Today, I’m continuing our mini-series about idolatry. One way in which we commit idolatry is that we look to other things in order to find satisfaction and meaning. We make gods out of physical objects such as wood and stone or we make gods out of ideals and needs such as approval, comfort, security and power. Right at the start of the Ten Commandments we are told
“You shall have no other gods before[a] me.”Deuteronomy 5:7
Idolatry includes putting other things alongside God as rivals, rivals that include you and me ourselves, rivals that he will not tolerate. Yet, there is another way to commit idolatry. To understand it, we need to revisit a little bit of systematic theology and the doctrine of simplicity.
The Doctrine of Simplicity means that God is spirit and without body parts but also it means that God is simple and so not complex. There is no sense in which God has parts to him. That’s different to creatures like you and me. We are made up of parts including our physical bodies and our characteristic traits, even our existence in time. This means that we can change. I can gain things such as height, a new skill or a different experience and I will still be me. Similarly, I can forget things or have a limb amputated, as a I grow older I will lose a bit of height too and I’ll still be me. So we go looking for what it is that is essentially each one of us.
God is different. You can’t add or subtract to God. If God was not love then he wouldn’t be an unloving God, he would no longer be God. If God was not eternal, sovereign or just, then he would no longer be God. Each of those characteristics are essential to who he is. Indeed, we might argue that rather than there being these different characteristics that come together to form God, we might suggest that each gives us a different perspective on the same nature. WE know that God is love and we can describe that love in terms of God’s faithfulness, justice, holiness and sovereignty. It is a powerful, faithful, holy love. Similarly we can say that God is holy and we can describe his holiness as loving, just, powerful, eternal.
This is important when we come to the question of idolatry because the other way we make idols is by attempting to make images of God. This is what the Israelites did when they made the golden calves. They don’t seem to have assumed that they were making other gods, instead, they were attempting to make an image of Yahweh.
We are tempted to do this because we think of God as far off and distant. The Israelites thought that God and his representative were too remote up on Sinai, perhaps God and Moses had forgotten them. We try to bring God near and we look to him to fulfil the things that matter to us. However, when we do that, we focus on some things at the expense of others.
For some religions, we see this when they present God as all powerful and invincible but neglect or deny that he is also love. They focus so much on his greatness that they forget his goodness. However, not only is their god shorn of his goodness but his greatness is diminished also because it is no longer that loving, faithful, holy and just power. Such a God may have a form of strength but it is brittle and a power that lacks authority because it is illegitimate.
However, equally, there is a temptation to so over-emphasise God’s love that we can lose sight of his power, his justice, his holiness and eternity. Once again, not only do we lose those things about God that we neglect but by losing them we diminish and distort his love so that it no longer is love.
A God of parts where we focus on some of those parts at the expense of others is about as useful as an incomplete jigsaw with important pieces missing. Such a God is as much an idol as wne we look to other things first. Indeed, this God is the product of our idolatry because we focus on those aspects of his character which we believe will meet our specific priorities. We may focus on love as we seek approval, provision as we seek comfort and power as we seek security. We have a God of parts and so we lose everything that God is.
I would encourage you to take a step back and regain a vision of who God is and everything that God’s Word reveals about him. Let’s learn to love, glorify and enjoy God for all that he is, not just the parts we think we need.