Fears abound. What if the stock market crashes? What if my career does not progress further? What if they do not like me? What if I lose “it”?
Since secular people consider themselves to have moved beyond superstitious idolatry, to assert that many contemporary fears are birthed in idolatry might sound oxymoronic. Yet, when we understand how idols function, the correlation is obvious. Fortunately, jettisoning idols along with their fears leads toward obtaining the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
Grasping how idols relate to our fears requires knowing what an idol is and how they differ from God. At its core, idolatry involves people attempting to take care of themselves based upon mistaken convictions such as, “this will provide me lasting security” or “this will give me genuine significance.” Thus the umbrella of idolatry encompasses anything a person might invest in or devote oneself to because he or she falsely believes this world or these gods provide the answer for life.
This is the notion of idolatry that scripture exudes. Hosea, for example, decried ancient Israel’s false belief that Baal had provided them with the necessities of life (Hosea 2:5,13,8). Jeremiah exposed idolatry’s inevitable failure to keep its promises with the graphic metaphor of “broken cisterns” (Jeremiah 2:11-13). Paul pierced to the heart of idolatry’s nature when he identified greed as being idolatry (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5). Greed is not just seeking excess; it entails the promises fueling the driving hunger. In so doing, Paul unveiled the reality of a thriving modern pantheon rivaling that of ancient Greece.
The pantheon of greed cannot exist without the conviction that this world can provide what I need. Idols along with the insatiable appetites they spawn are as numerous as the beliefs people possess about what creates security and significance. We are tempted to believe that by devoting ourselves and investing in education, portfolios, friendships, accomplishments, social influence, acquisitions, legacies, and so forth, we will be OK.
Jesus, however, used a simple story to dispense with all such greed by revealing the bankrupt nature of its promises (Luke 12:15-21). Furthermore, he pointed to this world’s insufficiency to care for us with the iconic phrase, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Unlike idols whose promises fail, God is faithful to his promises and is worthy of devotion, glory and honor. What’s more, unlike idols that nurture self-centeredness, the Creator calls us to die to ourselves in order to live for the one who died for us. God and idols are fundamentally different, even though both offer certain promises.
So how does fear reveal our idols? If someone serves money, fear blossoms whenever money is endangered or lost. When someone’s security, when someone’s idol is under attack, fear erupts.
What would happen if someone’s Source of Security was unassailable, safely beyond threat? What if the security offered by that Source also lay beyond the reach of thieves, disaster and all evil? What if one’s silos of resources, advantages, and power were not viewed as creating security, but rather as tools for serving God? What then?
Welcome to the worldview of Paul. A person focused on attaining earthly security cannot write, “for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). These are the words of someone whose security is wrapped up in God and whose purpose involves serving God whether here or there. Thoughts such as, “godliness combined with contentment brings great profit … if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:8,9).
Whenever people let go of idols and the anxiety they produce in order to depend upon God, Paul promised that the peace of God would guard their hearts and minds in Christ (Philippians 4:6-7). In accordance with John’s final words, we should, “Keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).