Why our idols can’t satisfy

The holiness of God and the insufficiency of our manufactured messiahs

September 22, 2021

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. AW Tozer came up with that, not me. Posed as a question, Tozer’s statement is especially revelatory. If Mr. Tozer were to have asked, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?”, the answer, if not restrained by self-deception, would tell you a lot about yourself. And potentially, how much of yourself is in love with a lie. 

What we think about God and what we believe about God don’t always resemble one another, although we’d like them to. We want to look in the mirror and see the same face, but the fallenness of everything means that there are invisible contradictions everywhere. We will say that God is holy, but there are little gods we may or may not have given a name to that have earned that attribution by our misplaced faith in them. I say this because when you interrogate the why behind our various forms of idol worship, the language used describes a holy thing, and the expectation of the worshipper sounds like faith.

Making our gods

An Old Testament illustration of this happened at the bottom of a mountain. God’s people, deluded by impatience, irked that Moses was still at the top of it with Yahweh, asked Aaron to make them gods. The first evidence that their hope was an unholy one was made plain by their own words: “Make” and “gods.” The two words should’ve gotten caught in their throat followed by a cough or some bodily reaction to show how ridiculous they were being. A real god can’t be made; a real god makes. He is uncreated and therefore sustained by no one except Himself. His life is His, not borrowed or given through some other means. He is as unlimited as the sky is wide. The same blue one He made without heaven’s help. 

Idolatry always involves an exchange. It is a magician’s act in which the holy is traded for the profane. The unique for the common. The transcendent for the earthly. The Creator for the creature. Exchanging the truth about God for a lie, as Paul puts it, leads to creaturely worship, glorying in a made thing (Rom. 1:25). Made things treated as a god or idols aren’t holy in and of themselves. They all lack that transcendental value and moral purity that God possesses in Himself. Which is interesting to think about really. How in our quest for an invented god, we’re always compelled to worship someone or something that exists just like we do with the futile expectation that they’ll succeed in being able to give us what is beyond their reach. 

The limits of our idols

Idols are also local and limited. How did Israel expect a golden calf to guide them if it couldn’t move on its own? It could only go as far as a few humans were willing to take it. Them going with it, instead of it going before them. As it went, with their help, it also couldn’t foresee what was ahead of them, not simply in terms of direction, but also time.

Even though their god couldn’t be more than what it was, and even though it, ignorant of the future, couldn’t know what was to come, Israel still decided to give the calf credit for what happened before its birth. About their golden bull they proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4) Coopting God’s testimony about Himself, they ascribed the Lord’s words and works to a crafted thing that couldn’t even save itself from the soon-to-come desecration of its handmade body. 

We should never expect an unholy thing that was made with our bare hands to be sovereign enough or powerful enough to save us from anything when an idol’s entire existence is dependent on whoever it is that brought them to life.

A god with no life could not notice you in your room, listen to the quiet suffering stuck in your chest, and comprehend it as pain. An idol can’t speak so they can neither rebuke or comfort when the time calls for it. And if our idols are mere men, they may have eyes to see and mouths to speak to the issues of your heart, but what they say and what they see will always be narrow compared to God, who doesn’t need to call you to know how you are. An idol’s lifelessness makes it ignorant and incapable of serving anyone by way of salvation. To hope in anything that has been made to deliver, whether it’s sex, a relationship, a job, money, an identity, alcohol, or whatever is to become as ignorant as the idol itself. “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save” (Is. 45:20). 

Idols are powerless because they are not holy

Whether you have recognized it or not, I’ve tried to make the point, maybe too subtle to be seen, that their unprofitability is rooted in their unholiness. Their failure to be God. To be transcendent. Different. To exist in the way we need them to. As a living being, able to see, hear, act, and think. Powerful enough to overcome every power and problem that the world has either inherited or borrowed. Every idol is a created thing. For Israel it was a calf without a name, but eventually Baal, Asheroth, or Molech (2 Kings 21:3; Judges 2:10-23; Jer. 32:35, Lev. 18:21).  

I don’t know your idols by name. You might, and the God you’ve exchanged it for certainly does, but know that who or whatever it is, it will fail you forever. I don’t say that to shame you, but to come for and against the lies that brought your own golden calf into being. It was manufactured on purpose and eventually trusted to be and do what it can’t. Whatever that thing might be, it too is local. Your needs transcend places, and God forbid you must wait to buy, or call, or fly, or walk to, or knock the door of a person, place, or thing to get hope or peace or joy. When God, who is both in heaven and in you is already there, where you are, with Himself to give. In Him is life, and ain’t we all needy of it? Of Him? Not only for salvation but also satisfaction. 

Idols function as a kind of “savior.” A manufactured messiah made to fill the empty parts within. But if a made thing didn’t make you, then it surely can’t make you whole. Watch and pray that your hope doesn’t look to the high places as rescue (Num. 33:52; Lev. 26:30). Instead, look to the hills from where your holy help comes (Ps. 121:1-2), for any other hope is an unholy one.  

Whenever we trust anything other than the holy God to save us from all our fears, doubts, and anxieties, satisfy our deepest longings, and provide our every need, we have trusted in an unholy god to be what it never will. To say that God is holy is to say that God is God and there is no other God besides Him, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1 Sam. 2:2). And if He is the only God, then Elijah’s words to Israel ring true for us today: “… How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kg. 18:21). What point was Elijah trying to make by appealing to the true nature of Yahweh and Baal as the motivating factor for which one should be followed? It’s that if a being is indeed God, then He is not only deserving of the exclusivity of our worship, but He is also the only one sufficient for our needs.  

This excerpt is adapted from the recently published book from B&H, Holier than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him

Jackie Hill Perry

Jackie Hill Perry is a writer, poet, and artist whose work has been featured in The Washington Times, The 700 Club, Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and other publications. Since becoming a Christian in 2008, she has been compelled to use her speaking and teaching gifts to share the light … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24