexual sin. Of course, idols are never satisfied with the initial wrongdoing. In short order these same men began worshipping the god of the women (Baal of Peor), inciting God’s wrath on the leaders and offenders. (Numbers 25:1-9).
Paul’s plea to maintain sexual purity was addressed to new Gentile and Jewish believers in the rich, cosmopolitan and sensuous Greek city-state of Corinth. Corinth was known throughout the region for its sexual immorality and debauchery, a moral leftover, in part, from erotic temple rites practiced by hundreds of prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite (goddess of love) on the Acrocorinth two centuries earlier. By Paul’s time, the wild orgies of Aphrodite had morphed into veneration for the Roman goddess Venus (worshipped as mother of the imperial family and patroness of the city-state). Meanwhile, in the city-state, sexual immorality continued to abound.
Move the clock forward to 2020. In today’s America, the worst idolaters of Corinth would feel right at home. Images of sexual immorality are present on a scale unimaginable thirty or forty years ago. Our young people are engaged in a war against sexual idols on several fronts: on cellphone pornographic sites, on television and movie screens, in music, in the confusion of sexual roles, in a judicial war on traditional marriage, and now even the specter of robotic lovers. Technology and changing moral values have made the faces and practices of this sexual idolatry more attractive: the spiritual costs, however, remain the same.
The third form of idolatry mentioned by Paul: “nor let us tempt (test) Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents.” (1 Corinthians 10:9). The reference here is to the account found in Exodus 17:2-7. In that account, the Hebrews during their Wilderness experience were thirsty and challenged Moses’s leadership to the point they threatened to stone him. They taunted him, “Is the Lord with us or not?” Keep in mind, these are the same people God had led out of Egyptian bondage by defeating each of their pagan idols, parting the Red Sea so they could pass safely and destroyed their pursuers, fed them in the desert with fowl and angel’s food (manna), led them with a cloud by day and fire by night and physically dwelled with them in the tabernacle.
What is the lesson for today? Where is the idol for us to consider? God hates rebellion (He equates it to witchcraft) against God-granted authority. This idol of chaotic unrest and rebellion (over time) has learned to wrap itself with the cloak of a powerful deception: a mantle of darkness under which long-held grievances, perceived injustices, distorted notions of social justice, spiritual blindness and blatant anti-Christianism thrives. It manifests itself in blaming others, pursuing an entitlement-first mentality, and refusing to accept personal accountability. As I have said before, social justice is certainly a desirable goal for believers: but Christ must be at the center of such efforts. I maintain that the issues giving this idol so much power today—racial injustice, political intolerance for the view of others, wealth disparity, and climate change (to name a few)—will only be solved by the cross of Christ. We are in the shape we’re in because the church (Christ’s bride) has refused to act with Christ-like love, stand firm against unbiblical notions of morality and marriage, has closed its eyes to biblical notions of stewardship, and has bent over and grabbed its ankles in fear instead of exercising its authority against today’s idols.
It is that simple. The idol of rebellion, whether in the Jacobine Club during the French Revolution, or fueling the Bolsheviks, or inciting Marxist-inspired unrest or (for that matter), a high court ruling, or the chaos we are seeing in the streets of Portland, Oregon, are all affronts to God. My heart grieves at the chaos and unrest we are witnessing today and the total lack of respect for authority. We are being sold a bill of goods by an idol.
Paul also talks about a fourth form of idolatry—provided for us as an example to avoid in our daily walk—that of complaining (spiritual grousing and grumbling) about our present situations. “Nor complain, as some of them complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer.” (1 Corinthians 10:10). There is nothing that will block God’s work as quickly and as completely as bowing to the idol of complaint and grumbling. It is a set of spiritual brakes that will bring the most gifted Christian and the most power-packed church to a screeching halt. For that reason, Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi says the following: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
A truly thankful attitude, combined with a firm faith in God and the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, will break every spiritual stronghold and crush every idol in your life. Amen!
Finally, the notion of Thai spirit houses is, at root, a counterfeit concept (as are all the core tenets of other religions). It is a shadow hiding a deeper truth. It is only the cross: the perfect sacrifice of Christ and His prayer for the Holy Spirit to indwell all believers, that enables our spirits to be a special place inhabited by God Himself. We are to be walking tabernacles. In one sense, a breathing spirit house. My friends, our worship of idols, in any form, pollutes the wonderful creation we were intended to be.