Idolatry: The Sin Beneath the Sin
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
One sunny fall day four high school boys skipped morning classes. After lunch they reported to the teacher indicating that their delay was the result of a flat tire. Much to their relief she smiled and said: "Well, you missed the morning quiz so take seats apart from one another and take out a piece of paper and you can have the quiz." Still smiling, she waited for them to sit down. Then she said: "First Question: Which tire was flat?"
Nobody likes to believe a lie. (Except when my wife extols some aspect of my humanity as exceptional.) Even still, we don’t like to be lied to. We have developed several layers of filters to guard ourselves. When investing time or resources other people are not automatically treated as truth tellers. We want corroboration of things from other sources first. Only as we know someone’s character are we willing to take what they say as approaching gospel.
What we like even less is to discover that someone has traded on our trust. Those lies stings profoundly when we have invested time, energy, and resources based on believing the lie. We are hurt, angry, disillusioned, and incredulous that we could have been so stupid. Sometimes people tell a lie because they are ashamed to tell the truth. It is not unusual for a person who has lost their job to keep the news from family and head out the door each morning as if going to work. They can bear the pain of losing their job more than the pain of disappointing a loved one.
We say we prefer to be told the truth. Just tell me what it is so we can get on with dealing with it. The gospel says that, in fact, humanity has preferred a lie. The Apostle Paul describes the guilt of humankind this way: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!” Idolatry is to believe a lie. Timothy Keller says that idolatry is the sin underneath the sin; “underneath every behavioural sin is the sin of idolatry, and under every act of idolatry is a disbelief in the gospel.” That lie at its root, according to the Garden of Eden story, is to disbelieve the goodness of God.
1. The word “idolatry,” for many, conjures up images of statues of wood or stone and primitive culture. Idols belong to a bygone era—it is thought. With all our scientific advances we consider ourselves having moved beyond such undeveloped thinking. Consider something Jesus said: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Plainly Jesus thought that our wealth could be an idol. The essence of idolatry is mistaking something creaturely for the Creator himself, and thereafter worshipping the creature instead of the Creator.
Think with me for a moment about the size of the universe. If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. Even now, two Voyager spacecraft—launched in 1977—are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 160,000 kilometers per hour. For almost three decades they have been speeding away from Earth, approaching a distance of 19 billion kilometers. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it takes about 17 hours to arrive. Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun—in truth, the size of a coffee cup—fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.
Keep in mind that this is a description of the size of the universe as far as we can calculate with current methodologies. I have a very difficult time conceiving intellectually that such a vast universe could be the product of self-generation. The magnitude alone augers against drawing such a conclusion—even before I have begun to think about its intricate complexities. And yet we have an intellectual world that, in many quarters, is dominated by the idea that the universe exploded onto the scene by itself. It is taken for granted in much of this intellectual world that the idea of God is superfluous. The common attitude is that we do not need God to account for anything.
Listen again to the Apostle Paul. You might even think he wrote this in 2014. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.”
So here we have the situation where we have exchanged the glory of God who by his word calls into existence things that were not for an image of a physical universe we assign as self-generating. We may not bow down and worship this universes, but the exchange of the glory of God for something created is still idolatry. It is to mistake something created for the Creator himself.
In our culture higher education is championed. We prize the development of human rational capability—the rise of the numbers of people with university education tells that story. We want our young people to learn critical thinking skills. And though we prize human rational capability, in many intellectual quarters we attempt this development without any reference to the One who created the human a rational being. Is this not to worship the creature—at least the creature’s rational capability—rather than the Creator? Oh, we might not bow down but children are left with the impression that best life has to offer will be found in such rational development.
In the city of Corinth one thousand women were attached as religious prostitutes to the temple of Aphrodite. Throughout the history of humankind goddess-worship has been associated with the worship of fertility. The worship of fertility includes fertility of all kinds: agricultural fertility, animal fertility, human fertility. A key element in such worship, a key element in the chain of events, has been “sympathic magic”. Sympathic magic means that when humans are sexually active the god and goddess are sexually active too. The sexual activity of god and goddess in turn ensures the fertility of animals and crops.
Goddess worship is not widely practiced in our culture. But we live in a culture preoccupied with sexuality. Consider the huge human trafficking trade of young girls for prostitution; the pervasive theme of sexuality in advertising; the elevation of sexual identity as a human right. We may have abandoned Aphrodite but have come to a similar place just with a different god.
2. Such idolatry has consequences, said Paul when he exclaimed, “God gave them up!” These have to be the most chilling words that describe the human predicament. Three times in five verses (Romans 1:24-28) Paul reiterates, “God gave them up.” He means that God has handed us over. Handed us over to what? Handed us over to what we keep telling God we want. We don’t want him? We don’t have to have him. He’ll give us exactly what we want. (Satan, we should note, is never this generous; Satan invariably gives us what he wants.) We don’t want God’s truth? We don’t have to have it — which is to say, of course, we’re going to be left with falsehood and illusion. We don’t want God’s claim on our obedience? Then we shan’t have to obey him. But then we’re going to have a pretender claiming us, and this claimant won’t be the slightest bit benevolent. At bottom humankind keeps telling God it doesn’t want him. Then Godlessness is what we want. Godlessness is what we have. God gives us up to it, hands us over to it, abandons us to it.
Needless to say, there are consequences to what we have or want, anywhere in life. Not to want God is to be stuck with the consequences of not wanting, not having him. Paul lists the features (or at least some of them) of the human self-expression that displays itself as God hands us over to the Godlessness we crave: slander, murder, ruthlessness, covetousness, boasting, gossip, deceit, parent abuse, sexual perversion, and so on. (Rom.1:28-32) This is the sorry state to which God “gives us up, gives us up, gives us up….” It reverberates like a bell tolling the death knell of the entire human race.
But it isn’t the death knell! By God’s mercy it’s the wake-up call. It’s the huge electric shock administered to jar the heart-patient back to life. Because God is love, because love exhausts God’s nature (1 John 4:8), God can never be indifferent. (Indifference is the opposite of love, not hatred, contrary to what most people think.) While God abandons us to what we want — together with its consequences — he doesn’t abandon us. In fact he “gives us up” just because he has never given up on us. God gives us up to the miserable consequences of our disobedience and defiance just because he’s never ceased loving us and wants to bring us to our senses. At no point in the downward spiral has God given up on us. To be sure, our predicament is evidence that God’s anger has been aroused. But since his anger is only his love burning hot, his anger is simply his love shaking us awake. (We must always remember that since God is love, his every attitude and act are actually expressions of his love for us.)
If God were indifferent, the human predicament would now be hopeless, since indifference would simply not bother with us but simply leave us alone in our self-willed mess. An angry God, however, plainly cares; his caring means that he bothers; he bothers in that he not only shakes us awake to our predicament, he also awakens us to the provision his love has made for us. He has given us his Son, given us himself in his Son. In the words of the Anglican Prayer book, our Lord was given us to make “by his one oblation of himself once offered a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” God’s provision blesses all humankind in that atonement which Jesus Christ has wrought as he makes “at one” a wayward human race and the God who can’t bring himself to give up on us, and can’t bring himself to give up on us inasmuch as he can’t will himself out of his nature, love.
As eager as God is to bless us, however, he won’t bulldoze us, won’t tyrannize or coerce. Everywhere in his provision for us his self-giving sounds the note of the tender, the wooing, the winsome. The human predicament is remedied in love’s provision, the crucified Son.
3. The essence of idolatry is mistaking something creaturely for the Creator himself, and thereafter worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. Since the earliest Christians were Jews, we know that they had a heightened sensitivity to idolatry, never confusing creaturely with Creator, never mistaking the work of God’s hand for God himself. And yet the earliest Christians fell on their knees before Jesus Christ, a fellow-creature like them, and worshipped him. John exclaims, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The Word is God’s outermost expression of his innermost heart. John recognized that God had identified the outermost expression of his innermost heart with one human creature (and one only), Jesus of Nazareth. Paul exclaims, “He is the image of the invisible God….In him the fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Peter, possessed of a conviction that neither turbulence without nor treachery within would ever take from him, said to the Master himself, “You are the Christ [God's uniquely anointed], the Son of the living God.” Peter, possessed of a Jewish mind, knew that “son of” meant “of the same nature as.” Thomas cries before the risen one, “My Lord and my God!” The four apostles I have just quoted were all Jews. They dreaded idolatry as they dreaded nothing else. Yet when they beheld their fellow-human, Jesus, they worshipped.
May our worship and service ever be of him.