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The Most Subtle of Idolatries

Image by  Marco Hazard - Некромант via Flickr

Image by Marco Hazard – Некромант via Flickr

In our fallen state, separated from our true source center, we live from the knowledge of good and evil regardless of the particular idols from which we try to get life. [see yesterday’s post] Some people choose secular idols and thus adopt a corresponding set of criteria of what is good and what is evil. Money, prestige, security, pleasure, and so forth are good, while financial burdens, being overlooked, insecurity, discomfort, and so forth are evil. Religious people, on the other hand, choose religious idols and thus set up a different set of criteria for what is good and evil. Religious people’s beliefs, rituals, and behavior are good, while those other people, insofar as they are different from their own, are evil.

Jesus suggested that those who strive to get life from religious idols are actually further from the true source of life precisely because religious idols don’t appear to be idols to those who get life from them. Those who know they are sick are more likely to receive a physician, while those who mistakenly think they are healthy ignore him (Matt 9:12). How it must have shocked the religious establishment of his day to hear Jesus proclaim that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of God before the Pharisees (Matt 21:31).

The real issue is not what kind of idols people embrace but whether they are trying to fill the void in their souls with an idol at all. So long as people strive to get life from an idol of any sort, they block themselves off from their true source of life.

Since the religious idol usually requires that their sense of worth is associated with their religious performance, they usually look good. Indeed, in all likelihood, they will look better than those who have a genuine relationship with God. Looking good is the religious idolater’s way of life. They are vigilant about their own beliefs and behavior as well as those of other people.

In fact, however, this hypervigilance is evidence not of genuine spiritual health but of an inner emptiness and sickness. It is evidence of a spiritual pathology. The very attempt to fill the emptiness of their lives by their beliefs and behaviors rather than God prevents them from ever getting their emptiness really filled.

Not that the emptiness cannot be placated for periods of time; it can. If people’s idolatrous religious strategies for getting life are successful, as they were with the Pharisees, these people will derive some surrogate life by believing they do all the right things, embrace all the right interpretations of Scripture, hold to all the right doctrines, engage in all the right rituals, and display the right spirituality. They will get even more surrogate life by looking down on those who don’t do and believe all the right things as they do. Indeed, they may experience even more surrogate life by entertaining a “holy anger” toward those who do not conform to their way of thinking and behaving. But the positive feelings offered by religious idols are fleeting. The emptiness returns, driving religious idolaters to further futile attempts to get life by their religion.

—Adapted from Repenting of Religion, pages 82, 89-90

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