It was John Calvin who pointed out that “man’s nature … is a perpetual factory of idols.”
It is easy to see that every classic addiction is an idol, whether it involves losing control to drugs, pornography, gambling or other pursuits.
But many facets of life that are positive in the right context can also be idols if we place too much stock in them.
One of the ironies of idols is that they often destroy that which they supposedly value.
Patriotism, unchecked by other vital values, can morph into raw nationalism that ruins the beloved nation.
Appreciation for one’s ancestors and/or culture, taken too far, can turn into racism or xenophobia that leaves one resentful instead of grateful.
Earning a living, providing for one’s future and being generous toward those in need are worthy aims. Unbalanced by satisfaction and gratitude and a measure of humility, however, they become a mad quest for significance and security that destroys one’s family instead of preserving it. (Jesus famously said, “No man can serve two masters,” referring to the mutually excluding sovereignties of God and money.)
Likewise education should be a means to a useful, generous and appreciative life, but if made an end itself, it can breed debt, dependency, entitlement and contempt – or even contempt for those who enjoy the material benefits of more overtly productive pursuits.
We can put too much of our emotional and spiritual stock even in ostensibly altruistic efforts.
In this season the low-hanging fruit for decrying idolatry is football. In its proper context it’s a community-building event, a builder of physical and emotional strength and an economic engine. Unfortunately, its description as the South’s second religion is too often not an exaggeration, and outsized devotion to one team or another has spurred many an individual act of incivility, not to mention the exchange of blasphemies and general ill will over exaggerated differences and ignored similarities.
One key to minimizing our own modern forms of idolatry is found in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. He reminds disciples that “… whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).