In my Bible reading this morning, I came across the phrase “put away the foreign gods” and realized that it comes up over and over again the Old Testament. Instead of creating and arrogant and judgmental provincialism, pondering what it means for us today could lead to a whole new way of living:
Thoughtful people sometimes have a hard time reading the Old Testament because the Old Testament God as mean, judgmental, violent, utterly other than the God of the New Testament, where Christ is revealed as compassionate, non-violent, loving his enemies rather than destroying them. Rather than seeing these two Gods as different, I’d propose that they’re one in the same, passionately loving people and desiring that they live into the rich blessings of life available to them when they worship the true God.
“The true God” is offensive language these days for some people, who think it provincial, narrow minded, and arrogant, to speak of one true God. But what if you lived by three streams, and two of them were polluted with chemical and human waste, while third offered life giving pure water. You see a friend walking down to one of the poison streams for a drink. What do you do? If you’re any kind of friend at all, you shout, “Stop – that stuff will kill you!” This, of course, is the point that God is trying to make in the Old Testament. The God who made the seasons, the rivers, the wild kingdoms of life that fill our planet, the beauty, the hope, the pleasure of sex, the joy of community, our longings for peace and justice – this is the God who shouts “poison! stay away!” when we wander off towards the polluted waters of idolatry.
Seen through this lens, the Old Testament becomes a very interesting read! We come to discover God shouting out warnings about the poisons that will kill God’s people. We also find that God’s people never give God the finger and walk away outright. Instead, they simply want to drink from all the streams, adding other gods to their religious menu. God sends prophets to remind them that it’s no good thinking that the good stream provides immunity from the poisoned streams. You need to stay away from the poison streams and drink entirely from one stream.
All good evangelicals are following along so far, and we’re nodding our heads in agreement. But wait. If the pattern among God’s people back then holds true today, the warning has little to do with us abandoning our faith outright, walking away from Christ in favor of other lesser “gods” (read “other religions”). That’s its own subject of course, and worth addressing. But the real warning from the old days is that God’s people are good at piling god upon god, trying to enjoy all the streams at the same time. This danger is greater than walking away because of its subtlety. We can walk through the aisle of idols that is our culture, picking and choosing those that satisfy and adding them to our cart, all the while comforting ourselves with the false notion that as long we go to church, read our Bibles, stay sober, and give, all’s well.
The problem, of course, isn’t just that idols represent infidelity. The problem is that idols kill us- they suck the divine life right out of us, filling us with all that’s destructive. What kind of idols am I talking about?
1. Materialism/Consumerism. When 5% of world’s population (USA) consumes 30% of the world’s natural resources, no matter how you slice it you still need to call it materialism and consumerism. Idols give meaning to our lives, and the consumption, waste, and debt statistics for America can’t hide the fact that many find meaning in our lives through what we buy and consume. Our economy asks consumption of us, elevates buying as the criteria by which the heath of our nation is determined. To the extent that we buy into this value, we’re drinking from a death dealing stream.
It’s death dealing because for many of the produces of the products. It’s death dealing for the consumer debt it produces, and the subsequent strain on marriages and work life. It’s dealing for the pollution it creates and subsequent species it destroys. And it’s death dealing because it creates anxiety. As Jesus says, “what shall eat, what shall we drink?” etc.
When we walk away from this stream, seeking intentionally to live more simply, Jesus tells us that we can become carefree, like the birds, who live in the rhythms of God’s gracious provision without worrying about tomorrow. Our insistence, though, on creature comforts, pleasures, entertainments, and status symbols end up sucking the life out of us.
2. Individualism. In a hyper mobile consumerist world, we tend to isolate from each other. Whether it’s because we can now all listen to our own carefully selected “just for me” playlists, or the fact that when relationships get tough we can simply change them out like a fresh set of clothes: new church, new neighborhood, new spouse – whatever the reason, the loneliness epidemic presents itself to us in various forms of social anxieties, illnesses, and phobias. What’s to be done?
I need to acknowledge that my lack of community is sin. After all, if I’m called to Christ, I’m called to love God and love my neighbor. Jesus goes to great lengths in order that we might see our neighbor as not only those in proximity, but those far away, including far away ideologically. Community is difficult at times. Community is inconvenient. Community is mutual, meaning that sometimes I’m giving more, and sometimes I’m receiving more. Community includes both laughter and tears – hard words and encouraging words.
Community, in a hyper individualized society, is viewed as optional, but those who opt out know a pain that must then be numbed by some substance, or some sex, or some more shopping.
No wonder God is angry in the Old Testament when people give in to idols. They’re missing the life of joy, contentment, relationship, and health for which they were created.
The irony in this entire discussion is that church people are sometimes less likely to see these idols than those with no formal religious training. The former, you see, have been taught to fear and vilify other religious systems. “Watch out for…” and then we fill in the blank with whatever is knocking at the door. I get this. The centrality of Christ as the source of life must be protected at all Christ. But the bigger danger for most of us reading this, isn’t that we’ll wake up one day and walk out on God. It’s that we’ll keep doing “God things” while slowly adapting to the cultural idols that are so pervasive as to be unrecognizable. We’ll become materialistic, consumerist, lonely, anxious, overworked, stressed, and assume that this is just the way it is.
Yes. It’s always that way. When we drink from the streams of idols.