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By Ted Schroder
September 18, 2016

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6)

"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..... 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....Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need every 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. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self." (David Foster Wallace)

"Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." It is unconscious -- what we gradually slip into without ever being fully aware that's what you're doing! What do you think you worship? Give the highest value to? Respect and reverence the most? Privacy? Self-sufficiency? Freedom? Security? Comfort? Health? To be needed? Work? What is our default setting? Worship of self?

When St. Paul went to Athens, "he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." (Acts 17:16) He proclaimed that "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands....we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone -- an image made of man's design and skill." (Acts 17:24, 29) To the Corinthians he wrote: "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one." (1 Corinthians 8:4)

How does this commandment apply to us today? Making of idols is a way to domesticate God, to control God, to make God more accessible, and more familiar to us. It is to make God in our own image of what we conceive him to be, of what we desire him to be. "You thought," says the Lord in the psalm, "I was altogether like you." (Psalm 50:21)

"Churches can make idols of their buildings, their liturgy, their music. Whenever we are more concerned with what we sing than we are with prayer and praise of God himself, whenever we are more concerned with what outreach programs we support than we are concerned with the good of the church, then we are guilty of idolatry as sure as we are bowing down before graven images." (John Yates, The Falls Anglican Church, Falls Church, VA)

When we investigate recurring popular images of God we find that they have been passed down from one generation to another. Many people have been crippled by the images of God they have inherited. J.B. Phillips wrote a book entitled, Your God is Too Small, in which he discussed some of the stereotypes people had of God. Here are some of them: God as Resident Policeman, as Parental Hangover, as a Grand Old Man, as Absolute Perfection, as Heavenly Bosom, as Managing Director. In the process of counseling many people have had to eliminate these conceptions of God. These images of God have been rejected as people matured, but nothing may have been put in their place. They have not found in their adulthood a God big enough to account for life and to fit their experiences. As a result they either drift in their faith, or are prey to someone who comes along and takes advantage of their needs with a spurious idol, or else they become disillusioned and give up on Christianity as childish nonsense. Their God was too small for their lives, and they discovered that their lives were being cramped by their image of God. Their image of God had to go in order to grow. But they had no better image with which to replace it.

Christians believe that the true image of God is to be found in Jesus. "He is the image of the invisible God." (Colossians 1:15) When we read the pages of the New Testament we find a true picture of God in the life of Jesus. Yet ever since the coming of Jesus every age has interpreted him differently. It seems that we take from the New Testament the aspect of the life of Jesus that fits our needs. Apparently this was a problem in the early church. False teachers presented rival images of Jesus and God to the first Christians. St. Paul had to confront it in his letters. He used the same language as in the second commandment: "I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you received a different spirit from the one you received, or a different Gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough." (2 Corinthians 11:2-4)

John Stott in The Incomparable Christ writes, "Down the centuries of the Christian era hundreds of different Jesuses have been on offer in the world's religious supermarkets. Some resonate with contemporary culture, but only by manipulating Scripture. Others are biblically faithful but culturally alien." (p.79) He lists some of these images of Jesus. Justin Martyr in the second century presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the pagan philosophers. St. Benedict in the sixth century presented Jesus as the perfect monk. St. Anselm in the eleventh century presented God as the feudal overlord, and Jesus as representing sinful humanity, as the feudal vassal debtor. Thomas a Kempis in the fourteenth century presented Jesus as the moral exemplar, and Christianity as his imitation. Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment presented Jesus as the human teacher. The Spanish missionaries in South America presented Jesus as the tragic victim, the suffering and bleeding victim. More recently Jesus has been presented as the liberator from social and political oppression, a revolutionary figure.

How do we avoid making idols, false stereotypes, of God in our own image? We need to carefully read the whole of Scripture, so that we don't pick and choose what appeals to us. We want to worship the true God, not a god of our own making, or an image of god that has been corrupted by our culture or family environment.

Michael de Molinos says of the Christian soul, "Let her love God as He is in Himself, and not as her imagination says He is, and pictures Him." God discloses himself to us in his creation and his Word. They are the only reliable images given to us. But they are sufficient.

The Rev. Ted Schroder is pastor of Amelia Chapel on Amelia Island Plantation, Florida

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