“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image . . . : Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6, KJV).
n the dairy aisle of our local supermarket I was concentrating on finding just the right yogurt for my pregnant wife. “Baal, hear us!” spun around to see hands raised heavenward in frantic mock-idolatry. Zoe, my 2-year-old daughter and shopping pal, must have gotten bored for a minute.
“Hear us, O Baaaaaaaaaal!” she ululated, pulling a face like the Canaanite storm god.
Shoppers gave us strange looks. “We read her the Elijah story,” I explained sheepishly, but their faces stayed blank. They probably wondered if Elijah was in the next Harry Potter movie.
“So, did Baal hear their prayers?” I asked.
“’Cause his ears are made of wood.”
A month later in a Vietnamese restaurant, Zoe’s voice rang with gong-like clarity across the room. “Look, Daddy, an idol.”
I nearly choked on my tofu. She pointed to a golden Buddha, built like he ate there regularly, smiling beneficently down from a shelf. “Ah,” I said quietly, hoping not to offend other diners.
“Why do they have an idol, Daddy?” she boomed.
“They think it will look after them and make them happy.”
“But will it, Dad?”
“What do you think, honey?”
“I think no.”
“Because God looks after them.”
“True,” I said. “God sends sunshine on people who know Him and people who don’t.”2
Everyone knows what an idol is. Even children can spot them, if they’ve learned the Ten Commandments. An idol is supposed to give you worth, hope, happiness, and love. It’s an “image or representation of a god or divinity used as an object of worship; a false god,” says the Oxford Dictionary. Or, “a person who, or thing which, is the object of extreme or excessive devotion.”
Even in Church?
When Zoe turned 3 it got more complicated. Waiting in a Catholic church for the bride to arrive, she looked up at the life-size crucifix. “Look, Dad, it’s Jesus dying.”
“Yes. Why did He die?”
“So we could live.”
“Why would He want us to live?”
“Because He loves us.”
“Is He still dead?”
“No, He’s up in heaven. And soon He’s taking us there to play dress-ups with Him, and play games in His great big sandpit.”
People around us smiled, some with shiny eyes. Then she pointed to a double life-size statue of a blue-clad woman high up the wall. “Who’s that, Dad?”
“That’s a statue of Mary, Jesus’ mother.”
“The lady who rode on the donkey with Baby Jesus in her tummy?”
“Is her back still sore?”
“Is she up in heaven?”
Gulp. “You’ll meet her in heaven.”
“But where is she now, today?”
“Sleeping, actually; Jesus will wake her up and take her to heaven when He comes back.”
Just when I thought we’d passed the dangerous questions, she asked, “Is that an idol?”
I could have explained that probably no one here actually thought these pieces of fiberglass would look after them, but rather viewed them as aids to worship. But worship of whom, a human? And having seen people in Poland, Italy, and the Philippines bowing to icons, leaving them food, and kissing their toes off, I suspect an idol itself could easily become an object of superstitious worship.
“Yes, it’s an idol,” I said, then headed toward more positive territory. “Who loves to hear us pray?”
She looked at me patiently as though I should have asked a more difficult question. “Jesus, of course.”
To Whom Would You Bow?
It’s quite comfortable pointing out other people’s idols.
But what if one day Zoe sees me looking lustfully at a Jaguar convertible, having already driven it in my heart. She might say, “Daddy, was part of you worshipping that shiny silver object?
Would you be prepared to strain your health, neglect your children, bend the truth, or ultimately give less to the needy to serve that idol? Would it satisfy you? Would it say you’re a more worthwhile person, or just one more greedy, idolatrous3 poser in a needy world?”
Ouch! Criticize other people’s idols, not mine!
Questions for Reflection
1. What’s the difference between the idols honored by superstitious societies and those revered by so-called developed populations?
2. Have you ever been confronted by something in your life that turned out to be idolatrous? Tell what happened, and how you dealt with it.
3. How does something good become an idol? What is our best protection against idolatry?
4. What’s the closest thing to an idol in your life today, right now? What do you intend to do about it?
It could be embarrassing should Zoe ask on our next visit to the bank, “Dad, why is everyone showing more quiet reverence here than in most churches? Is something being worshipped in this neo-Gothic temple to greed? But why? These coins show the image of the queen, but we bear the image of God.”
What about when window-shopping? “Dad, Mum, do you really think having that brand name on your hip makes you somebody? Have you forgotten that your identity derives from the great I AM, who designed you unique and free for all eternity? If your sense of self is shaky and you need to boast, boast about the brand name that really changes your status—the cross, where Jesus placed infinite value on you.”4
Or, what might she say if I’m standing in the checkout queue browsing Who Weekly? “So another self-centered screen idol has been asked his opinions about life, as if he’d know any more than what his rehab counselor told him. Oh look, she’s an expert on love after her fifth ‘committed’ relationship in three years. Why bow down your God-given individuality to copy them?”
Whatever the cost, I hope Zoe’s always an iconoclast,5 because my idols need smashing.
They’re ugly things compared to the beauty of Jesus, the “image of the invisible God.”6
The apostle John wrote about Him: “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20, 21).
1See Ps. 115:6.
Grenville Kent pastors the Kellyville Seventh-day Adventist Church and lectures in Old Testament at Wesley Institute in Sydney, Australia. He and his wife, Carla, have two children in their image, Zoe and Marcus.