Are all the ten commandments relevant to us Christians? What about the second which forbids idolatry? What relevance does that have to us?
Increasingly in “multi-faith” Britain, the second commandment has direct relevance. It also does in some Christian circles where there is a heavy use of symbols. The danger is that the symbols easily become idols. A statue of Mary, for example, is not in itself wrong. But, given the human tendency to idolatry, it can easily be misused.
Scripture not only condemns crude idolatry: regarding the idol itself as a god. But it also condemns associating God specially with some physical object. So the golden calf in the Old Testament was condemned, yet it was probably only regarded as a pedestal on which God sat. But it became an object of worship. Similarly sacred carved stones which were associated with the divine presence were condemned. Neither the calf nor the stones were regarded as being God. But they were condemned as idolatrous.
But what about those who are not into any of these things. What is the relevance of the second commandment to us? Well, it is possible to commit mental or spiritual idolatry.
We need to distinguish clearly between revelation and imagination. Christianity is based on revelation. God doesn’t leave us to make up our religion. He revealed himself through Jesus and through Scripture.
Idolatry involves human beings making up their own version of God. And we can do that. It is like mental idolatry: a wrong mental image of God. One favourite example amongst the British is the spaceman-god. He started the universe then went away. He doesn’t intervene in the world. He is an idol.
Then there is the grandfather-god. He is a big softie who spoils us and ignores our bad behaviour. We don’t have to worry too much about him: he’s harmless. We can rejoice in our assurance of being saved and not worry to much about holiness. He is an idol.
Then there is the speed-camera god. He’s just the opposite of the previous one. And he’s a favourite of those who have had an over-strict or unloving human father. This God is just waiting for us to overstep the mark so he can condemn us. Followers of this god tend to feel unnecessary guilt and condemnation. He is an idol.
There is also the fireman god. He is only useful in an emergency. The rest of the time he can be safely ignored. Of course, we wouldn’t be as crude as that. But how often do we not get around to praying about things? We worry; we strive; we ask others to help us. We forget to pray. Prayer is the last resort rather than the first. There are many other idolatrous views of God.
One of the biggest differences between Christianity and idolatry is that in the former we gladly submit to our loving heavenly Father and in the latter worshippers manipulate the god. Idolatry is essentially selfish. If the god can be appeased it will mean blessing on our business or good health or protection.
Sadly, Christians can fall into this selfishness. Some Christians are only in the faith for what they can get out of it. Like chocolate soldiers they melt in the heat of battle or challenge. They are trying to manipulate God for their own purposes.
Another form of this is the “Name it: Claim it” brigade. They are into “faith” and “positive confession”. Believing, for example, that God wants them to be prosperous, they decide to “believe” for a bigger, newer car (which they don’t need). So they make a “positive confession”, affirming before God and others that they believe God has agreed to give them the car.
Sometimes it works: but it is not Christianity. It is the sort of manipulation idolaters get into. Before ever “positive confession” is justified one must “listen” to God and receive his guidance as to what is his will. When you know that it is not wrong to “confess” it. But that is submission to God not manipulation.
Then there are those Christians who claim that God has told them to do wrong or stupid things. Christians have claimed that God has told them to leave their spouse and to go off with someone else. God hasn’t told them any such thing because he doesn’t contradict his Word. Such attempts to manipulate God are a form of idolatry.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction