Western Church teaching today takes a peculiar position on idolatry. “What is your idol?” pastors will ask, and spout out a litany of physical possessions: money, a house, your wife or family. Sometimes they suggest that our ego is our idol listing attributes like our pride, success, job and independence.
But the Biblical and traditional understanding of idolatry centers around worship. The Greek word idolatry is:
In case you skipped Greek class, the transliteration of the word is: eidōlolatria. This is easy to see our English word taken directly from the Greek, idolatry. The definition of the Greek word, as listed in the Lexicon (Greek dictionary) is “The worship of false gods”; of the formal sacrificial feasts held in honor of false gods.
It is the actual worship of false gods. Now, these same teachers will quote verses like, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12.34) and build arguments stating that we spend all of our money on ourselves and therefore we worship ourselves. Jesus also said that you cannot serve two masters, God and money. And yes, part of worshiping God is giving Him the first 10% of our income, the cream of the crop if you will. But to say that worshiping money (serving money as our master) is the same as worshiping a false god misses much of the point.
People all around the world worship gods.
These people are normal, every day people, bowing down and worshiping Buddha:
Every single white dot you see here is a person, bowing down in prayer and worship to Allah:
And this is a woman bowing down at the feet of a Hindu god:
These people are practicing idolatry. They are literally bowing down, submitting themselves to and worshiping false gods. There are idols (an image of a supernatural being that has power) to which they pray, ask for wisdom, guidance and help. Most cultures around the world and thorough history have believed in a power greater than humanity that governs the universe and can help or harm humanity. And most cultures throughout history have made an effort to stay on the right side of that power.
But western culture today scoffs at the idea of a supernatural power. And we only affirm it in times of trial or uncertainty, often as a last-ditch effort. We have failed, we have been hurt and we have tried everything we know to do in response, but sometimes we cannot fix life. It is only then that we hope perhaps a greater power can help. We, as a culture, do not truly worship anything. We think we are capable and do not rely on a higher power.
We can be enslaved by our belongings or desires! This is what Jesus meant by serving money as a master. No one lays out cash or gold on the table and gets down, prays, submits and prostrates himself on the ground before it. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say no one, but the point is simple. We can be enslaved and all of our lives revolve around making money, maintaining ego or any other “master” as Jesus says (Matt 6.24). But this is not idolatry.
What does this even matter? It is important because when we call our ego or our money our idol, we lose much in the understanding of idolatry and consequently worship. We are not submitting to or honoring anything. We fear and respect no greater power – only our social systems which we have established to keep order. When was the last time you came into the presence of God and realized the fact that He is perfect, holy and would be perfectly just to wipe you off the face of the Earth, like Isaiah (Is 6.5)? When was the last time you were in such awe of His power that you had to lay down on the ground in respect because of how small you are and how infinite He is – or just bowed out of honor as Englishmen bow before the queen? This has to do with a right understanding of ourselves and our weakness and God and His sovereignty. He is in control.
Do you truly worship God?
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Heb 12.1-2
This does not mean to burn yourself on an alter. This means knowing God and respecting Him. Not coming to Him as a cosmic genie when you are unable to fix your own problem. This means ordering your life in such a way that everything is about and for Him. This means at times being brought to your knees because He is so holy and you are so unworthy. This also means at times being moved emotionally for His love and grace towards us in our sin.
God commanded us to not make graven images (Ex 20.4). We do not have images of Him that we bow before and worship. But we do have Him, before whom we should bow and worship.