Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Psychology of Idolatry

Recently on Wednesday nights, I have begun teaching on the subject of idolatry. The subject matter has seemed very appropriate to me--not just because it fits with the over-arching theme of Wednesday night youth group this year (which is how to be in the world, but not of it)--but because I find myself to be an idolater in far too many ways.

The subject of idolatry is a major theme in the Bible, which is obvious to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Scripture. In the Old Testament it is treated as the culmination of rebellion, the final destination of the nations of Israel and Judah on their path away from God. Rejecting YHWH and turning to the Baals and Asherah poles is the height of personal and national sin highlighted by the Hebrew prophets. In the prophets and 1-2 Kings idolatry is what "breaks the camel's back," so to speak, and signals that the nation's rebellion against YHWH has reached its full measure, resulting in God's wrath upon His people who are no longer His people.

In Hosea, idolatry is symbolized as an act of spiritual adultery. Israel has cheated on YHWH. In Isaiah, idolatry is portrayed as absurd and non-sensical. Why would people turn from a living God Who had performed such incredible acts of grace on behalf of His people to stones and pieces of wood, representing so-called deities that were really not gods at all?

But in Jeremiah 2:10-13, we get another picture of idolatry. Speaking for YHWH, Jeremiah calls out to the southern nation of Judah (Israel had already been judged and destroyed by this time) and says: "For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, in order to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water" (2:13). In this verse, idolatry is the result of misplaced desires. It is the result of looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. It is the result of believing that true fulfillment, satisfaction, and the meeting of one's needs will be found somewhere else other than the God Who has proven Himself faithful time and time again.

I found that Jeremiah's metaphor for idolatry truly resonates with me, right now. I have an incredible ability to deceive myself into thinking that the best way to assuage my fatigue is to sit in front of a television, computer game, novel, or some other form of brain passivity instead of finding true rest in the One Who gives true rest. I'm not sure what happens in the interval between a satisfying time of prayer, meditation, Scripture study, or meaningful fellowship with another believer (either in person or through a written work) and the time when I am in need of such things again that causes me to dig another broken cistern instead of returning to the life-giving stream. I have no other word for it than laziness.

The "flesh" is probably a better word. More encompassing. More Pauline, anyway.

I have appreciated the analysis of the psychology of idolatry offered by C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine of the 4th and 5th centuries.

A painting of St. Augustine (354-430) by the Italian painter Vincenzo Foppa in 1465-70.

Concerning our continual journey for pleasure, Augustine wrote that it is not pleasure itself that is bad, but a delight in created things that does not point our enjoyment to the Creator Himself. A delight in the created as an end in itself is idolatry. When this delight results in a greater love, appreciation or awe of the Trinity, then we are properly using the created order for that which it was intended.

Augustine wrote:

"When that which is loved is near, it necessarily brings delight with it also. If you pass on through this delight and have referred it to that goal where you should remain (delight in God), you are using it and may only improperly be said to enjoy it. But if you cling to that delight and remain in it, making it the end of your rejoicing, then you may truly and properly be said to be enjoying it. And this kind of enjoyment should not be indulged except with reference to the Trinity, which is the highest good and is immutable."

--On Christian Doctrine, XXXIII.37

With a similar sentiment, C.S. Lewis said in his sermon entitled "The Weight of Glory":

" would seem that Our Lord find our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Lately, my problem has been digging another broken cistern or playing in my mud-puddle and then getting angry when I find, once again, that my true needs are not met. My idolatry does not just affect me. My sin always affects others. Especially my sin of idolatry.

I want to know more of finding a "holiday" in God. I don't think it means just a perpetual state of emotional bliss. I think it is akin to what Paul means in Philippians 3:10 when he writes, "...that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death..." This passage reveals that knowing Christ in such a way was the pinnacle of Paul's desires. Paul knew and understood from his theology (and his experience, I believe) that there is such a thing as deep joy and fulfillment to be found in knowing God through Christ that puts our sufferings in a new light. This is the delight I seek.

Lord, help me cast down my idols.


stephen e. buerger said...

i believe this is one of the most accurate descriptions of where i am in my own life that i have read in a long time. C.S Lewis' quote, Jeremiah 2, and Philippians 3 are all passages that i have thought about a lot recently. especially Philippians 3:7-15. it has, for lack of better words, been my "theme" passage for the past year or so. my main focus has been, for the most part, on the ultimate goal and centrality of knowing Christ. after all, Paul considers everything as rubbish in its view. however, more recently has the idea of delight in this goal come to the foreground.

this is where my hope in God fulfilling His promises is boosted. i can have faith in my prayers that God will bring to fruition His desired results in this area because it's also God's greatest goal for our lives to know Him.

John Buerger said...


I greatly appreciate your comment, especially the last paragraph about having faith that God will answer such prayers regarding delight in Christ. I agree with you. I need to stop asking for small presents under the tree and start asking for life-changing finding ultimate delight in Christ.

Love ya,