Mental or Metal (part 1)
by Jonathan Haefs
A few years ago, I found myself standing atop the exterior wall of the Shaniwar Wada in downtown Pune, India. My mind was swirling from the experience of being immersed in an Eastern culture for the first time. Life here was so different…so foreign. The overcrowded streets were drowning in fast-paced traffic, while the city itself moved to the much slower rhythm typical of Indian life. It was a beautiful moment and a beautiful scene.
Then something caught my eye…
Along one sidewalk, I noticed a long line of people waiting to purchase various items before entering a particular building.
Curiosity overtook me, and I asked my host why these people were waiting. He responded very non-chalantly, “They are purchasing gifts on their way into the temple. There they will present their offerings before statues of various Hindu gods.”
I had never before come face-to-face with full-blown idol worship. The scene, which was so “normal” to my host, was incredibly foreign to me.
Idolatry like this doesn’t exist within the western world in which I live. I mean…I have read about this kind of idol worship. It is all over the pages of the Bible. Scripture condemns idolatry again and again. For crying out loud, the first two of the ten commandments concern idolatry:
1. You shall have no other gods before me (Ex. 20:3).
2. You shall not make for yourself any carved image (Ex. 20:4a).
The prophets, particularly, condemn idolatry. The book of Hosea is a prime example:
Hosea 4:12, My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore.
Hosea 11:2, The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.
Hosea’s own marriage to a prostitute serves as a picture of how God’s people unfaithfully went after other gods, and God’s estimation of this practice isn’t pretty…he calls it “whoredom.”
God pictures his relationship with his people as a marriage, thus, when his people are unfaithful they are committing flagrant adultery. They are selling themselves to other gods, hoping for benefits and blessings from them, just like a prostitute sells her body to lovers for money.
Thankfully…idolatry like this is not a problem for Christians in the United States. Western culture has avoided the travesty of bowing down to carved images, so I imagine it will be ok for us to simply skip over prophetic books like Hosea. After all, it doesn’t really apply to us does it? While we are at it…we can just skip over the first two of the ten commandments…you know…since we do not struggle with those.
Now one might object and say, “No. We do struggle with idolatry, just in a different form.” We’ve all heard sermons about how anything we place before God is an idol. If you value your house, sports, relationships, etc. more than God, then that is idolatry.
While there is some truth to that type of thinking…at the end of the day, what is being described is not really idolatry. Valuing possessions or people more than God is materialism and misplaced priorities, but it is not the kind of idolatry we see in the Bible.
Idolatry, in the literal sense, is worshipping something in place of the one true God. In other words…you pray to this thing, you offer sacrifices (of any type) to this thing, and you give all the honor and glory due God to this thing…THAT is idolatry!
So once again, we are left thinking that we do not struggle with this in our American context. We are not like the people I saw in downtown Pune, lining up to offer our sacrifices to a statue. That is foreign to us…but is it really? Surely, we are not guilty of this kind of blatant idolatry…or are we?
I’m afraid that we are guiltier than we realize.
We may not form gods for ourselves out of wood and metal, but all too often we are guilty of making a mental god to meet our own religious desires.
We begin by gathering materials and, all too often, the Bible is the very block of wood we use to fashion our idols from. We cut out what we don’t like and piece together what we do. We take things we’ve been told by our parents or popular preachers, mix in a few randomly selected scriptures, and top it off with a bit of our own logic. We begin to form our own idea of who God/Jesus is and what he must be like.
Some form a god and a Jesus that are only love. This Jesus spends his days patting children on the head and helping old ladies across the street.
Some form a god and a Jesus that are only angry. This Jesus is constantly flipping over tables and declaring, “Woe to you…”
Then there is the hippie Jesus…the liberal Jesus…the conservative Jesus…the middle class Jesus…
And the list goes on and on and on…
We are so guilty of forming and fashioning our own god. Sadly, we usually end up fashioning a god who is just like us and cares about the things that we care about. Then we pray to this god, we sing to this god, and we bow down to this god in hopes of getting what we want from this god.
We (myself included) quickly find ourselves standing in line with the Hindu worshippers I saw in India. Each Sunday we head to a place of worship to offer praises/services/gifts to a god we have created in hopes of getting what we want. Our gods are mental instead of metal, but they are just as false as any other idol.
What is the cure to this incredible infection of mental idolatry? Because the good news is…there is a cure.