Tag Archives: idolatry


I admit it, I’m a total sucker for the Reality Distortion Field. Who would have thought that a little aluminium box, just 9.5″x7.3″, could have captivated my heart to the extent that it has. I find myself scheming ways to cobble together enough money, how to get one on the cheap. Maybe this is what it feels like to be mentally ill? Yes, of course I’m talking about the iPad 2.

The stupid thing is that I know it can’t make me happy. Far from it. The very fact that I’ve imbued it with such mythical properties means that the reality is guaranteed to be a let down. It may be a better way to casually browse the internet (which in itself is far from certain) but it will still be the same old internet – promising so much and yet delivering so little. I still won’t be productive or fulfilled. I’ll still be the person wishing I was publishing all this cool stuff instead of simply reading about it. In the end the iPad is just a really expensive equivalent to the new pen or the Moleskine.

Even if I wasn’t disappointed with my purchase, iPads don’t last forever. Huh, come to think of it, I won’t last forever. But let’s suppose medical science stumbles upon the secrets of eternal life next year (spoiler: it won’t), does that make the iPad a good investment? Of course not: give it six months and there’ll be a new, even more gorgeous version just around the corner, and you can bet your life my heart will be after that one too. All I have to do is think about how much disdain I hold right now for the first generation iPad and I’ll have a good feel for how far the magic will have worn off.

iPad 3 Tweet

Jonathan Edwards, the preacher from 18th century New England, had a good understanding of how the fleeting nature of life drastically undermines the wisdom of resting our happiness on gadgets and other possessions. In his essay “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time“, he writes this:

“It is most evident, that if the enjoyments of this world be of such a nature that they are not to be depended on for one day more, they are not worth the setting of our hearts upon them, or the placing of our happiness in them. We may rejoice in the enjoyments of the world, but not in such a manner as to place the rest of our souls in them.”

To live as though a lump of metal and glass has the power to make me happy, when I might die this very night and have to give an account to my creator, is simply daft. It’s one of the oldest mistakes in the book: bowing down and worshipping something that’s been made by human hands in a factory somewhere in China, instead of worshipping the one who made us, the one who made Steve Jobs.

As a Christian, that’s what makes iDol worship especially ridiculous. I know that I’m already rich beyond my wildest dreams, spiritually speaking – in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, says the apostle Paul – and it’s a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade, never be superseded by Heavenly Treasure v2.0. I have the treasure of a relationship with the creator of the universe, something which gives me a sense of worth way less superficial than being a member of the Apple Owners Geek Club.

Now if only my heart would catch up with that.

Why Our Best Works are but Filthy Rags

Do you ever have that feeling where you look at other people and secretly feel really smug about your own righteousness? Do you ever derive some perverse sense of pleasure when others screw up, because it makes you feel that little bit better about yourself knowing that at least you’re not quite as bad as that? I suspect that most of us go through life with a sense that we’re basically pretty good people – we’ll admit that we’re not perfect (we’re only human, after all!) but we’re mostly decent and upstanding in the grand scheme of things. We often do good, lending others a helping hand, giving money to those less fortunate, allowing that pregnant woman to take our seat on the crowded train, sacrificing our time and energy to support a struggling friend. These are all wonderful things to be doing – and let’s strive to do so more and more – but the Bible warns us that we’re in real danger the minute we start relying on these good works of ours to justify ourselves, that is, to start thinking that God must be really pleased with us because of all the great things we’ve done. If we start thinking our good works are grounds for pride, we’re in real trouble.

Just as last week we saw that the Apostle Paul counted all his righteous deeds as loss compared to the righteousness of Christ, so the prophet Isaiah spoke of our good works in these stark words:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV)

In the sight of God, even our best deeds are like filthy rags compared to the awesome purity of his holiness. His holiness is like a consuming fire that burns up all impurity in an instant. When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of God, he was so overcome with a sense of his guilt and unworthiness that his immediate reaction was to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Likewise the prophet Malachi describes the coming of God’s presence in these terms:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2-3)

Here and now we may be tempted to take pride in our good works, but when the Lord Jesus comes in judgement all of the secrets of mens’ hearts will be laid bare, and all of our motives will be exposed. It won’t be enough to show what we did: we will be required to explain why we did it as well. How many of our good deeds will really stand up to that level of scrutiny? How often did we really have mixed motives for our righteous acts, perhaps seeking to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid being thought of as selfish? Often when I fail to do the right thing in a given situation, my first thought is not of how I have wronged God and others, but rather fear that others will think less of me. That can be a powerful motivator to try harder next time. But if we think we can be made right in God’s eyes by doing things purely for the sake of upholding our reputation, then we’re sorely mistaken. That’s not serving God – that’s serving ourselves, and that is the essence of sin.

I remember finding that thought quite shocking as a young Christian: the idea that a seemingly good deed could be as sinful in God’s sight as something obviously wrong like theft or adultery. But that’s because I was defining sin in terms of external actions rather than as an attitude of the heart. It is striking that the first of the 10 Commandments is entirely an internal action: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. And that explains why idolatry is such a serious offence to God: it is loving something created in place of loving the creator. If you do outwardly “good” things out of love for your favourite idol, be that the desire for reputation, for status, for money, for security, or just to impress someone special to you, no matter how seemingly good the act, if it’s done for the wrong motives it’s still deeply offensive to God and in fact is tantamount to adultery.

When I was a first year student at university, I did all manner of crazy things in order to try and impress a girl I was rather fond of. I even went as far as taking ballroom dancing lessons so that I could spend more time with her (I would say that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her how suave I was, but that would require me to have had some skill on the dance floor!) My desire to please her overcame my natural desire to avoid dancing like the plague, and made me act in all sorts of out-of-character ways. It’s exactly the same with all our idols: what we love will always show itself in how we act, and that will often manifest itself in very respectable looking acts of apparent righteousness. But in God’s sight they are but filthy rags, symbols of our betrayal of him.

The prophet Jeremiah portrays it like so:

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

When we act to please our false gods, it’s like sticking two fingers up at God and saying that he’s not worth pleasing – at least, not as much as our idols are. Throughout the Bible, God frequently uses the image of a marriage covenant to describe his relationship with his people Israel. Their idolatry is then compared to the actions of an unfaithful bride – sometimes in quite brutal terms! Take the next chapter of Jeremiah, for instance:

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?” (Jeremiah 3:6)

So be careful of resting on your good works as grounds for pride – they may not be quite as good as you think they are!

The Idolatry of Brand Names

As I was standing outside the Apple store on Regents Street waiting for my friend to finish his shift there, I couldn’t help but notice the looks of reverence and awe on the faces of those who passed by. There seemed to be a widespread recognition by all who gazed across the threshold that this was hallowed ground – one of the sacred sites of the Western world which rivals any ancient temple. Us sophisticated modern people look down our noses at the naivety of the ancient world who trembled before their pantheon of gods – we’re far too educated for such superstition! And yet it began to dawn on me that maybe we’re not so different after all. They look rather different and we call them by different names – could it be that our Mount Olympus is occupied by the imposing brand names of large corporations? The gods and goddesses Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Nike, Pixar, Google? Just as the gods of old dominated every aspect of life for those who worshipped them, from agriculture to childbearing, so too the modern brand name deities exert their influence over all walks of life, from what we buy to where we work. Below are three big similarities that I thought of – perhaps you can think of more!

Image by strangeaeons

1. They give us a sense of belonging

When talking about his new book “Tribes“, marketing guru Seth Godin said this:

“Harley Davidson and Apple are titanic brands for the very same reason. They sell a chance to join a group that matters”

If you go to a web community conference like BarCamp or the Google Developer Day, you can’t help but notice that 90% of the people there seem to have a MacBook on their laps. The message is loud and clear: “if you were really a part of our club, you’d have one too.” It’s the same thing that causes school kids everywhere to spend such large proportions of their income on brand name clothes – worshipping the right branding gods shows that you’re a member of the tribe.

2. They cast a large shadow

Brands are held in awe – consumers flock to them, competitors fear them, employees find security under their wings; brands stand immovable and unshakeable, at least they like to think they do. I’ve long known my own idolatrous heart has been drawn to big brand companies when looking for work because of the prestige that working for one seems to convey. Buying your DVD player from Sony somehow feels safer than buying some unknown brand – you feel confident in the quality of your purchase, whether or not that’s well-founded. As the saying goes, “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

3. They own their part of the world

Just like the idols of the ancient world were restricted in their field of influence, so it is with modern brand names. Where Demeter was in control of your crops succeeding or failing, so Microsoft dominates your office productivity; where Poseidon ruled the seas, so Google rules the world of the internet. To guarantee success across the board, the ancient pagans were forced to offer sacrifices to as many different gods as possible to make sure they covered their bases. After all, what if the one god you missed out ended up being the very one you ended up needing a favour from? Equally, it is not sufficient for the modern man to wear the right clothes if he does not not also own the right television or have the right job with a sufficiently well-recognised City firm.

The pressures of idolatry facing us today really aren’t that different from those faced by the Israelites back in the Old Testament. They were eager to avoid standing out from the nations around them, for example when they begged Samuel to appoint for them a king, “that we also may be like all the nations”; they feared that limiting their worship to just one God, the Lord, might incur the disfavour of another to their detriment; they often sought to make alliances with other, more powerful nations by worshipping their gods.

The antidote: worship the all-powerful Creator

The Bible’s antidote to their idolatry was to show how ridiculous it was in the face of God’s amazing bigness:

“Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you…: Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for their cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good… they are all the work of skilled men. But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation… It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.”

Whereas their false gods were limited in their sphere of influence, the Lord made the whole world and has ultimate power and authority over every inch of it. At the end of the day, our modern brands are but the creation of human hands, who were themselves made by the one, true God. Our fear is often really just the fear of men – how foolish it looks when confronted with the almighty God?

So let us not fear the false gods of this age, but respond like the Thessalonians: who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” – the one who made the earth by his power.