Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
heir idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak …
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.”
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
We naturally want to grow more like the God that we serve. The divine image serves as a template. When we obey the First Commandment and make Christ our denominator, we actively grow more like Christ as time passes. This spiritual principle works in our lives whether or not we acknowledge it, a kind of spiritual least-squares computation.
Spiritual Least Squares
Statisticians use the sum of least-squares principle to estimate the coefficients of an equation describing a set of data. That is, they try to minimize the deviations of the data from a line drawn through the data at discrete intervals along the line. This computation can be calculated in multiple dimensions and the line can be generalized as a curve. In a spiritual sense, Christians talk about using their prayer life to establish Christ as lord of increasing aspects of their life, this is the spiritual least-squares principle at work.
Idolatry as False Priorities
If Christ is the first priority in your life, then everything in life is measured relative to Christ like a denominator. If not, then something other than Christ becomes your denominator. Whatever this thing is other than Christ becomes your idol.
Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3)
The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exod 20:4-6)
Psalm 115, cited above, focuses on idolatry as carved images in pagan temple worship. Idolatry today is a bit more sophisticated.
Idolatry and Priorities
The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them.” Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number-one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god (Hoekema 1994, 84). Giglio (2003, 13) writes:
“So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy. You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your loyalty. At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne; and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship.”
Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.
Idolatry Hampers Spiritual Formation
Focusing only on time, how much time do you spend each week in activities contributing to your spiritual formation as compared with other activities? Many men spend much of their free time in shoot-them-up video games, often developed by the armed forces for training soldiers. Is it any wonder that, in spite of the fact that automatic weapons have been available since the 1920s, it is only in the last decade that we have seen a rise in mass shootings in public places in the United States unrelated to any political or economic agenda? Intensive activities form us and become part of our identity—spiritual formation is not the only formation that takes place.
Poor formation leads us to worship idols that let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy (Hos 8:4).
The Problem of Suicide
Consider what happens if your number-one priority is work and you lose your job? In spite of record low unemployment, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are at record levels in the United States, and have contributed to a decline in life expectancy (Bernstein 2018).
Amidst the high level of suicide (Tavernise 2016), two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest a tie to idolatry.
Death by suicide is just the tip of the iceberg according to Mason (2014, 28): “Based on large national surveys, for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.” If psychiatric problems, such as addictions, anxiety, and depression, have a spiritual root, then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem. A solution requires dealing with the root cause. May (1988, 14-16) defines addiction as: “A state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” and specifically relates it to idolatry.
Deviations from the divine image lead us where we do not want to go: doing evil, practicing perversity, or becoming insane. As a practical matter, the spiritual least-squares principle demonstrates how to be a whole person because we are created in the image of God. There are an infinite number of ways to be broken—the biblical metric called sin, but only one way to be made whole. Recognizing God as our template puts us on the path to restoration of our true identity.
As Christians, we do not focus on the evil, perversity, and insanity of life, but on their antidote; we focus on Christ. As the Apostle John wrote: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Because we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy is part of his care for us. The Jewish daily prayer, known in Hebrew as the Shema (the name), goes like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5) Loving God above all else serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.
Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29.
Giglio, Louis. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Publishers.
Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.
Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.
Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.
Problems of evil, perversity, and insanity
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net
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