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Why our idols can’t satisfy

The holiness of God and the insufficiency of our manufactured messiahs

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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