The New Oxford American Dictionary defines idolatry as “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.” In a biblical sense, idolatry is the worship of anything or anyone other than God.
Worship needs not be confined to “primitive” cultic practices and can have many seemingly innocuous manifestations in contemporary society. Religion, then, in the spirit of Paul Tillich, becomes the habitual institutionalization of one person’s worship, centered on a person’s ultimate concern, and that concern is what determines the orientation of everything else. All human beings are built to worship; it just depends what it is that we bow down to. In this sense, all human beings are religious, whether the ultimate concern is Christ, professional sports, or fame, for example.
Because of idolatry, our humanity is directed to worshipping something that cannot give us what we truly need. As a result, our minds, bodies, and spirits are compromised and subsequently decay. Not dismissing the myriad of other factors at play, this also sheds light on why so many deleterious conditions—such a mental illness, obesity, heart disease, and school violence—are on the rise. To dismiss the effects of idolatry and sin and their potential for destruction would be to dismiss a root cause of a society’s ills.
For example, fear in its most diabolical form manifests as anxiety because for those who are anxious, no discernible focus of their worry exists. Anxiety, then, is an unassigned fear of the future and all that is unknown. Depression, on the other hand, is melancholy derived from the past. In both cases, the person cannot change what will be or what has already happened. Ultimately, in the perpetual human pursuit for endless certainty, anxiety boils down to another perverse form of idolatry and the unnatural desire to manipulate what cannot be controlled. From this lens, it becomes obvious that the antithesis of anxiety is peace or the ability to enjoy internal silence about the past, the present, and the future. This is why the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:6–6 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (italics mine). Be anxious for nothing, then, in the peace and certainty of God that acts against the uncertainties of life.
We live in a world dominated by power struggles, and politics is the means to negotiate power between groups. Economic matters that tend to displace others at the expense of some fundamentally drive this praxis. In these very messy processes, it really is no wonder why idolatry (i.e., addiction) has begun to flourish—in a system designed to enslave many, the masses begin to resort to the most accessible outlets and the need to fulfill their desires. Yet what they fail to realize is that the things they are addicted to and idolize can at best only produce fleeting returns.
Especially in the modern Western world, the way that our society is structured has certainly contributed to the level of stress that many experience on a daily basis. We have thus earned so much wealth for ourselves, but I wonder at what cost? This stress, resulting from the pursuit of idolatrous ends, tends to push large numbers of people to turn to other idols to assuage the pain of the initial idolatry. This may mean an addictive substance but can also entail an addictive practice. Someone who turns to daily heroin to “numb the pain” and a man who seeks power, the ideal body image, or feminine submission may turn to pornography. Although the society may ascribe different penalties for consumption, both carry the same spiritual penalty. Further, in both instances, there is always someone else benefitting from the idolatrous consumers, and these perpetrators ironically are the ones often living lives that the original idolatry upholds as the ideal.
A pedagogy of oppression mandates that much work is required to survive, and so more work leads to more stress, more idols, more addiction, and, finally, more stress, fueling the perverse cycle. Those with knowledge and awareness of this pedagogy guard it fiercely because this praxis is what maintains the order in which we all dwell. Those that dare to challenge the praxis are invariably ostracized, out of their consideration for the oppressed, because of the motivation of love. Knowledge without love equals destruction, and knowledge with love equals liberation. This is exactly what Christ meant when in John 8:31–32, He said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
In short, want begets temptation and temptation begets idolatry. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NASB) says that “[God] has set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” God set forever in our hearts, so why must we pursue temporary things in order to quench our timeless spiritual thirst?
In modern America, I would dare say that the idols of wealth and success command the most attention while using comparison as the subliminal tool to keep followers within the cult. Worship of success can become so addictive that family, health, relationships, spirituality—and even God—must find a way to fit in to the perverse paradigm where the self reigns supreme.
It is only those brave countercultural souls who dare to challenge our perceptions of reality and invite us to all take a glance at a new prophetic imagination that inverts our perception of reality. Only those strong enough to resist such pervasive idolatries will stand as models and help guide us out from bondage and into a new way of thinking and thus a new life.
In the book of Exodus, when Moses asked Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” he was essentially asking Pharaoh to relinquish himself and the entire Egyptian kingdom from the oppressive system of idolatry that maintained the Egyptian status quo. If Pharaoh voluntarily let the Israelites go, he would have removed the economic foundation on which society was built upon—free slave labor. The collapse of the Egyptian world would consequently ensue. Moses may have said, “Let me people go!” but what Pharaoh heard was, “Abandon everything you and all of Egypt know about how the world works. Turn around 180 degrees and no longer walk in the path of lies but walk in the path of truth.” Things didn’t end well for the Egyptians, and it took a bold, God-fearing mediator (Moses) in order to lead the people along the path toward liberation. Moses had once been an Egyptian himself, but he fled from the evil empire once he came to terms with who he really was—a Hebrew and a child formed in the image of God and not an Egyptian. Moses could not have freed Israel had he remained in the midst of Egyptian society because that would have meant an oppressor from an oppressive society would have catalyzed a false liberation only to now serve Moses. In his separation from Egypt, he relinquished his Egyptian identity only to come back and spread the truth as a messenger of God. The powerful message that Moses reveals to us today is that the path toward the light first involves a complete separation from the world of idolatry so that God may rebuild our true identity. Behavior results from identity, and once we have come to the realization of who we truly are, then we will have the steadfast boldness to abandon Egypt, gird up our loins, and begin to fight against the oppressive pedagogy, not so that we may be boastful in ourselves but so that we may worship the One and nurture the eternity in our hearts that may only find peace in Christ.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal