Think about a time when you woke up tired. Maybe you also woke up with a headache, or not feeling well in some other way. As you slowly sit up, you realize this is going to be a tough morning. Just thinking about starting the day is an effort.
In some way, that may have been the prophet Isaiah’s view as he made his way through the first oracle God had given him. It was going to be a rough slog, giving this word to the people, especially after envisioning such a beautiful future. It must have felt something like waking up tired, aching, with the heavy weight of reality to carry.
You Worship the Work of Your Hands
Imagine Isaiah’s vision filling him with joy and excitement, as he looked up at the temple mount.
But now imagine his gaze coming back down to look at his audience. Perhaps he had begun this saying with his arms upraised, his face radiant with the glory of what would come. Perhaps now his arms fell to his sides, and his glowing smile faded.
The people were not walking in the light at all.
For you have forsaken the ways of your people,
O house of Jacob.
Indeed they are full of diviners from the east
and of soothsayers like the Philistines,
and they clasp hands with foreigners.
Their land is filled with silver and gold,Isaiah 2:6-8 (NRSV)
and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their own fingers have made.
They were involved in fortune-telling and eastern religions, putting their trust in foreign alliances, in wealth, in the latest war technology, horses and chariots.
And finally, though they may have been scrupulous about their temple worship, they were also involved in the worship of idols, the work of their own hands.
Isaiah linked the sin of pride and idolatry closely together. The people exalted themselves and the work of their hands above God, symbolized by the gods they made with their own hands and then worshiped.
Consider that the material used, gold, silver and wood, came from the earth which God created. The images were inspired by things people saw around them in real life or from their own creative imagination, a gift from God. The skill and technology needed to smelt and carve the idols came from God Who created them. How could they imagine that these idols would have any power apart from God?
An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God.
An idol may be a perfectly good thing in its own right.
It can be an object, a person, an activity, a sport, a role you or I play, an institution or an organization, an idea, a pleasure, a hero, our family, our work, even our work for the Lord.
Pretty much anything can become a substitute for God.
Idolatry is not necessarily a denial of God or God’s existence.
Consider that these people were otherwise scrupulous about their temple worship. An idol might not completely replace God; it may be only a part of our lives.
People look to idols to find meaning in life and to control life.
For a believer, an idol is something that you and I discover has become central to our lives in the way that only God should be central. Truly, an idol is anything that holds such a controlling position in our lives, we find ourselves believing God alone would not be sufficient to make us happy. We become convinced we must have God and also our idol.
Very often an idol is something intangible
- A vow we made without being aware we made it, such as always needing to be right, or needing to have security, to make money, to have a spouse, to have children, to live in a certain place or with a certain lifestyle.
- An identity we need, such as being seen in a certain light—perhaps as successful, or popular, or influential, well-known, or attractive. Perhaps you or I want to be seen as a sage, the go-to person, or as the leader, or perhaps as the helpful one.
- A response from others, maybe being the center of attention wherever we are is our idol, or to be liked by all, or to be desired by a certain person, or someones. Perhaps it is to be respected and admired, or to be feared and revered.
- An inner experience we must have, such as rapture in a worship experience, or transcendence during prayer, perhaps intellectual delight, or a sense of satisfaction and joy in work, and without those experiences whatever it is no longer suits.
Certainly the list could go on, but these serve as starting thoughts to inspire deeper reflection.
Fundamental Problem of Sin
The fundamental problem behind sin is idolatry, and Self as the idol is at the top of the list.
When the idol of Self is in play, you and I are revealing that our focus has shifted away from God, and now it is more important, more satisfying, more rewarding, more trustworthy—we think—to look to the Self than to look to God.
Even as I type these words, I can hear within me a whole cluster of questions.
Fundamental Need to Know the Self
What about those who have experienced trauma? Does this whole discussion of sin and selfishness take that into account?
What about those who do not realize they are working with coping mechanisms they may very well have needed at the time to survive, but now may shed for a better way of living?
How far is this discussion going to go with the Self in focus? The pendulum can swing in the other direction, towards a legalistic subduing of the Self, self-denigration, self-effacing, self-immolation.
And how can we recognize idolatry as opposed to simply loving something, or enjoying it a lot, or thinking about something a lot? What about passion for our art or calling? What about all the good qualities connected with drive and ambition?
So let me make some disclaimers.
For those who feel pummeled by the idols-and-sin sermons (and I have certainly been there, to the point where I eschewed the entire topic for the longest while), it may be time to do some deep personal exploration with the help of a Christian counselor or spiritual director (I know good people in both professions, just send me a note) to sort it all out. The Bible speaks quite a lot on idols, so it is a topic we must tackle, but there are many factors to take into consideration.
Knowing the Self is probably, collectively, one of the deepest needs in the Body of Christ. Many of us bumble through life very unselfaware, and that is when we are the most vulnerable to the spiritual and emotional pitfalls the Bible speaks of. This discussion of idolatry, and particularly the worship of the Self, is not a call to efface the Self but rather to know the Self profoundly well.
Three surprising, and very famous Christian leaders speak of this.
Augustine of Hippo: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.”
Thomas à Kempis: “a humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning.”
John Calvin: “Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
The more and better you and I know ourselves, the more and better we will understand idolatry, and the difference between Self-care and selfishness, between Self-aggrandizement and a healthy sense of Self, between Self-effacement and healthy humility.
I could go on!
But I hope the point is clear. To know the Self is to open the way to spiritual maturity.