When one thinks about the topic of idolatry it is easy to imagine primitive people groups worshiping and showing their devotion to false deities carved out of stone or wood. While there may be some truth to this general characterization of idolatry, I believe we need to be on guard from such an over simplification of the subject. A.W. Tozer once stated,
“Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it.”
Furthermore, a harmless generalization can actually guard us from the being impacted by the first commandment within our twentieth-first-century American culture. Keep in mind that idolatry, “does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it, but it is primarily a matter of the heart, which fixes its gaze upon other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devil. It neither cares for God nor expects good things from him sufficiently to trust that he wants to help, nor does it believe that whatever good it encounters comes from God.” Tozer states that the essence of idolatry is, “the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place.” In other words, the idea and subject of idolatry is much broader than worshiping simple wood carvings. Rather, idolatry, “is whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security.” These previous definitions of idolatry cut across all cultures and times periods.
While idolatry is the act of worshiping and showing devotion to something other than God, the reason why idolatry is not necessary connected solely to an erected image is that the definition of god is much broader than what may be typically assumed. Martin Luther famously defines a god in his Large Catechism as, “that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.” It is obvious from Luther’s definition that almost anything can function as an alternate god. In other words, “to have a god is to have something in which the heart trusts completely.”
As we shift to our current context, how might our culture indulge the sinful nature, idolatrously speaking? In G. K. Beale’s book, “We Become What We Worship,” he shares that in our contemporary life that the human self has become its own idolatrous creator, healer, and sustainer. This makes sense in light of all the narcissism exemplified in the American media venues. However, what about the church today? Surely the church must be different! David Wells commenting on the church today says,
“Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self. This is a form of corruption far more profound than the list of infractions that typically pop into our minds when we hear the word “sin.” We are trying to hold at bay the gnats of small sins while swallowing the camel of self. It is idolatry as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament. That this devotion to the self seems not to be like that older devotion to a pagan god blinds the Church to its own unfaithfulness. The end result, however, is no less devastating, because the self is no less demanding. The contemporary Church is whoring after this god as assiduously as the Israelites in their darker days. It is baptizing as faith the pride that leads us to think much about ourselves and much of ourselves.”
Eugene Petterson expounds further upon David Well’s quote stating,
“We are saved from a way of life in which there was no resurrection. And we’re being saved from ourselves. One way to define spiritual life is getting so tired and fed up with yourself you go on to something better, which is following Jesus.
But the minute we start advertising the faith in terms of benefits, we’re just exacerbating the self problem. “With Christ, you’re better, stronger, more likeable, you enjoy some ecstasy.” But it’s just more self. Instead, we want to get people bored with themselves so they can start looking at Jesus.
We’ve all met a certain type of spiritual person. She’s a wonderful person. She loves the Lord. She prays and read the Bible all the time. But all she thinks about is herself. She’s not a selfish person. But she’s always at the center of everything she’s doing. “How can I witness better? How can I do this better? How can I take care of this person’s problem better?” It’s me, me, me disguised in a way that is difficult to see because her spiritual talk disarms us.”
Why the focus with self though? According to Michael Horton, “We always gravitate back towards ourselves: ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.’ We wander back towards self-confidence just as easily as into more obvious sins. ” Gerhard Forde parallels our love of self to a drug addict and his next fix. “As sinners we are like addicts—addicted to ourselves and our own projects. ” The blunt reality is that, “In every generation, our natural tendency is to put the focus back on ourselves—our inner life, piety, community and actions… ” Thus we are addicted to the idol of self and enhancing our worth, self-esteem, and so forth. The old Adam wants to be a king who is crowned with that which only God is truly worthy of.
The catch 22 of the idolatry of self is this, it does not sustain or work. If self is the source of meaning in life, how does one cope and survive with the pressures of carrying this autonomous ideology? As self attempts to be god, how well can he carry the pressures of life? How well can self define his own meaning and efficiently work at actualizing that meaning? How does self properly grant comfort and define his own narrative with the insurmountable weight and aspiration of being god? It is clear that mankind is inherently not designed this way. Like the idols of the Old Testament who have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see; and ears, but do not hear, the idol of self is empty, incomplete, powerless, and futile. There is a need for the sacred, a need for something outside of the idol of self; there is a need for self to be acted upon so that it might be put down (i.e., crucified, killed, etc…)
As we consider the topic of Idolatry, the scriptures are no stranger to this topic. More specifically, there are countless stories within the Old Testament regarding the idols of Baal, Molech, and so forth. However, the climatic story of idolatry in the Old Testament scriptures is most definitely the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. In this story the people of Israel were wanting to, “indulge their corrupt, sinful nature rather than exercise the restraints of a covenant people.” Furthermore, what is rather ironic in the golden calf story of Exodus 32 is that,
“At every key point the people’s building project contrasts with the tabernacle that God has just announced. This gives to the account a heavy ironic cast. (1) The people seek to create what God has already provided; (2) they, rather than God, take the initiative; (3) offerings are demanded rather than willingly presented; (4) the elaborate preparations are missing altogether; (5) the painstaking length of time needed for building becomes an overnight rush job; (6) the careful provision for guarding the presence of the Holy One turns into an open-air object of immediate accessibility; (7) the invisible, intangible God becomes a visible, tangible image; and (8) the personal, active God becomes an impersonal object that cannot see or speak or act. The ironic effect is that the people forfeit the very divine presence they had hoped to bind more closely to themselves.”
The ironic nature of the golden calf story is no different than today. In the midst of America’s narcissism (i.e. self idolatry) the cross stands. We attempt to create unique individualities that contain worth; God’s Gospel says that we have been chosen and set a part as a royal priesthood by the worthy blood of Christ. (See 1 Peter 2:9) We attempt to climb the spiritual ladder to actualize our moral, mystical, and intellectual needs; God comes down to us in the means of grace marking us with His name, feeding us the forgiveness of sins, and pronouncing that all is finished. We mistakenly attempt to love to get love; God’s Gospel Word speaks to us that we get to love because He first loved us. (See 1 John 4:19) We attempt to construct a god into our own image so that we might live; we are met with the cross that crucifies our old Nature so that we might live by faith in the Son of God. (See Galatians 2:19-20) We try to establish the perfect image through the idolatrization of self; God presents to us the perfect icon and image, Jesus the Christ—the one we are clothed in.
The search is over, behold and look upon Christ, He is your deliverance, He is your sustainer and He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (See John 1:29, 3:14-16) In Christ, the self finds its end, for Christ is not a means to another end but the end. A good end indeed.
 A.W. Tozer. Knowledge of the Holy. Full-Proof Ministires, http://www.full-proof.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Tozer-Knowledge-Of-The-Holy-b.pdf (Accessed December 29, 2012), 5.
 Martin Luther, The Large Catechism: The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Fortress Press, 2000), 386.
 Tozer, 5.
 G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology Of Idolatry (IVP Academic, 2008), 17.
 Ibid, 387
 Beale, 293.
 David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans, 1998), 203.
 Eugene Peterson, Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons (Christianity Today, March 2005), 45.
 Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Baker Books, 2008), 120.
 Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1997), 94.
 Horton, 122.
 Note Psalm 135:15-18
 Andrew E. Steinmann, ed. Called To Be God’s People: An Introduction To The Old Testament (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), 144.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (John Knox Press, 1991), 281.
HT: Professor Tom Egger of Concordia Seminary St. Louis for several of the bibliography sources.