“Do we still have idols today?”
A couple of options jumped to mind before I answered. First I thought of the host of idol factories I saw in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I spoke at a pastors’ conference a couple of years ago. Our host pastor drove us past dozens of open-front shops where blocks of wood were being carved, inlaid with gold or silver, and painted. Next I thought of John Calvin’s observation that, “Man’s nature is a perpetual idol factory.”
I knew that my first reflection didn’t speak to my friend’s real question. He was asking whether Old Testament types of idolatry are still to be found in our local settings. I would have to say no to that question, at least in the sense of having ornate, carved, inlaid, and painted chunks of wood—Kathmandu idols—in our neighborhood. There are certainly some shrines to be found around us but they aren’t common.
So I offered Calvin’s point as a response. Our hearts are centers of false worship—happy hosts to idolatry.
Let me explain. The critical issue here is what the Bible treats as the basis for idolatry. If we only think of idols as Kathmandu objects—and their ancient precursors—we’ve missed the underlying concern. And that concern is inward rather than outward: idols dwell in the heart as desires that displace God from our affective gaze.
Paul, for instance, treated coveting as idolatry in Colossians 3:5—“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” In effect Paul confronts anything and everything that gets in the way of “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14).
Here’s the point: we were made to live with a single focal point in life. To seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. To love him above everything else, and to love others in the context of this love for God. So that “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life” (John 6:40).
To answer my friend’s question, then, we need to ask, “Who or what do I love?” Or, to be more concrete, “Where does my thinking go whenever it’s free from some immediate activity?” That exposes the focus of our heart: what we worship.
If, for instance, a single man turns to thinking about his fiancé, does he think about her as a gift from God, or as God’s replacement? Or if we have a boat, house, garden, video center, bank account—the list is endless—do we treat some aspect of the creation as our source of security and satisfaction? Or is God our ultimate delight?
So the question of who or what we enjoy most in life answers the question about idols. Whatever comes to mind as our ultimate source of satisfaction—even if it boils down to our ambitions to be secure and successful (hence to be “lovers of self”)—that is our idol.
What about the Kathmandu objects, then? Aren’t they idols? Yes, of course, but they only objectify desires: so that a so-called “god” in Nepal is a genie-like-object to be manipulated—to be given a certain level of devotion in exchange for a presumed potential for success, security, standing, stuff, or even some obscene enjoyments.
Yet when we in the Western world ignore the religious iteration of physical idols it hardly proves that we lack a vast number of God-displacing-devotions. It only means that we haven’t inserted a mediating object between what serves as the ultimate gaze of all idolatry: selfish desires.
Let me wrap up with a reminder of John’s summary of true—love-based—spirituality in 1 John 4:16, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
But we cannot stop here. In 5:21—the last verse of the letter—John offers a final call.
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”