American Idols

When God pronounced the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the first two dealt with the worship of false gods (Exodus 20:2-5). This em­phasis must have come from foresight, because idolatry became one of the most persistent evils among the Israelites. God’s prophets de­voted many words to this particular problem. Isaiah, for instance, de­scribed the pa­thetic condition of a man who cuts down a tree, uses half the wood for a fire to warm himself and cook his food, and then fashions the other half into an idol and worships it (44:15-17). And Jeremiah ridiculed those “Who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth’ ” (2:27).

21st-century Americans may laugh as we read such things and picture folks praying for salvation to statues made of wood, stone, or metal. We tell our­selves that only the most backward and primitive cultures still do that sort of thing.

But think again. Modern, sophisticated man still has his idols. They don’t take the form of graven images, of course. But they’re made of rather inferior stuff nonetheless.

There are still folks who worship trees and rocks; they just don’t bother to fashion them into anything. Some environmentalists have elevated the earth to god status; a few have even bought into east­ern religions which literally revere the earth as a goddess. Some animal rights activists “worship” animals by revering them above human life. Man was created to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26f), and with that dominion comes responsibility. Respect for our Creator should make us prize and appreciate His creation, not abuse it. But our main concern isn’t the earth or its animals; it’s our rela­tionship to God. Our foremost duty in life is to reverence and obey Him (Ecclesi­astes 12:13). And among His creatures, our first concern must be for those made in His image—our fellow man. Jesus did not say that the great­est commandment was “love your pet as yourself” or “love your planet as yourself” (cf. Matthew 22:37f).

Some idols are flesh and blood. Stars of music, movies, TV and sports have long been called “idols”—a description more truthful than we realize. One satirist called these people “America’s royalty” be­cause of the way we revere them. Kids’ bedroom walls are covered with their pictures. They’re often named as spokesmen for various social or political causes, not because of their expertise on the issues, but because of their popular appeal. The reactions they elicit at public appearances would make a Roman emperor jealous. These idols are valued because of what they provide: entertainment. Our worship of them is just a symptom of our overemphasis on it.

It is dangerous to idolize other people for any reason. The heathen world of Paul’s day had spiraled into depravity because it “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Ro­mans 1:25). We worship what we want to become. How many of your sports or movie heroes are disciples of Christ? How many are char­acterized by immo­rality? If their talent and fame were taken away, would you still want to be like them? But there is also danger in idolizing even godly peo­ple (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:4-5; 4:6). Preachers or elders or parents may be worthy of honor and imitation, but they are not perfect. It’s hazard­ous to follow their lead without comparing it to God’s revealed stand­ard. To do so puts them in the place of God.

Sometimes people worship idols of paper and plastic, building their lives around the gods of wealth. These gods are revered because they can get us more idols: idols of wood and brick (houses), of steel and fiberglass (cars and boats), of fine fabric (clothes), of wire and buttons (electronic gadgets). Is it any wonder men call it the “al­mighty dollar”? People often make wealth the sole measure of the quality of life. We judge the success of our jobs and even our mar­riages by how much we have. Parents use material things as a substi­tute for parenting, and so children learn to value things more than people (or God). Even among children of God, some exhibit a kind of “respectable worldliness”: they’ll do anything for their Lord and their brethren—just as long as it doesn’t cut into their enjoyment of material things.

But God warns that these material things do not satisfy. “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; Nor he who loves abun­dance, with increase” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Paul called greed idolatry and the covetous man an idolater (Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:5). Would that we had the same view! Jesus said that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). We must look instead to what is spiritual and eternal.

There are other idols of every shape and size. In the parable of the great supper in Luke 14, those who were forbidden to taste the meal did not commit any overt act of sin. They were lost over a piece of ground, five yoke of oxen, and a new wife. How about us? Are we so involved in wholesome activities that we have no time or enthusiasm left for God?

Idolatry is not dead. Nor is it limited to primitive cultures in far off lands. It’s alive and well in our own “advanced” society. The gods may be different—they may not even be called gods—but men wor­ship them just the same. Our idols—our gods—are whatever we allow to take control of our motives, our decisions, and our actions. Make sure your only god is the true and living God.

“Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).