I’ve been thinking, reading and studying quite a bit around the topic of idolatry lately. I know. Idolatry. It’s not necessarily the word on the tip of our tongues. Most recently, I was reading this verse: “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” There is none like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:5-6). During my time in California, I didn’t spend time in any fields. I knew that food grew in them, and that someone had to water, plant and harvest. But I had no idea what the actual process looked like. Two years ago, I moved to Cornwall. I still have much to learn, but I discovered the value of a good scarecrow. The contrast in this passage is quite a simple one.
The things we worship, the idols that distract our hearts from God, are about as powerful as a mute, fixed, pole-like image.
They hold a purpose, but a purpose without any eternal power or might. They’re about as effective as scarecrows in a cucumber field. Idolatry can seem like another word for another culture. It reminds me of Buddhist temples and faraway calls to prayer. Perhaps you have been to these places, climbed the stairs while monkeys tugged at your skirt, stood in front of golden statues with incense and honey mingling in your nostrils.
The remnants of idols seem to belong to places like these, which is why it is so startling to find this verse closing 1 John: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). It would be easy to take this Scripture and explain it away as we do with so many others… “Oh that’s for someone else…Or for another context…Another place…That one’s not for me.” The Word of God speaks truth to our hearts, and it is truth for today.
Threaded throughout the Old Testament, we have this picture of idols. They are worshipped by the old and the young, and the ultimate reality is that idols reveal not a tangible figurine but the state of our hearts, and the ultimate, continuing desire of God is, “That I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols” (Ezekiel 14:5).
In my life, an idol is A N Y thing that takes place in my heart above my love for God.
That becomes a challenging criterion. Because if I wrote this question: “Who worships idols?” The response would be minimal. But if I ask: “Have we ever loved something more than God?” The question pierces with a different depth. The answer is inextricably woven with any object, person, desire, or opinion that has ever consumed our hearts and affections with ferocity; anything that has, holds the place of overriding passion in our lives.
We can choose to make idols out of very good things: ministry, family, friendships, coffee, video games, films, or fun. To quote one of my pastors, Britt Merrick, “We know it is an idol when we begin to sacrifice for it.” And in my own life, even when they have been beautiful, idols blind my love for an eternal God. To borrow a phrase from Jane Eyre that describes two years of my life: “I could not, in those days, see God for His creature, of whom I had made an idol.”
The steadfast love of God is unfailing, but in our modern world, we are still seeking a tangible source of hope for our success and identity. The comment of Jonah, with the clarity of three days ensconced in the belly of a fish, feels remarkably modern: “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8).
The passage from 1 John so simply, so beautifully, so lovingly reminds us that there is a best word for our lives. Our God delights in loving us, and He very simply says this: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). His word is a guard and a guide to our hearts. For the people or things who pull our soul from God and the ideas that distract our hearts, may I recommend the expulsive power of a greater affection?
It is hard, if not impossible, to simply say: Stop loving your idols. Stop desiring distractions.
But it is easy to pray this: “God, give me a greater affection for you and for the things of your Spirit.” In Jeremiah, God didn’t mock the scarecrows and the cucumber fields. He didn’t need to. When we see an idol for what it really is, the attraction and appeal fades very quickly.
“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies” (Philippians 4:8-9 MSG).