My wife and I host a LifeGroup for our church, basically a home-based Bible study aimed at building relationships and discipleship and our version of small groups. For this cycle of LifeGroups, we're doing a series from Kyle Idleman's book, Gods at War. It's a very good book, and a strong follow-up to us having done his book Not A Fan last cycle, and in peeking ahead to plan for the group I can say it shows promise for our goals in having the groups. The series, and the book, are about idolatry and the ways it sneaks into our lives in a variety of forms. We're accessing the videos through RightNow Media, if you would like to look into it yourself.
In the first session, the Leader's Guide has a section where it encourages us to talk about the nature of worship. The video describes idolatry in terms of worship, so it seemed suitable to define that term. The definition given was:
Worship is something we do constantly and, in fact, cannot stop doing. Worship is the sum total of all the ways we organize our lives -- our schedules, our interests, our finances, our loves -- around the thing or things we believe will give our lives meaning, direction, and joy.
One of the things that came out of discussing that definition was that we found ourselves needing to redefine idolatry as having both an active and a passive form. This wasn't discussed in the video, at least not overtly, and wasn't mentioned in the guide, but I ended up feeling the need to suggest it as things in the conversation clicked together and then we all began to engage with it. So I wanted to take that concept and expand on it slightly.
It seems to be the default to think of idolatry as something we do. Whether we're thinking about it in overt forms, like literally bowing down to stone effigies, or in more covert forms like turning to something other than God for comfort and peace, the point is that we actively choose to perform some act of devotion that shows where our commitments lie.
Now, this is accurate. All of these things are idolatry (and I have, on more than one national holiday, gotten into some trouble for observing the ways in which this definition of idolatry seems to fit so well the way we treat our flag, and national anthem, and military/police, and nation, but that's something for another post), and should be recognized as such. We must acknowledge the ways that worship shapes our behavior and recognize where our gods are revealed. But I feel we don't always say clearly enough that idolatry is also passive.
In the video, Idleman explained that all sin is, at the heart, an expression of idolatry. That we sin because we, at least in the moment, place something else as more worthy of our worship than God. I submit that this is the basic concept behind passive idolatry; that idolatry isn't just an activity, but a filter by which we determine other aspects of our lives, including but not limited to behaviors. Let's look at two areas where idolatry-as-filter can be explained, with the understanding that they are not an exhaustive list of examples.
What lies at the root of our goals and alliances? What is it we are ultimately trying to accomplish? We have to dig deep here. Sure, our reason for having a given job is to make money in order to meet our needs in order to survive, but is that it? Does it go deeper than that? What is it we intend to do with that life, with that money, with that title? See, if we don't go any deeper, if we let the question end at "I have a job so I can survive," then either we are using our survival as the ultimate governing principle or we are not allowing us to see what our ultimate governing principle actually is. Either way, any 'ultimate governing principle' in our lives functions as a god. It is the end to which we will devote our energy, our time, our resources, our gifts. It will be the final deciding factor in what jobs we take, what we do in our off hours, and how we view all of it. What is the purpose of our politics? Is it enough to want our country to look a certain way? I talked to a lot of one-issue voters in the last Presidential election, whether that one issue was opposing Trump or supporting a pro-life appointment to the Supreme Court or whatever else, in no case did any of them tell me their one issue was facilitating the spread of the gospel. It is possible the gospel was an underlying reason for their support of that one issue, but many of those cases gave me some amount of reason to doubt they were thinking that far ahead. The question was, in every case, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to see your one issue reached? What are you willing to accept as long as it comes with the promise of that one issue? The election cycle and the years that followed, I believe, show that we are willing to lay quite a lot at the altar of achieving our political ends.
We may not always be acting in a manner that directly interacts with our idol. We may not even really be thinking about our idol in a given moment. But we will fashion our lives and words and alliances in a way that draws us ever closer to what we believe our idol demands of us. We will give our idol priority in our schedule, in our relationships, and in our decision-making process. And that, even if not active in that moment, is part of worship. We need to ask ourselves occasionally, what is our ultimate governing principle? And whatever we say it is, do our lives actually reflect that? Because if they don't, then we're misleading ourselves about what our principle actually is.
The things we hold as ideals can very quickly become absolutes. We may be well and good in liking, for example, the idea of a stable household with a husband and wife and a handful of obedient children who were all conceived in the context of that marriage, but once we start judging people, especially the value or moral standing of a person, on whether or not their home life meets that standard we have gone into idolatry. We have, in that moment, determined that the image we have of the perfect family is not only good, but the arbiter of goodness. We have made this thing a judge, and if our first reaction is that criteria, we have probably made it the supreme judge. And that title can belong to none other than a god.
To what do we give the right of judgment? What is it that we allow to measure the value of a human life? What is our standard of morality?
The point of all of this is that idolatry is a problem we can't just write off or fix with behavior modification. We need to go all the way down, to our core beliefs about the world, mankind, and ourselves and look for anything that isn't God. And when we find it, and I think all of us will sooner or later, we need to repent and remove that thing from a place only God can occupy and fight against giving that spot to anything but Him.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation