Have you ever gotten the vacuum cleaner hose caught on the drapes or on a pillow? Have you watched the strong intake-force draw to the nozzle’s end things never intended to be taken in? The vacuum’s motor exceeds normal r.p.m., and a disconcerting whine emits from the engine in disdain for that to which it is now wrongly attached.
I hope you will excuse me for using this crass but vivid metaphor to introduce the topic of idolatry and the human experience. I do so because the Bible teaches that we humans, in our hearts, have a God-installed intake force that is never turned off. The Bible calls it “worship.”
Exodus 20:3–6 commands us to “have no other gods” before Yahweh, and we are told not to “bow down to … nor serve” other handmade, human concoctions of a “god-sort.” Please note a conspicuous silence. The Decalogue’s summary of the moral law contains no simple command to worship. It simply assumes we all do, and we all will, worship. The intake force is on all the time.
Thus, a worshipless human experience is not our danger. Rather, God warns us of misfocused worship, even if we are already God’s people. These commands against false worship are given to people God addresses as those “brought … out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” And He calls Himself “your God” (Ex. 20:2). Therefore, no person, either inside or outside God’s kingdom, is immune to this danger of misplaced worship or idolatry—fastening the God-installed human intake force on someone, or something, other than the true and living God.
Idolatry is the sinful nature’s distortion of the human need (intake force) for God’s sovereign and gracious presence in our lives. Among the most sublime dangers of idolatry, or misdirected worship, is that it can just as easily be wrongly fixed on something even the kingdom of God calls good as upon something obviously evil. The very “goodness” of that part of creation upon which one wrongly invests “worship-sized” desires can mask the idolatrous dangers that accompany this failure.
This masking logic may take this form: “It’s not wrong to want a good economic return on my investment or labor. Proverbs 3:9–10 says that honor given to God produces barns that are filled and vats that overflow with wine. Clearly, these are images of prosperity. How can it be wrong to deeply want these? Don’t call me idolatrous! It’s insulting.”
Or it may take this form: “Doesn’t 1 Timothy 3:7 say that a servant-leader in Christ’s church should desire a good reputation? What could possibly be wrong with my wanting people to think well of me: I’m disturbed that this could be seen as idolatrous!” The masking danger of idolatry has less to do with the good thing desired and more to do with the distorted intensity of the desire for that good thing. It is quite easy to fasten the intake force of internal worshipful desire on a good thing to such an extent that we give “Creator-sized” importance to a “creation-sized” thing. A piece of creation that should remain beneath us is actually elevated to cosmic importance above us.
How might Christians measure whether idolatry has become a tragic characteristic of their personal spiritual landscape? Augustine answers this question in his a.d. 397 work, On Christian Doctrine, Book I. He differentiates between at least two human responses to our environment. First, we can enjoy something (and he appears to employ this in the highest sense of noble, worshipful pleasure). Second, we can use something (and he seems to mean this in the highest sense of honorable stewarding rightly employed in a non-abusive and God-ordained manner).
Thus, Augustine warns that the only true and safe object of enjoyment is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All other objects fall short of being fully worthy of worshipful enjoyment. So when something or someone moves from being honorably and rightly employed by us and is elevated to the place God alone should have in human life, then we are committing idolatry.
This sometimes-subtle misappropriation is present when an object’s presence in our lives is threatened, quickly changed, or even removed. Then, if the fruits of the Spirit are quickly replaced by the acts of the sinful nature, we lose spiritual stability. We should at least consider that we may have over-invested in that person, place, or thing, and that idolatry is present.
Idolatry is dismantled by repenting of the internal misdirection of our worship of creation rather than of the Creator and Redeemer. This must be accompanied by the engagement of the mind and heart in vigorous worship of the true God. The “noisy” spiritual disquiet of idolatry can be quieted by placing oneself in worshipful focus on God.
Westminster Assembly delegate Jeremiah Burroughs wrote in his collected sermons, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment: “The reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them … but the reason is they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God Himself.” He says Christians must learn that the “heart is so enlarged that the enjoyment of all the world and 10,000 worlds cannot satisfy him for his portion; yet he has a heart quieted under God” (p. 42).
The key to the dismantling of idolatry is “quieting our heart under God” in true worship.
We must remove from creation the nozzle of the soul’s vacuum-like intake force by repentance, and direct it to God. When we do, the engine of the soul quiets as the r.p.m. of the heart’s intake force rightly adjusts to the reason we were given the capacity of worship—to glorify and enjoy God forever.