Built any gods lately?
I’ll admit it’s an unusual question. “Built any gods?” This is the 21st century, after all. We have airplanes and spaceships and computers that can connect the entire world at the push of a button! We aren’t primitive cave dwellers prostrating ourselves before figurines and statues; why would we waste time constructing useless idols for ourselves?
God remarks on the futility of idols through the prophet Isaiah, asking,
To whom will you liken Me, and make Me equal
And compare Me, that we should be alike?
They lavish gold out of the bag,
And weigh silver on the scales;
They hire a goldsmith, and he makes it a god;
They prostrate themselves, yes, they worship.
They carry it on the shoulder, they carry it
And set it in its place, and it stands;
From its place it shall not move.
Though one cries out to it, yet it cannot answer
Nor save him out of his trouble.
Looking at a description like that, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have ever put any faith in an idol—something so obviously crafted by human hands, so totally immobile and lifeless. The idea that anyone could look to a statue for deliverance from life’s hardships is almost laughable. Thankfully, we live in a more sophisticated age—one in which we know better than to worship something fashioned by the hands of another human being.
It’s true that civilization has largely moved beyond shaping idols out of wood and stone, but that hasn’t stopped us from finding things to worship. Some three thousand years ago, Israel fashioned a golden calf and bowed down to it. Today, we only invest in gold and bow down to it. It was a problem for Israel all those millennia ago and it is still a problem for us today. Our idols have changed; our idolatry has not.
Sometimes we can convince ourselves that just because we don’t prostrate ourselves before any household idols, we don’t have a problem with idolatry. But idol worship isn’t limited to carved figurines and molded statues. An idol is anything we come to value more than the God who created us—anything that becomes such a high priority to us that, in our mind and in our actions, it takes precedence over our Creator. Money is probably the most popular example, but it’s not always about just that. It’s certainly a big idol in a society so obsessed with the profit margins and bottom lines that businesses routinely employ deceit and outright lies in order to bleed the wallets of their unsuspecting customers, but it’s just as certainly not the only idol.
There is no end to the number of things a human being might elevate above God in terms of importance. We can make shrines to gods of money, gods of technology, gods of pleasure—even gods of family and friends! It can’t be stressed enough: Any time we place anything in a higher position than God, we have followed in the footsteps of our ancient forerunners. We have lavished gold out of the bag, we have weighed silver on the scales, and we have fashioned for ourselves a god.
We might do it out of fear—believing that God will fail to provide what we need and seeking to take matters into our own hands, only to find that a bank account isn’t enough to deliver us from the storms and tempests of life. We might do it out of desire—believing that God has forbidden us from life’s greatest pleasures, only to find ourselves enslaved to the lusts from which He sought to protect us. We might even do it out of boredom—believing nothing truly worthwhile exists on a straight and narrow path, only to find ourselves lost and confused on a broad and twisted one.
Whatever the cause, whatever the object, idolatry is anything but extinct. If anything, it thrives today in more varieties and forms than ever before. The pantheon of modern society’s gods is filled beyond measure with choices for the would-be devotee…but in the end, every choice ends in the same futility expressed all those years ago in Isaiah 46:5-7. These gods are worthless—you must fashion them, you must carry them, and you must find out the hard way how entirely useless they are when push comes to shove.
But there’s an alternative.
Three steps back to God
When God told Jacob to go up to Bethel, Jacob in turn told his family, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone” (Genesis 35:2-3). Rather than continue in service to false gods, we can follow Jacob’s example in seeking the one true God by following these three steps:
1. Putting away our foreign gods
This first step requires admitting that we have foreign gods—and if you’re an imperfect being like everyone else on the face of this planet, then at some point, you’ve put something in your life before the one true God. When (not “if”) this happens, we must first identify what we’ve placed above our Creator and then return it to its proper place. With some idols (anything God condemns as sin), this means completely obliterating any trace of it in our lives. With other ones, such as a hobby that’s grown to consume much of our time, it means reevaluating, scaling back, and making sure it doesn’t spill over into the time we should be spending with God.
2. Purifying ourselves
The Hebrew word used here for “purify yourselves” is taher, and it can imply cleansing in physical, ceremonial, and moral senses. After we identify our idols and begin to remove ourselves from them, our next step must be purification—that is, repentance. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence” (Ephesians 1:7-8). As with any transgression, we must be quick to seek forgiveness and redirection.
3. Change our garments
We know that “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7), so the physical wardrobe change that Jacob was talking about isn’t going to cut it. God wants to see a change that goes deeper than our physical appearance—He’s looking for a change that reaches down to the very core of who we are as individuals. Such an inward change will inevitably make its way to the outside, but an outward change isn’t often one that will work its way in. If we want to “change our garments” in a spiritual sense, we have to be looking to God to help us improve the very substance of our being.
One final question
There are plenty of false gods out there, and they often manage to look appealing from our limited vantage point. But they don’t lead us anywhere—if anything, we have to lead them. We have to prop them up and carry them and pour so much of our precious time and energy into making them what we want them to be that we can forget we’re hauling around time-sucking hunks of nothing. The true God is something different entirely. He precedes the passage in Isaiah 46:5-7 by saying this:
Listen to Me, O house of Jacob,
And all the remnant of the house of Israel,
Who have been upheld by Me from birth,
Who have been carried from the womb:
Even to your old age, I am He,
And even to gray hairs I will carry you!
I have made, and I will bear;
Even I will carry, and will deliver you.
We could say so much about idolatry. We’ve only just scratched the surface here today, and there’s an incredible depth to the topic. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it comes down to one question. One simple question that determines whether we spend our lives pursuing worthless idols or an ever-deepening relationship with the God who created us:
Do you want a god which must be carried…or a God who can carry you?
Until next time,