What Idol?

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” - 1 John 5:21

What is an idol? When we think of idols today, normally we think of, as a standard dictionary will say, "An image or representation of a god used as an object of worship." This definition is dealing with something already theoretically conceived of as a god. However, practically there is a more subtle form of idolatry that makes a created thing an end in itself. Put simply, everything on earth is only to be used or sought in as much as it allows us to give glory to God. When we use things for a reason other than to give glory to God, we make them idols. Thus, practical idolatry, is the making of creatures into ends.

Certainly there are many who claim to believe in God, yet the real driving force in their life and their actions is the attaining of power, or money, or sex, or pleasure, etc. Does not someone who makes extraordinary sacrifices for money that would be more than what is sufficient for food, shelter, clothing, education of children, not make money his God? What do we say of the one who is overly preoccupied about how much pleasure he will receive from this food, having this piece of clothing, having this car, or getting this job? Are not pleasure and power his gods?

This passage of Scripture has certainly caused me to step back and evaluate my life and check whether my thoughts, actions and words are aimed at giving glory to God, thus a means to a greater end, or whether my thoughts, actions and words really just indicate that something or someone has taken the place of God and thus become my idol.

"When the people became aware of Moses' delay in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who will be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.' Aaron replied, 'Have your wives and sons and daughters take off the golden earrings they are wearing, and bring them to me.' So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron, who accepted their offering, and fashioning this gold with a graving tool, made a molten calf. Then they cried out, 'This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt'... They said to me, 'Make us a god to be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.' So I told them, 'Let anyone who has gold jewelry take it off.' They gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out." - Exodus 32: 1-24

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    # by Anonymous - November 1, 2007 at 5:19 PM

    Ted, As a married woman, I've given some hard thought to the 'idols' you refer to. The examples you use (car, job, money etc) are pretty self-evident. My question is what about my spouse? The longer we're married, the more I love him. I've been told that we're supposed to love others in a 'detached' way. As a wife & mother, I guess that means I'm not supposed to cling to my family etc but live in the reality that God loves them more than I do. I know this is very true but the thought of being a 'detached' wife is just cold to me. I've prayed about this with no discernibly relevant insights. Sigh.

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    # by Ted Martin - November 1, 2007 at 9:05 PM

    Dear anonymous,

    Thanks for the good question. I would first say that, we certainly must love God above all things and people, but in doing so, He gives us the ability to love others more intimately and fully. That said, God has blessed you with a wonderful gift to love your husband more now than you ever have before. Rejoice in that blessing and gift!

    This is such a good question, that I am going to ask one of the house spiritual directors, who is an old and wise priest, what his advice to someone with this question would be.

    I will put his response in this comment box after I speak with him.

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    # by Andrew Haines - November 2, 2007 at 5:18 AM

    I think that the criterion for 'idolatry' given in Ted's post was pretty good. Perhaps there could be a better way to say it, I don't know, but the idea of turning things into 'ends in themselves' strikes me as a good definition of an 'idol.'

    That being said, I think we can apply such a criterion to anything in our lives; nothing should be seen as an end in itself except for God, who is the 'final cause' or reason for our existence. No matter what our vocation-married, priest, religious, single-if our way of coming to love God interferes with our love of God itself, that is a serious problem. The nuance is very small, no doubt, but it is in such intense love (for one's spouse, perhaps) that the Devil can distort our love for God, if we are not vigilant.

    The final thing about all this, though, should be consoling: since we cannot 'love God' directly-with no intermediate step, since he is immaterial and we are material beings-he wants us to be passionately in love with the people he gives us for that very purpose. If a wife (or husband) is not passionately in love with her spouse more and more each day, in the fullest human sense of the word, then perhaps she (or he) should consider why not? In God's great love for us, he allows us to love both our spouse and him completely, at the same time. So long as our love never ends with us, but always with God, there is nothing wrong with 'clinging to one's spouse' and 'becoming on flesh' as God himself desires.