For much of the Hebrew Scriptures (what many Christians call the Old Testament) idolatry was the bane of Israel’s existence with God.
As a product of the church, I always wondered how a people who experienced the power of God in the Exodus, the establishment of their nation, and through the thunderous preaching of the prophets could be so hornswoggled by idols, manmade god-ish statues.
Sadly, I recently discovered how, because idolatry is more deceptive than shrines and figurines; it’s a way of manufactured thinking enshrined in the consciousness. Moreover, I’m sad to report idolatry is alive and well and perhaps even on the rise.
In its simplest form, idolatry is ascribing to something other than God the adoration and worshipful attention that is due only to God. Given that definition, I propose that idolatry is alive and kicking in the form of formulaic religiosity. Formulaic religiosity is the misguided and malformed theology that assumes it has God all figured out. A+B=C. It is the false assumption that if we do A and then B, then God will automatically do C.
This flies in the face of Scripture. We do well to remember Moses’ encounter with the living God on the wilderness-shaded side of a mountain. Moses wanted to contain the God-ness of God in a name, an Ancient Near East way of exerting some form of control or predictability, and God flat our refused. Rather than give Moses a name, God gave him a statement of existence and the resolute call to liberate Israel (Exodus 3).
I’m afraid God has not changed. God is still, well, God and as such capricious and wildly free to do as a sovereign God desires. God is not obligated to perform in any way other than how God wills best.
Many well-meaning people have been crushed by this false idol, believing perhaps either God doesn’t love them or they simply lack faith, when we simply can’t know the mind of God. Neither can we predict God, nor can we control God’s actions. If we could, then God would be far too predictable, far too much like us, far too small to be God.
We do well to remember God exists and as a result of God’s existence all opportunities and possibilities are in anthropomorphic arm’s length of our living God. As believers we hold on to God not through the porous and skewed hands of attempted predictability but rather through the sure hands of faith.
When it comes to God’s conduct in the world, there is much we do not know and cannot know. Nonetheless, our faith in God’s character anchors us solidly to the history of God’s abiding love and safekeeping of God’s creation.
In short, there is much we do not know, but what we can know is that God is reliable and that will have to be enough for us.
“Forced familiar religious expressions are the misguided although well-meaning attempts of some believers to rubber stamp their unique, personal experience of God onto everyone else.”
There is another nuanced way in which idolatry has reemerged. It comes to us anew in the realm of forced familiar religious expressions. Forced familiar religious expressions are the misguided although well-meaning attempts of some believers to rubber stamp their unique, personal experience of God onto everyone else.
Often believers make the mistake of passing off their unique experience as normative. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is the creator and parenting God of everyone. And our sovereign God deals with each of us in a unique manner that evidences God’s unique and thorough understanding of us all.
As a father of two remarkable children, I have a unique relationship with both my children, and I deal with each of them as individuals. I am assured our heavenly parent skillfully interacts with us the same way. If I can know the specific motivations and desires of my children, surely God knows the same for God’s children.
“Attempting to reduce the God of the universe to our limited experience is tantamount to believing a shelf-sized figurine is indeed the creator of the cosmos.”
The Bible is an encyclopedia of God’s resourcefulness and skill in dealing with humanity in individualized and unique ways. God communicated and related to Abraham differently than David; God’s relationship and dealings with Deborah were different than God’s dealings with Mary. Attempting to reduce the God of the universe to our limited experience is tantamount to believing a shelf-sized figurine is indeed the creator of the cosmos.
We must remind each other that God deals differently with each of us according to God’s knowledge of each of us. Moreover, we must encourage each other to come to know God fully through the means available to us — prayer, Bible reading, worship, meditation, journaling — without insisting others grasp God in the same ways we do.
True discipleship insists we impart what we know to others, but as we faithfully carry that mantle, we should embrace language like, “God as I’ve experienced God” rather than lifting our experience as the norm. We trust that the same God who creatively broke through the fog of our inquiry and unbelief will faithfully do the same for others.
Idolatry is alive and as popular as ever today, but what hasn’t changed is its futility. Idolatry is just as futile today as it ever has been — perhaps even more so because I am convinced God is alive and well and doing yet-to-be-recorded miracles.
If you are devoting your allegiance to formulaic religiosity or forced familiarity, today is a good day to lay down those idols where they belong and pick up Christ’s Cross again and follow him with renewed mission and passion.
Napoleon Harris serves as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. He is a graduate of Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School, an avid reader, writer, Omega Man, and devoted husband and father.