The fact that we have a television show called American Idol is a bit of an indication that we don’t really know what an idol is – or what our attitude toward one ought to be.
I will confess, I am sufficiently behind the pop-culture curve that I have never actually watched American Idol, but because I do not live under a rock, I am familiar with what the show is about, and how it works. (Call it cultural osmosis.) As far as I can tell, it’s a harmless and entertaining show.
I do find the name interesting, however. American Idol. Who will be the next Idol? Lots of people want to be an idol – and millions more are eagerly waiting to find out whom they will idolize next.
But what really is an idol?
An idol is anything that we worship other than the one true and living God. Period.
We have to stop here for a moment, and think about what that means. Let’s start from the basic premise: in order to put something in the place of God, we have to recognize that God exists – and that He exists whether we recognize His existence or not. (Along similar lines, San Diego Gas & Electric supplies the power to my home, whether or not I give any thought whatsoever to the reason why I magically get light whenever I flip a switch.)
If we deny His existence, then we are going to become idolaters, no matter what. The human heart seeks to worship God, the God who made us in His image, and if we deny ourselves the correct orientation for our worship, then we will put something else in that place. In human lives, something always has to come first. The only question is, what? If we recognize His existence – for instance, by using our reason to understand the evidence that points to Him – then we are in the favorable position of being able, with His help, to put Him first in our lives.
Next, what does it mean that He is a living God? It means that putting Him first doesn’t mean just attaching a “High Importance” label to the idea of God. Rather, it means that we seek to enter into, sustain, and deepen a relationship with the most holy Trinity, the God who not only made us, but who also became incarnate to save us from our own alienation from Him.
If we remake God in our own image, we are engaged in idolatry just as much as if we deny Him and worship something else. If we translate “God is love” into “love is God,” then we are making an idol. If we re-cast Jesus into a figure who makes no inconvenient demands on our lives, if we try to make him something other than true God and true man, the crucified and Risen Lord, then we may think we are worshiping Christ but we are really worshipping an idol. Yes, orthodoxy is a matter of life and death.
Finally, what does it mean to worship? To worship an idol does not mean that we have a little statue of Baal in the backyard, to which we offer sacrifices. To worship, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “to honour or adore.” In other words, to put it first, to give it the best and largest share of our thoughts, time, and energy.
I would argue that the most common idols in our culture are money and consumer goods; sex; and work. All of these things are good when used rightly, but all become terrible when put first. You don’t have to be a philosopher to recognize this; just look at the families of workaholics, or the character and personal relationships of those who pursue sexual gratification for its own sake.
Or look in your own heart. In a culture so full of idols, all clamoring for our devotion, it would take a real saint to not struggle at least a little bit against the siren song of idolatry. For myself, I recognize the temptation to make my teaching into an idol, particularly since I work in an environment that encourages an unhealthy level of identification of oneself with one’s work, and a culture of workaholism. I have to resist the temptation to think that the work itself is of the highest importance in my life. Yes, it’s challenging, rewarding, exciting, and worthwhile – but only insofar as I recognize that it’s work God has given me to do, at this particular time in my life, using the gifts He has given me, and putting Him first.
There’s one last thing about idols. Idols demand sacrifice. We even use the word, if our particular idol is work and money: we make sacrifices to rise in our career, to get the promotion, to achieve what we think is success. Those sacrifices are usually of other people, aren’t they? Friends. Children. Spouses; consider how high our divorce rate is – how many marriages have been immolated on the altar of Success?
The idol of sex has its demands for sacrifice, too – oh, indeed it does, and they are terrible.
God the most holy Trinity also asks for sacrifice – but He does not call us to sacrifice someone else. He asks for nothing less than ourselves, holding nothing back. Yet, in the great mystery of redemption, when we say Yes to that sacrifice, that death of self, we learn that He has already made the sacrifice for us: our Father has provided, Himself, the one sacrifice that is all in all, never repeated, yet eternally present: His only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is both our great high priest and the sacrificial Lamb of God. When we participate in that sacrifice, when we die with Christ, we also rise with Christ – and in giving ourselves wholly to Him, we become, ever more completely, who we were always meant to be.
No idol can ever deliver on that promise.
What is idolatry? Seeking the gift and not the Giver; loving what He has made when He calls us to love and be loved by Him. May we turn from our idols, whatever form they may take, however appealing they may be, and instead seek the face of Reality, the one true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.