Addiction & Idolatry
In his excellent book on the subject of power (Playing God), author Andy Crouch describes the connection between idolatry and addiction:
In modern, secular societies perhaps the clearest example of idolatry is the pattern we call addiction. Addictions begin with essentially good, created stuff; even the chemicals that become addictive drugs are part of God’s good creation and often have beneficial uses in the right context. But in the throes of addiction, we invest that created stuff with transcendent expectations.
It begins to hold out the promise of becoming like a god. The most powerfully addictive substances, like crystal meth, are the ones that can deliver the most dramatic sensations of godlike freedom, confidence and abundance—in other words, power. A behavior like gambling promises to give us a sense of mastery over the random forces of nature and the ability to bring something out of nothing, to create wealth without having to work. Pornography promises intimacy without risk, commitment and the limitations of our often awkward and vulnerable bodies.
Asking for More and More and Giving Less & Less
All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands, which initially seemed so reasonable, for worship and sacrifice. In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.
Baal In America
I know most Americans today do not worship Baal, but when I look at the church in America, I fear that we have our own Baals that demand our worship. I see so many people bowing down before prosperity theology and the idea that God just wants to make us wealthy and happy.
I see people entrapped by the “-isms”—racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and so many others—that divide our church, choosing first to obey and revere these divisive systems rather than the God who has called us to be reconciled to one another and to be one in Christ Jesus…We surround ourselves with people who are like us and value like-mindedness over genuine love and care for our neighbor.
Martin Luther’s larger catechism discussion of the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me” [Ex 20:3]) included “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.” I might add here, “whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security” “The idol is whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.”
These are good and basic definitions of idolatry. The word idolatry can refer to the worship of other gods besides the true God, or the reverence of images. According to both the ancient Near East and the Old Testament, an idol or image contained a god’s presence, though that presence was not limited to the image. The ultimate biblical assessment about the purported divine reality behind idols is well summarized by Christopher Wright:
Although gods and idols are something in the world, they are nothing in comparison to the living God…
[W]hile gods and idols may be implements of or gateways to the world of the demonic, the overwhelming verdict of Scripture is that they are the work of human hands, constructs of our own fallen and rebellious imagination…[T]he primal problem with idolatry is that it blurs the distinction between the Creator God and the creation. This both damages creation (including ourselves) and diminishes the glory of the Creator.
Since God’s mission is to restore creation to its full original purpose of bringing all glory to God himself and thereby to enable all creation to enjoy the fullness of blessings that he desires for it, God battles against all forms of idolatry and calls us to join him in that conflict…
[W]e need to understand the whole breadth of the Bible’s exposure of the deleterious effects of idolatry in order to appreciate its seriousness and the reason for the Bible’s passionate rhetoric about it.
The Downside to Idols
Suppose my god is sex or my physical health or the Democratic Party. If I experience any of these under genuine threat, then I feel myself shaken to the depths. Guilt becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…. Suppose I value my ability to teach and communicate clearly…
If clear communication has become an absolute value for me, a center of value that makes all my other values valuable…then if I [fail in teaching well] I am stricken with neurotic guilt. Bitterness becomes neurotically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value.
Five Thousand Churches
Fred Allen (1984-1956) was a famous American comedian, writer, and radio star. When fellow comic Jack Parr first met Allen, he burst out, “You are my God!” Allen replied with the characteristic wit of an improvisor, ““There are five thousand churches in New York and you have to be an atheist.”
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.
Getting Your Deepest Desire Isn’t Always a Good Thing
My wife and I once knew a single woman, Anna, who wanted desperately to have children. She eventually married, and contrary to the expectations of her doctors, was able to bear two healthy children despite her age. But her dreams did not come true. Her overpowering drive to give her children a perfect life made it impossible for her to actually enjoy them. Her overprotectiveness, fears and anxieties, and her need to control every detail of her children’s lives made the family miserable.
Identifying the Idols of a City
Identifying the idols of the city takes place in the untamed context of spiritual warfare. Those who are engaged in mapping the idolatry of the city know that this process is not simply a rational, cognitive, scholarly engagement. It is first and foremost a spiritual battle involving spiritual discernment. Acts 17:16 tells us that in Athens, Paul was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” He was spiritually disturbed.
Unless we feel-we sense and experience-that sense of distress, uneasiness, and spiritual discomfort, all talk about idols will be meaningless. To identify the idols of the city… is a matter of spiritual discernment in the context of spiritual warfare. It is a matter of having our spiritual senses geared to the spiritual condition of the city….
It is altogether different from a romantic love for the city. It is different from a naive approach to urbanization. Of course, cities are to be loved, but unless we experience that sense of spiritual angst for the city, that sense of unrest, that sting that punches us and makes us vulnerable, we will not be able to map the idols of the city..,. willingness to pay the cost of spiritual participation is an essential ingredient towards identifying idols. Identifying the idols of the city requires spiritual suffering and pain.
Idolatry in a Postmodern Age
In Easter Everywhere: A Memoir, Darcey Steinke recounts how she, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, left her Christian profession. Moving to New York City she entered a life of club hopping and sexual obsession. She wrote several novels. She continued, however, to be extremely restless and unfulfilled. In the middle of the book she quotes from Simone Weill as summarizing the main issue in her life.
“One has only the choice between God and idolatry,”Weil wrote.“If one denies God … one is worshiping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them.”
Timothy Keller, from the article How to Talk About Sin in a Postmodern Age
The Ring of Desire
The central plot device of The Lord of the Rings is the Dark Lord Sauron’s Ring of Power, which corrupts anyone who tries to use it, however good his or her intentions. The Ring is what Professor Tom Shippey calls “a psychic amplifier,” which takes the heart’s fondest desires and magnifies them to idolatrous proportions. Some good characters in the book want to liberate slaves, or preserve their people’s land, or visit wrongdoers with just punishment.
These are all good objectives. But the Ring makes them willing to do anything to achieve them, anything at all. It turns the good thing into an absolute that overturns every other allegiance or value. The wearer of the Ring becomes increasingly enslaved and addicted to it, for an idol is something we cannot live without. We must have it, and therefore it drives us to break rules we once honored, to harm others and even ourselves in order to get it.
Steve Jobs’ (The Founder of Apple) Idol
Steve Jobs’s idol was food. This is perhaps the most surprising and wrenching revelation of Isaacson’s admiring book: from early in his life, Steve Jobs was obsessed with food in ways that increasingly dominated his attention, distorted his relationships and affected his decisions…
According to Isaacson, the various diets, often based on raw food and almost always vegetarian or vegan, gave Jobs an exhilarating and ecstatic sense of energy and control…
Like all idols, his obsession with food worked at first. It was part of Jobs’s larger project of attaining to superhuman amounts of control over his surroundings and other people—intimately linked with his perfectionism in other areas of life. But the picture that emerges in the course of Isaacson’s biography is of an addiction that gradually demanded more and more, while benefiting Jobs less and less, and cost him dearly in his relationships with his family and his own health.
Indeed, Jobs’s idolatrous relationship to food may very well have cost him his life. In October 2003, when a routine scan turned up evidence of cancer in Jobs’s pancreas, Jobs’s doctors had every reason to expect the worst. Pancreatic cancer, at any age, is normally a swift death sentence. But when Jobs’s doctors saw the results of an initial biopsy, tears of joy came to their eyes. Jobs had islet cell cancer, a rare version of pancreatic cancer that is slow-growing and consequently almost always curable with prompt surgery to remove the pancreas. And at this moment Jobs’s idol—food as a method of control—failed him.
As Isaacson writes:
To the horror of his friends and wife, Jobs decided not to have surgery to remove the tumor, which was the only accepted medical approach. “I really didn’t want them to open up my body, so I tried to see if a few other things would work,” he told me years later with a hint of regret. Specifically, he kept to a strict vegan diet…
For nine months, as his friends and family pleaded with him to have the surgery, Jobs refused. Not until July of the next year did he consent to the “modified Whipple procedure” to remove part of his pancreas. During the surgery, doctors found that the cancer had spread to the liver. Jobs would never again be free of cancer, and just over eight years later he was dead at age fifty-six.
Isaacson attributes Jobs’s failure to promptly acquiesce to surgery…to “the dark side of his reality distortion field,” his unwillingness to engage with hard realities when he didn’t want to…He was in the terminal stage, not of cancer, but of idolatry, when the idol ceases entirely to deliver but exacts its full demands for unwavering worship. Even after Jobs’s surgery, according to Isaacson, his unwillingness to modify his diet to include reasonable amounts of protein almost certainly complicated his recovery and ability to benefit from chemotherapy… What few knew or suspected was that his exiguous frame was not just the result of his cancer and treatment but his own dependence on control through food.
Transferring Our Hope
Idols are dangerous when a worshiper, having lost patience in God, transfers his hope and joy into a deity represented by a handmade thing and cries to it: “Awake and arise!” In this move, human anticipation and expectation animate the dead idol into a deceptive liar.
Whittled things become replacements for a seemingly far-off god the moment we implicitly expect our spectacles to arise and awaken and to grant us the joy and security only to be found in the living God of the universe…
We all Worship Something
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech, “This is Water”
Why Did the Isrealites Worship a Calf?
Why did Israel create at Sinai a calf idol instead of an image of some other animal? The likely reason is that a calf or bull was among the most important of the Egyptian animal images that represented Egypt’s gods (e.g., it was held to represent the god Ptah), and the Israelites had worshiped Egypt’s gods before coming out of Egypt, presumably including Ptah. It is not clear whether or not Israel’s statement, “these are your gods, who brought you up from the land of Egypt,” refers to another deity or a representation of the true God by a pagan image.
The latter of these is likely the case in Exodus 32 because of the identification in verse 8 with the divine agent of the exodus. However, the distinction does not seem significant, since the text of Exodus 32 itself explicitly refers to this event as idolatry; “your people …have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’ ” This evaluation of the calf worship as idolatrous is in line with Exodus 20, which says not only that is it wrong to “have other…gods before Me” (Ex 20:3) but that it is forbidden to “make for yourself an image or any likeness” of any created thing (Ex 20:4), even if that image is seen to represent Israel’s God, the latter of which is likely the case in Exodus 32 because of the identification in verse 8 with the divine agent of the exodus.
You Can Do Better
In his excellent book, The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith shares this short little anecdote from the world of bumper stickers. While funny, it also brings up the commonplace idolatry that exists in modern life.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Fishing is my life.” My first thought was, That guy can do better. But my second thought was, Sounds like idolatry. A better bumper sticker would read: “Fishing: Thanks, God.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Idolatry. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!