The television commercial interrupts your favorite show. The announcer has a deal for you that you can’t refuse! His product can slice, dice, and chop better than anything out there on the market. And not only that,
“if you will act now, you will receive a second product absolutely free! This brand item is not sold in stores, so act now, while supplies last! Do not be fooled by imitations that are inferior. Accept no substitutes!” he warns us with a raised voice.
Though I have never purchased any item so advertised, I can attest to what happens when, as a husband, I am sent to the store to buy a can of this or a carton of that, and I return home with an off-brand, just to save a little money. After enduring a lecture for my stupidity, I discover that, sure enough, an off brand of cream of mushroom soup is just not as good as that name brand. I should have accepted no substitutes.
It may seem a bit strange to our twenty-first century ears that John would end his letter called 1 John with this short, terse, puzzling command “keep yourselves from idols.” Was he late in getting this letter to the post office for the daily collection? Surely no one in any civilized country would worship an idol! After all, an idol is made of stone, or wood, or metal. Surely only a primitive group of people somewhere in the backwoods of the world would need such a warning. We don’t have any idols in American culture, do we?
Our idols may not look exactly like a wood or stone carving worshipped by some people group two thousand years ago, but we certainly do have our idols. Back in 2002, America was swept by a hot new television show “American Idol.” The first-season winner, Kelly Clarkson, was catapulted into immediate stardom. Her debut single, “A Moment Like This,” became the fastest music chart-climber in history, reaching number one in less than a week. Second season winner Clay Aiken debut single “This is the Night” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in its first week (only the twelfth song in history to do so!). Of course, not all who are fans of these pop stars are idol worshippers. But some of them are.
Sometimes our idols can be a conglomeration of metal and plastic, circuits and rubber, upholstery and glass, otherwise known as a car. Sometimes our idols can be flesh and blood, as in a spouse, child, grandchild, or parent. Sometimes our idols are less tangible things such as fame, position, or popularity.
Ezekiel got it right when he said concerning some of the leaders of his day:
“These men have set up their idols in their hearts.”
All these things and many more can be anyone’s idol. Maybe the existentialist philosopher Nietzsche was right when he said:
“There are more idols in the world than there are realities.”
When you think about it, John’s warning is actually not that far off the mark, is it? The fact of the matter is every culture throughout history has always had its own idols. The human heart is an “idol factory.”[i] We are prone to make idols of most anything. We have little difficulty identifying idolatry in other cultures, but are often blind to the idolatry rampant in our own back yard.
[i] A picturesque phrase (chapter title) in Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of our Age, eds., Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), pp. 29–48. Calvin spoke in similar fashion: “. . . man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. by Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I.XI.8 (p. 108). For an excellent book on idolatry that would be of great help to the preacher, see Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: the Empty promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009). Don’t miss Keller’s succinct list of the key categories of idols in our lives followed by brief definitions on pp. 203, 204.