Idolatry: Worshipping Our Own Image of God

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Friday, May 8, 2009

Idolatry: Worshipping Our Own Image of God

May 8, 2009

On the surface, the second commandment does not seem especially relevant to the congregation at McLean Presbyterian, my home church. 

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

No one I know appears to be tempted to set up golden calves in their backyard. But our pastor, Dr. John Hutchinson, hit us all between the eyes this past Sunday in his sermon, “The Gracious Image.”

What the commandment prohibits, he said, is deciding what you want to believe about God and then worshipping the image of God you dreamed up. We are not permitted to image God as we wish. He is who he is and he has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15).

The sermon came to mind on Monday when I read a letter to the editor in the Washington Post. The letter’s headline caught my eye: “My God Favors Inclusion.”

The writer expressed dismay that clergy, particularly African-American clergy, are taking an active role in the same-sex “marriage” battle in Washington, DC, by defending traditional marriage between one man and one woman. Worst of all, from his point of view, they are using the Bible to do it.

He writes:

Christ's message to me as a gay Christian was one of inclusion, not exclusion. He associated with prostitutes, tax collectors, Romans and gentiles—some of the most despised people in his society.

The writer has a point. Jesus did associate with prostitutes, tax collectors, and Gentiles. He welcomed outcasts and the despised. At the same time, this letter is a perfect example of imaging Christ and therefore God based on personal desires rather than reveled truth.

Nowhere is Jesus more associated with outcasts than at the dinner party thrown by Levi, the tax collector, after he had left tax collecting to join the band of apostles (Mark 2:13-17). Levi apparently invited the only friends he had, people identified as “tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” Tax collectors were Jews who extorted money from their fellow Jews and were viewed as traitors. “Sinner” was a generic term for anyone with an immoral life or dishonest vocation. Jesus was and is a friend to sinners.

But when asked why he associated with such people, Jesus replied in words that to modern ears sound judgmental and offensive, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Jesus did not come to excuse or affirm sinful behavior, but to transform lives. Elsewhere he said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yes, Jesus saved the woman taken in adultery by pointing out the hypocrisy of those who wanted to stone her. Yes, he associated with her, an outcast. Yes, he told her he did not condemn her. But he ended the conversation with a command: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Rather than affirming her behavior, he demanded repentance.

John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, “The human heart is a factory of idols…. Everyone of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” And none of us is immune from the idolatry of picking and choosing what “My God” will or will not do, say, permit or forbid.

Those who believe in a god who demands social justice, but does not mean what the Bible clearly says about sexual ethics are just as idolatrous as those who believe in a god who demands biblical sexual ethics, but does not mean what the Bible clearly says about social justice. A god of love without judgment is as much a graven image as a god of judgment without love.

S.M. Hutchens points out in the May 2009 Touchstone that when we lapse into wrong beliefs and thus become idolaters, we do so “to avoid truth for some advantage gained.”

It then stands to reason that we becoming truth-seekers when we avoid idolatry for some advantage gained. That advantage is the opportunity to be fully human. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, we are enabled to fulfill our chief end, “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Not “my god,” but the one true God as he has made himself known in the Scriptures and in the face of his Son, the gracious image.

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