Augustine said that idolatry involves using that which should be worshipped and worshipping that which should be used. This definition sounds very applicable for our modern times. Let’s start with the using part.
Much of what passes for Christianity today can be seen as approaching God in a utilitarian way. He is there to be used to make our lives more successful or beautiful or blesses. We have a need or a void or a request and ‘my god’ is there at our beck-and-call ready to dish up what we need. In this mode of being God is the product and we’re the consumers. This instinctually changes the Lord-servant relationship into something that’s totally reversed. We become the masters and God the servant. Conversely our best traditions tell a total different story. It shows our God as a “consuming fire” and in His grace He elevates us from servants to friends and gives us the wonderful invitation to join Him in His endeavours. We can now be used by God. A using that’s not characterized by abuse but by a loving Creator involving us in creating a better world or to use more biblical terms helping to usher in a better kingdom. The most fundamental question in terms of using is therefore, “am I using God?” or “am I putting myself in front of God for His use?” If we get this part wrong then we’ll find over time that we’re not serving god but instead creating a god in our own image.
Now for the worshiping part.
Webster defines worship as “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” So here is an easy way to define worship. We worship that for which we have esteem. That’s why we read in the Psalms that the writer asks the congregants to ‘magnify the Lord’. It is the process of putting something or more aptly Someone in His rightful place. Esteem is a natural part of our culture. Walk into any bookstore and glance through the magazines and you’ll easily see what we value. All of us make constant estimations and conduct our lives in the light of these evaluations. “What is it worth?” drives our daily conduct like food does your average dog. It is extremely interesting to note that the word ‘worth’ also has the meaning of ‘becoming’ and that the term worship comes from an Old English word namely worth-ship. It makes sense because when you see what someone deems worthy you can almost always determine what that person will become. So here’s how it goes. For worship to happen one has to determine what is worthy. Once that person or object is identified one starts to channel respect, admiration and devotion to it. This involves basic devotions like time, money and praise.
Now when we’re giving something more praise than God then we’re worshiping something other than God. For me this principal is extremely basic. Sometimes in a given week I’ll be enthralled more by Apple’s Macbook Pro than by the God that created me, saved me and is living in me.
The danger is aptly described by what one of the Psalms say, we become like the idols we worship.
“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 135:15-18, NIV)
Some people’s idols might be a car, a hobby or a local sports team or celebrity. It can be a job or success. The thing is just that whatever gets our ultimate devotion and worth is determining who we’re emulating, following and eventually becoming. This is why idolatry is such a big deal!