Our Advent series for the season centers on “Longing.” All people have longings—even Christians. This is especially true during Advent when we consider the One in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” have converged. Such personal longings take us by the hand and lead us back to Bethlehem.
For Christians, our natural response is to turn to Christ anew and seek the everlasting light, the Prince of Peace who is our living hope. But sometimes we turn to lesser things, especially in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Most of us have heard about Pascal’s God-shaped hole, and that our hearts will not rest until we fill it. Tragically, we don’t always fill it with the right thing—God. Instead, we fill it with any substitute we can find. We are looking for God in all the wrong places. This, according to the Bible, is the essence of idolatry.
When I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, one of my professors, Doug Stuart, showed us that idolatry wasn’t a problem only for “those people way back when.” It remains a serious issue for us now—even for Christians who claim Christ as their King. It’s safe to say that if we had lived back then, we would have been just as guilty of idolatry as any pagan.
Dr. Stuart explained that ancient idolatry had some natural advantages in its appeal to the sinful human heart, advantages that would have surely pulled us into the practice of paganism, apart from God’s intervening mercy. Here are some examples.
First, idolatry was guaranteed. Once you carved an idol, the god was assured to possess it. No need to pray to an invisible deity! Now you have one at your fingertips. Just perform your religious duties, and the idol will take care of things! Simple!
Second, idolatry was selfish. If you took care of the god’s needs—by means of offerings and so on—it would take care of you. At least that was the theory. The gods could be bribed—sort of like a pagan prosperity gospel.
Third, idolatry was easy. You didn’t have to delve into theology or change your lifestyle. There was no requirement to live a moral life; just keep those sacrifices coming.
Fourth, idolatry was convenient. No need to go on a long pilgrimage or show up at a temple. Just use your idol, at home or on the road. There was a god for every occasion—the weather, travel, business transactions, or crops. Choose your god and get on with your life!
Fifth, idolatry was normal. As my friend and fellow pastor Kevin DeYoung has said, “Everyone did it. It’s how women got pregnant, how crops grew, how armies conquered. Idolatry was like oil: nothing ran in the ancient world without it.”
Sixth, idolatry was logical. You didn’t have to appease one god, or conform your life to its narrow dictates. You could choose any god or gods you wanted to meet your needs or desires—and if they changed, no problem! Idolatry was the world’s first do-it-yourself religion. If one idol stops working, just move on to another.
Seventh, idolatry was pleasing to the senses. It promised to bring a transcendent presence that you could see and touch. You didn’t have to wonder what your god was like—you could handle him—or her—any time you wanted!
Eighth, idolatry was indulgent. Much of the time, you could get away with giving very little to the god, in exchange for what you thought would be a big payoff. You could offer the idol your leftover food and drink and feel good about it. No need, as in biblical religion, to give your first and best!
Ninth, idolatry was sensual. Because the pagan world saw a connection between fertility on earth and fertility in the heavens, idolatry often was drenched in eroticism. When the gods procreated, you would have a bountiful harvest. Rituals on earth for the gods frequently had a sexual dimension, coaxing them to do the same and bless the harvest.
So it’s easy to see why the ancient world was so susceptible to idolatry—and why the people of the true God often succumbed to it. Idolatry made religion easy, this-worldly, a means to financial prosperity and self-actualization, and a religiously sanctioned way to indulge in sexual relations of all kinds without fear of commitment. You could do what you wanted as long as you kept your god fed.
The real object of worship therefore was not the god or gods. It was the self—a problem that remains with us today. Idolatry is an expression of our natural alienation from God—a worship of ourselves, where I, not the King of the universe, am the ruler of life. Ultimately, as with all of Satan’s lies, idolatry promises much but delivers little. As the Apostle Paul stated, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
And the result of these things is death—then and now.
The real question is not “Why could people in the ancient world fall for such things?” Rather, it’s “Why do we assume that we are immune to it?” Idolatry is the default setting of every human heart, liable to take control of our souls when we least expect it.
So ask yourself, even if you claim to be a Christian, if God is really the center of your life, or simply a means to an end. If it’s the latter, then you just might be an idolater. And that’s a dangerous place to be.
As Paul also said, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Yet he didn’t stop there, because there is hope, even for idolaters. “And such were some of you,” the apostle assures us. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Note those words: “And such were some of you.” The power to escape idolatry, either ancient or modern, and worship the one true King comes from God, not from us. So let us go to Him during this Advent season—to the God who forgives, to the God who cleanses, to the Father who awakens and revives.