Give the People what they Want? The Root of Idolatry

The O’Jays sang “You’ve got to give the people what they want.” They meant, truth, justice, and civil rights. All of those are good things that every person deserves no matter who they are or where they come from.

Giving people what they want is generally a good practice in business too. If you have a restaurant, you won’t do very much business with a menu that’s not very appetizing to people. Sometimes you might be surprised though. From what I understand, at a fall festival they have in Mount Airy, NC, one of the most popular items sold is a collard green sandwich. I’ve never had one, but I think it’s made with cornbread, collard greens, and bacon. Bacon can do wonders with just about anything, but I’m not sure what’s really so appetizing about the collard green sandwich. It’s not quite as popular as the pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch in downtown Mount Airy, but its apparently really popular during The Autumn Leaves Festival.

At any rate, sometimes you’ve just got to give the people what they want. Exodus 32, however, shows that this is not always wise; sometimes there’s a danger in giving people what they want.

Moses had been up on the mountain for a long time communing with God and receiving instruction for the people. God also provided stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved on them, which he had already spoken to the people about. The people had agreed to keep all of God’s commandments and to be faithful to the covenant. But before Moses came back down Mount Sanai with the stone tablets, the people grew impatient. They demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother, make them gods that they could see and touch. They demanded that he make them an idol that they could bow down to, even though God had commanded them not to. Aaron quickly gave in and gave the people what they wanted! He made them a golden calf, a young bull. But it sounds like he tried to rationalize it by associating it with the LORD. The people were just so ecstatic about their shiny new idol that they made sacrifices to it and had a drunken orgy, which is what 1 Cor 10:6-8 indicates.

God informed Moses about what was happening among the people. He was livid! He was ready to start all over again with Moses, kind of like he did with Noah. But Moses interceded with God for the people. He appealed to God’s character, to the honor of God’s name, and to the promise that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob). Although God was righteously indignant, Moses’ prayer reveals that God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving by his very nature.Worshiping_the_golden_calf

Idolatry is a gateway sin. If there is rampant sin among people, you’ll usually be able to trace it back to idolatry. Martin Luther said that faith is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, and obedience to the other commandments flows from there. The reverse may be true as well. When people lose faith in God, they will resort to some form of idolatry that will lead them into further disobedience.

Idolatry emerges from unbelief in God. It is the result of a corruption of the mind, the way we think about God. Stinking thinking leads us to reject the God who created us in his image for gods that we create from our own imagination to suit our own desires. The true God created us in his image to do his will; idolaters create gods in their own image to do their will—to give them what they want. Idolatry is the rejection of the God who is who he is for gods that are what people want them to be. Idols give people the false assurance that they can harness the power of the heavens and bend it to their will.

It is a denial of the reality of God’s nature revealed in God’s word and in the contours of God’s creation. You can detect idolatry that creeps in among God’s people by how they distort the word of God to conform to the idols they worship. Aaron tried to rationalize the idol by calling it the Lord, but this was the same Lord who had clearly prohibited the making of idols. Sometimes what people call the Lord are really only cheap imitations that are actually idols they have conceived to be conformed to their desires and pride.

A mainline theologian at a conference I recently attended apparently does not like the doctrine of original sin. So she spun the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden as being a story of Adam and Eve being victims of child abuse at the hands of the serpent. She said because they were only young children that it’s really a story of “original wounding” not “original sin.” Adam and Eve were wounded victims not sinners. Wounded victims need compassion not judgment.

The problem with that interpretation is that it doesn’t make sense of the biblical story; it makes mincemeat of it. Even in the immediate context, key elements of the story that Genesis 1-3 actually tells have to be ignored altogether. God gave a command to Adam (Gen 2:16-17); Adam and Eve disobeyed that command after being tempted by the serpent, who himself distorted God’s word (Gen 3:1-7); and Adam and Eve were also judged by God, along with serpent, and were exiled from the garden to a life of suffering in a fallen world. This mirrors the pattern of God’s relationship with Israel. Commandments were given. They were promised blessing through obedience and cursing because of disobedience. Because of their disobedience they were exiled from the promised land. To say that Adam and Eve were original victims not original sinners is a massive distortion, really a case of epic eisegesis (reading something into the Bible that is not there).

I suspect the distortion is the result of idolatry. More than likely it is the result of a view of god as a non-judgmental, cosmic therapist of sorts, one who would not punish people because of sin. The story in Genesis 1-3, nonetheless, links suffering with sin and rebellion against God, albeit with the hope of redemption and healing to come through renewed faithfulness.

Any god that would never judge because of sin may be what the people want, but it’s not always wise to give people what they want. Aaron gave people what they wanted and it led to disaster. Even with the forgiveness of God there were negative consequences. False gods always promise what they will ultimately never be able to deliver. Idols lead us away from truth and into falsehood. They lead us to believe we can have things our way, that we can always get what we want. But as the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want!”

Sometimes people will talk about making the Bible and Christianity more relevant. But we have to be careful with that. If by that we mean making it more understandable and plain, that is very right and true. But if we mean we need to make it more entertaining and acceptable to people’s sinful desires so it will be more popular that is a grave mistake. If the Bible is true, the truth about God will ultimately never win a popularity context with this fallen world as its judge. The truth is always relevant, whether people like it or not.

There is a God who created us out of love for a purpose. He sent his Son into this world to die for our sins that we may be forgiven and he raised him from the dead that we my live a new life in him. If Jesus is the only way to overcome the grave and hell, then of course it is relevant. God’s word teaches us that our own healing and renewal in righteousness and holiness will bring salvation, healing, and renewal to other people and to all of creation. If it’s true, of course it is relevant! The question is, do we believe it is true? If we do our Christian faith will be of utmost importance.

But sometimes people get bored with the truth, or even angry with the truth; so they look to idols. Idols are anything we put trust in at the expense of trust in the God who is who he is. Often today we think we don’t have actual physical idols associated with our modern forms of idolatry, but that would be false.

Although people may not literally bow down to it, the statue of the bull on Wall Street may represent the trust that people place in the power of the almighty dollar rather than in the power of the God in whom our dollars say we trust. Some think their sufficiency and security increase with the size of their bank account, but there is no amount of money that can deliver anyone from the grave or save anyone from hell.

Children at a United Methodist school in Kenya asked me if I like Trump or Obama better. I just happened to have on my T-shirt that shows Jesus telling all the comic book superheroes how he actually saved the world. I told them that the Bible warns us about putting our trust in political leaders to save us (Psalm 146:3-6). Pointing to Jesus on my shirt, I said we should trust in Jesus above all. IMG_20190723_180816606

Political figures can literally become idols, especially when they lead people to believe they will give them what they want. I think about how Chinese authorities recently forced churches there to replace images of Christ with images of China’s communist president. Political figures can become idols and their images on posters and statues used to reinforce their power. Some people willing accept them as their saviors and lords; sometimes the culture forces idols on people. Remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? These faithful Jews refused to bow to the idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up even though they knew it could cost them their lives in a fiery furnace (Daniel 3).

Sometimes people willingly demand idols; sometimes the culture tries to force others to bow down to its idols. Idols, whether they be idols of wealth, power, amusement, or sex, are harsh taskmasters. The dark forces associated with them may promise enlightenment and freedom, but end up engulfing their devotees in the darkness of enslavement to corrupt desires and human pride. Those who feed the flesh better be prepared to deal with the beast!

We must resist idolatry, whether we are tempted from our desires within or pressured by the culture around us. To give in to idolatry is to settle for cheap imitations that gratify the flesh at the expense of our souls. The God who is the great “I AM” is so much better than the idols that are merely what sinful humans wish them to be!

Sometimes it’s better to give people what they need. What we need is the God who is who he is. And if God gets everything that he wants, which is all of us, we will always have everything we need.




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