What is an idol? As a youngster idols are usually thought of as objects from the past or things seen in a Hollywood production. Scenes of the hero taking a golden idol out of an old temple, or a view of a group of “ignorant natives” bowing down before their deity are easily found in movies or on TV. Even the Bible teachings guide us toward thoughts of a similar image. Exodus 34:17 says, Do not make any idols. and Leviticus 19:4 tells us, “Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the Lord your God.”
Idols are obviously a very important subject in the Bible. A quick word search using the word “Idol” in the Bible brings up 223 different references regarding Idol, Idols, or Idolaters. Why is it so important that we recognize what Idols are?
Before trying to determine what Idols are, let’s consider how such a simple thing could be a danger to us. Jonah’s prayers in the belly of a huge fish are very insightful as we consider that question. He said, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” (Jonah 2:8) Looked at in a different light allowing an Idol into our life is actually a conscious decision to turn away from God. Both Samuel and Isaiah continue the theme of telling us that Idols are worthless. Samuel states, “Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless.” (1 Samuel 12:21) Whereas Isaiah tells us that, “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.” (Isaiah 44:9) Earlier, in chapter 42, Isaiah warned Israel saying, “But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame.” (Isaiah 42:17)
The thought of being turned away from the Lord on the day of judgement is a scary image; but that is actually a good fear to have. Psalms 34:9 tells us to, “Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.” Over and over throughout the Bible God warns us to stay away from idols; to remove them from our lives. Many of us would say, “I don’t have any idols in my house!” From personal experience I know that just isn’t true; at least it wasn’t in my case.
Since I was a young child I’ve always been a bibliophile. Books were my hobby, my joy. Books could take me to the darkest Amazon jungle, to the desert steppes, beyond the atmosphere of earth, and even to different worlds. As I grew into adulthood books were the one thing I thought that I could count on. No matter how bad things got in my life, they could always be counted on to take me away from that problem. Unfortunately, they also completely seperated me from having real relationships with many people. I just didn’t have time for them. At one point things got so bad that I was going through seven to ten books a week.
All of that changed when the Air Force sent me to Alaska on a remote duty assignment. Before leaving for Alaska I made the decision that while I was there I would try to get closer to God and instead of just reading books I would also start to read my Bible multiple times a day. By the time I left Alaska my life had already started to change for the better, but books were still a major part of my life.
After I moved to my next duty station I joined a church for the first time since I was a teenager and it was in that church that I started to feel God gently nudging me about my books. On multiple days throughout the week, but especially on Sunday, I kept getting an intensly strong feeling that my books were keeping the two of us apart. I began to understand that books were my Idol, but even with that understanding, I fought and argued with God in my prayers about giving up my books for the better part of three years. When I finally gave in and took my books to a used book store there were so many of them that they filled the entire bed of a pick up truck. That drive to the book store was one of the longest drives of my life and once I arrived at the store I still almost turned around and took my books back home with me. Selling those windows to other worlds to that book store felt like something was being ripped out of me; it was as painful in it’s own way as the physical pain that I’d gone through recovering from my back surgery.
The most interesting thing about that day was how I felt after I’d left the book store. I felt calmer and more relaxed than I’d felt in years. The sky seemed to turn a more brilliant blue, the clouds looked to be a brighter white than they’d been when I went inside, and the grass and trees all seemed to be a more vivid green. All the colors around me seemed to be clearer, crisper, brighter than they’d been just a few moments before. I felt good about myself in ways that I hadn’t felt in years. Since that day God has continued to bless my life.
Yes, there have been times since then when I’d head down to the local bookstore and buy a book to read, but now they no longer dominate my life the way that they used to. They are no longer the idol that they used to be for me. They aren’t the be all, end all of my world any more. Today, books no longer consume every moment of my time and my days like some voracious monster and they no longer are a wedge separating me from God. Now they are just things; tools to be used for study, learning, and occassionally to relax and have fun. God used books to help me recognize what an Idol really is. For me, I now realize that an Idol isn’t just a little gold figurine. An Idol can be anything; anything that draws you away from Him.