[This post is part of the Idolatry series]
A close friend of our family had continuing health problems during my last year at home before I moved to Dallas. She was generally always cheerful, but had slowly turned less so as she became sicker and sicker, and there was little to no explanation why. Finally, during some surgery to remove her gallbladder (thinking it might be the culprit), the problem was finally discovered.
Not just a tumor though. Cobwebs and cobwebs of cancerous tissue permeating her entire body. There was nothing to be done, it had intertwined with in all her vitals. She died within 90 days.
It is sobering to imagine that this could be any one of us, or any of our loved ones. What we don’t realize though is that this is us. Sin is just as much of a sickness that eventually kills our body as it is specific things that we do against God and His law. In fact, Scripture at times seems to employ the terms in rather distinct fashion implying that sin (singular) is like a disease that infects our body, while sins (plural) are things that we do because of the underlying infection (for a compelling study of this and how God’s plan of redemption counteracts both see Arthur Custance, Man in Adam and Christ, 284-313).
It is as if the things we do in offense to a holy God are the symptoms. Something else is the infecting virus. This is common understanding within the field of medicine, for example, imagine these symptoms:
- Soaking night sweats
- Shaking chills or fever higher than 100 F (38 C) for several weeks
- Dry cough and shortness of breath
- Chronic diarrhea
- Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
- Blurred and distorted vision
- Weight loss
These are all symptoms of the onset of full blown AIDS developing from the HIV virus. To simply treat these symptoms individually is to ignore the disease, to the patient’s detriment. In either case though, death is inevitable.
Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, and orgies. These are symptoms, the infamous works of the flesh in Galatians 5. Any number of remedies could correct these behaviors, but there is no human cure for the underlying problem. The sin sickness in us is the underlying cause, to simply correct the behaviors is to treat the symptoms not the disease, to the patient’s detriment. In either case, death is inevitable.
Unless, God intervenes.
This of course is the Gospel. We, being infected with a terminal illness and so manifest symptoms that are equally damnable, are hopelessly doomed to death and eternal ruin. But since we couldn’t do anything to cure ourselves, God provided a cure for us in the work and person of His son Jesus Christ. The only cure for the symptoms we are manifesting is to behold the glory of Christ and to worship Him as our God and Savior, because that and that alone starts to counteract the underlying the disease. Christ’s work on the cross, when applied to us, strikes a decisive blow to our sickness but it doesn’t eradicate it fully. At least not in this life.
The proper term for people who have realized this, as God opens their minds, is Christians. But simply realizing the truth of the Gospel and seeing Christ as He is truly meant to be seen does not immediately cure the sickness in our souls. It is the remedy for sure, but the sickness so pervades our system that our body will eventually succumb to it regardless. No matter how holy a person becomes in this life (stops manifesting symptoms) they will still die because the only way to rid the body of the infection is to destroy it and recreate it anew.
Just like the only freedom from AIDS is death, the only freedom from sin is death.
So where does this leave us?
We are naive to think that because of the work of Christ in His death and resurrection that the new life we receive is free from our depravity. This is the mistake of Waking the Dead. That freedom will occur, but not in this life.
However, we can start to appropriate the remedy as we begin to become more Christlike. This however is only achieved as we reckon with our idolatry. I realize that idolatry appeared above in the list of other works of the flesh, however from the studies I have done recently of the core of the Old Testament as well as background concern of the New Testament, idolatry seems to emerge as the paradigmatic issue that is at work in our hearts, conversion or not. To see briefly how this might work, we need to turn back to Genesis and clarify a few things before pushing forward.
Genesis 1:26-27 (NET): Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule, over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” God created humankindin his own image,in the image of God he created them,male and female he created them.
According to the NET Bible notes (tn49):
The word צֶלֶם (tselem, “image”) is used frequently of statues, models, and images – replicas (see D. J. A. Clines, “The Etymology of Hebrew selem,” JNSL 3 : 19-25). The word דְּמוּת (démut, “likeness”) is an abstract noun; its verbal root means “to be like; to resemble.” In the Book of Genesis the two terms describe human beings who in some way reflect the form and the function of the creator. The form is more likely stressing the spiritual rather than the physical. The “image of God” would be the God-given mental and spiritual capacities that enable people to relate to God and to serve him by ruling over the created order as his earthly vice-regents. [emphasis added]
It would seem from this a rather clear picture emerges of what the purpose of being created in the image and likeness of God is. Just as Adam the original image bearer was to reflect the character of God, which included mirroring the divine glory, so we are to do the same (Beale, 131). However we are all a bit aware that we do not necessarily do that to the degree we are supposed to be doing.
Adam failed in it right off the bat, but why?
The Root Issue
The best concise definition of idolatry is that it is an attack on God’s exclusive rights to our love and trust (Rosner, 148). It is for this reason that the Israelites’ relationship with God is pictured in terms of a marriage (love) and a kingdom (trust).
“If when God is conceived of as the husband he demands exclusive love and devotion, as king he demands trust and confidence in his ability to provide for and protect those under his care.” (Rosner, 143)
If we are to proceed with the assumption that human beings are created to show ultimate love and devotion to something or someone, the message of the Bible is that that person is God made manifest to us in His Son Jesus.
Idolatry then, is whenever we do this to someone or something else.
In the case of Adam, Genesis 3 very clearly depicts him, at the least, shifting his ultimate allegiance away from God to himself and at worst also to Satan (Beale, 133). The reason for including the latter is that Adam in some ways begins to reflect the serpent (!) rather God, whom he was specifically made to reflect. We see this in Adam’s lack of straightforward answer to God’s question about eating from the tree (deception, like the serpent 3:1, 13) as well as exhibiting a lack of faith in God’s word, just as the serpent is portrayed as doing (3:1, 4-5). Adam shifted from trusting God to trusting the serpent and so began to reflect the serpent rather than God (Beale, 133).
This at bottom is the clearest evidence of idolatry present in someone’s life. You start to resemble something or someone other than God. Whatever you give your love, devotion, and trust to, that is who or what you worship. You become like what you worship. To the extent that you are not becoming more Christ-like, you are still mired in idolatry in some area of your life.
We all claim to worship the Triune God of the Bible, but to the extent that we are not significantly growing in our conformity to the image of Christ, we are being conformed to something else, and not just because we are passive agents in the situation.
No, rather we actively seek out people and things to worship.
And this is the root of the issue.