Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…—James 1:17
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…—Romans 1:25
“You shall have no other gods before me.”—Exodus 20:3
Once upon a time I was a child in Sunday School, and life was simple. It was simple because the rules were simple: Here is a list of bad things; don’t do them. As long as I avoided those things, I knew that God and I were okay. And those things were fairly easy to avoid, because they were easy to identify: Don’t hit, don’t steal, don’t lie. When you’re a child, you really only have to worry about 5 or 6 of the 10 commandments. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Honor your father and mother. Murder and adultery aren’t real concerns, and once you understand what coveting is and why it’s bad (usually an adult explains it using someone else’s toy as an illustration), you’ve pretty much covered it.
As we get older, though, we learn that of all the commandments, the first two might be the hardest to keep, because those are the ones that have to do with idolatry. We enter new territory on the day we realize that it’s not just the bad things we have to watch out for, it’s the good things too.
God has filled our world with good and beautiful things. Sunsets and oceans and waterfalls and mountain lions. Marriage and family. The human body. Steak. Chocolate. Amazing places to visit and things to do and things to own. But because our hearts are twisted, everything good in this world can become an idol if it begins to occupy the central place in our heart. God’s intention when He made us was that we would be creatures who lived in a constant state of gratitude and awe of their Creator. He wants us to enjoy His gifts, but never exalt them above the Giver.
Anything good can become an idol. It’s a scary thought. In Romans 1, when Paul writes about people worshiping and serving created things rather than the creator, the surrounding verses show that he has a couple of specific things in mind: pagan religions where people bow down before the sun, the stars, and various animals, and sexual immorality, where people bow down before the pleasures of the body. Today, most of us pride ourselves on being too sophisticated to think that an offering to the gods will make our crops grow, but in other ways we are just as guilty of idolatry as people were thousands of years ago.
Whatever our idol of choice, the pattern is the same: we take something good, and focus on it until it replaces God. The beauty of nature is a good thing, but when we begin to worship it, we’ve gone too far. I enjoy exercise and being physically active. But when I’m sick or injured, my attitude sometimes reveals that good health has become too important to me. A healthy body is a gift, but it’s not the Giver.
The list could go on and on. Food is a gift from God. So is sex between a husband and wife. Sports. Hunting and fishing. Clothes. Money. Our jobs. All things we should thank God for. All things that can become an obsession, so important to us that we treat God as if His job is to provide them and then get out of the way so we can enjoy them on our terms.
But let’s go deeper. Some things are so valued in our culture, so obviously good, that it’s hard to see them as potential idols. Take family. Family is one of God’s greatest creations. God created man and wife as the pinnacle of His creation, and said that he had placed His own image within them. By God’s design, family is the foundation of human society. Family is where we look to understand the Father-love of God and ourselves as His children. It is the primary place where we learn to love as He does. It is one of the single greatest sources of joy in all of creation, and we live much of our lives in close relationship with the small group of people God placed in our family.
Can something as good as family become an idol? Of course it can. When parents refuse to release their children to God as they grow into adulthood, they are loving their kids more than they are trusting the Creator. When the loss of a loved one sends us into a spiral of anger at God, we reveal which relationship meant the most to us. When the priority of family time means there is no room in our lives for worship, we turn our backs on the Giver in our obsession with one of His greatest gifts.
One of the best ways to identify our idols is to observe our reaction when they get taken away. This past year or so in our country, Americans have felt, with good reason, that our freedom was being threatened. Our country was founded on freedom. It is a unique, beautiful example to the world of the fact that governments, as the Declaration of Independence says, should “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” People should not be subjects of government; government should understand that it works for the people. For 245 years, our nation has been a showcase for the fact that freedom is better than oppression. Democracy is better than monarchy. Power should be entrusted to the people, not used to control them.
Is freedom a good thing? It is a great thing. It is an important thing. Can freedom become an idol? Absolutely it can. Precisely because it is a good thing. It is a good thing that is not God, and is therefore something less than God. Freedom is like marriage and family and nature’s beauty: the trick is to value it without worshiping it.
All over the world, believers in Jesus are forced to choose between freedom and Christ in a way we can’t relate to here in the United States. In China and Pakistan and Afghanistan and North Korea and Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and Sudan and many other places, to love Jesus publicly means to give up your freedom and place yourself in the hands of your enemies. Worldwide, there are far more believers in this situation than there are believers in the US. This is sobering to me. On the one hand, I pray that we will never be faced with that choice. On the other hand, I hope that if I were faced with it, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment, that my love for Christ would come shining through. I hope that I would lay down my idols and show that He means more to me than anything else in creation, no matter how good it might be.
What are your favorite things in life? What do you value the most? Are those things gifts you receive with gratitude, or have they become an obsession? Is it clear, to you and to God and to others, that Jesus means more to you than everything else? What are the good things that consume your mind and heart? This week, I invite you to join me in praying this simple prayer: “Jesus, you mean more to me than _________________.”