Idolatry is the universal human tendency to value something or someone in a way that hinders the love and trust we owe to God. It is an act of theft from God whereby we use some part of creation in a way that steals from honor due to God. Idolatry conflicts with our putting God alone first in our lives, in what we love and trust (see Exodus 20:3-5; Deut. 5:7-9; Romans 1:21-23). In idolatry we put something or someone, usually a gift from God, in a place of value that detracts from the first place owed to God alone, the gift Giver. That thing or person is an idol. The way out of idolatry is always to love and to trust the gift Giver without interference from any gift or any thing other than God. We will then be able to love and to appreciate gifts appropriately, neither giving them too much power nor failing to be thankful for them. We will then be free indeed, and not in bondage or addiction to anything that cannot fulfill us or give us peace (shalom).
Putting God first means loving and trusting God first, above all, and with everything we are and have (see Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). God has given us every good thing we are and have. (Neither we nor other humans created us or our capacities to do good.) Our focus should never be on the gifts themselves in a way that demotes the gift Giver. This would be idolatry. It is easy to see how idolatry occurs given our deadly propensity for selfishly willful control and self-controlled security. The gifts themselves are easy to control, to manipulate, and to take credit for. They are easy to make, or to take as, "mine." Here begins the human tragedy, the idolatrous rebellion against the God we need for living freely in unselfish love. We learn the hard way that we cannot provide ourselves with security and safety. On our own we lack the needed power of unselfish love. On our own we wither in selfishness and then die.
In idolatry we fail to give proper thanks to the Giver of life and its goods. As thieves we thereby steal God's rightful honor and sever, or at least diminish, fellowship with both God and others. The alienation from God and others comes from our hiding our theft and from our selfishly "protecting" the stolen goods. Idolatry leaves us with stolen goods that become "bads," for they cannot sustain or satisfy us apart from friendship with their Giver. Only the ultimate Giver of goods can sustain and satisfy us lastingly in freely given friendship, the friendship of divine unselfish love. Such friendship, given our idolatrous rebellion against God, must come with merciful forgiveness toward us. Our idolatry brings us under God's judgment, for our own good (see Rom. 1:21-32). His judgment calls us from death (our way) to life (His way).
Giving up the selfishly willful theft in idolatry requires letting go of any possessive attitude toward the gifts given to us. We then receive the gifts not on our terms but on the terms of their ultimate Giver. This is the key to freedom in life under God, the ultimate gift Giver. Jesus tells us as much (Matt. 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24), and shows us as much (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). We may know all of this, but we still lack power on our own to be free from idols. We need power beyond our own. We need the power of God. Only the gift Giver loves us, judges us in love, and forgives us in merciful love. His merciful forgiveness sets us free to be reconciled to Him.
God proves His love for us by sending us Jesus to befriend us, even to die
for us in self-giving love. The provision of this unconditional, unearned love
offers the kind of satisfying friendship that makes idols pointless and even
repulsive. It thereby frees us from idols in order to enable us to love as Jesus
loves. As an antidote to idolatry, we need the loving friendship of Jesus, desperately
and vitally. It is available to us all as an unearnable gift from God. The crucial
question is whether we will receive it on God's terms, on terms that
renounce idols. These terms can be challenging for us, given our customary reliance
on idols (see Mark 10:17-27), and
given our tendencies toward enabling idolatry in others. We do the latter when
we encourage or ignore, rather than challenge in love, the idolatry practiced
by others. In receiving Jesus as Lord, in contrast, we find the key to freedom
both from idolatry and from the enabling of idolatry in others. We find freedom
to live in unselfish love as we receive God's freely given love.
can I turn to You.
In freedom can I leave.
In freedom You have given me
the Life in which I breathe.
So often do I run from You.
So often do I leave.
So spacious is Your heart of grace.
So precious is Your Love.
How wonderful You are to me,
so that I might be free.