Glory to man in the highest! For man is the master of things.
(Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837-1900)

In the scriptures there are two interrelated reasons for God’s hatred of idolatry:

1. Idols (both mental and physical images of false gods, as well as representations of the one true God) always detract from God’s glory; dishonoring and displacing Him.

Idols are literally nothings produced by the human heart and used by the Devil to deceive and enslave us.

The true and living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Maker and Ruler of all things. He rightly intends for his universe to be filled with his glory (e.g. Ps 46; 96:4-5; Job 38:1-41:34; Col 1:15-23; Rev 21:22-22:5). All forms of idolatry, including man-made images of the true God (e.g. the ‘golden calf’—Ex 32:1-10), are God as we would think of Him, rather than God as He would have us know and love him (e.g. Deut 6:1-25; 12:29-32; 29:29). All idols are, quite literally, nothings;[1] things produced by the human heart and used by the Devil to deceive and enslave us. The great evil of idolatry is that it dishonours God, obscuring His glory (e.g. Psalm 96:4-5; Isaiah 42:8; 57:1-13 cf. Mark 7:1-23). This leads us directly to the second reason for God’s hatred of idolatry.

2. Idolatry dishonours human beings by detracting from God’s glory reflected in us—distorting our true identity and making us less than he intends us to be.

God did not hold out on us; his goal has always been to conform us to the perfect image of his Son.

God made us in his image. We are like mirrors which reflect his glory in the universe. The Serpent lied, and we believed him (Gen 3:1ff). We didn’t need to ‘become like God,’ for we were already made in his likeness (Gen 1:27-28; Ps 8). God did not hold out on us; his goal has always been to conform us to the perfect image of his Son (John 17:26; 2Cor 3:12-18; Col 3:1-4; 1John 3:1-3). The devastating evil of idolatry is that we settle for a counterfeit; a parody of human greatness which is bent in on itself. And most devastating of all, we become what we worship.

           Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:8)

Worshipping the Image

Even in our fallen state the spark of the divine has not been snuffed out in us. It should come as no surprise that famous musicians and performers sometimes take on a ‘god-like’ aura for their fans. However if our eyes are open, it is not only the famous ones who are worshipful. As C.S. Lewis reminded us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship … There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. [2]

More recently Bill Fay expressed this beautifully in his song ‘Cosmic Concerto’:

Like my old dad said; “life is people”…
In the space of a human face, there is infinite variation.
It’s a cosmic concerto, and it stirs my soul.’[3]

There is something that is fundamentally right about glorying in God’s image-bearers.

For every Attenborough documentary of the animal kingdom, there are a thousand more retellings of the myriad activities, triumphs and struggles; as well as great evils which occur every day in human life. There is something that is fundamentally right about glorying in God’s image-bearers. And there is something fundamentally wrong about taking the life of a human being at any stage of her or his existence (Gen 9:4-6; Ps 139:13-16 c.f. Job 31:15). Murder is the ultimate denial of God’s image; the exact antithesis of God’s greatest command to love God with all our being and our neighbor as we love ourselves (e.g. Matt 5:21-22, 43-47 c.f. Mark 12:28-31). There is a profound disconnect when: ‘with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.’ (James 3:9 c.f. 1John 4:20)

Broken Mirrors, Broken Images

As Richard Lints puts it, ‘A mirror reflects. A distorted or broken mirror also reflects, but in a distorted or broken fashion.’[4] The reality of our ‘cursing tongue’ as well as the presence of murder in our world, are but one expression of the ‘broken’ divine image. We have all ‘sinned and fallen short of His glory.’ (Rom 3:23).

Henri Blocher sums up the human tragedy, as:

The unique, unthinkable contradiction; nature set against itself, humanity become inhumanity … Mankind remains the image of God, inviolable and responsible, but has become a contradictory image; one might say a caricature, a witness against himself.’[5]

In vain we attempt to find idols, or reshape God into an idol that fits my vision for the best life. We are enthralled with ourselves, ultimately worshipping our own image that is born of our own self-focused and self-centred desires. We seek renown apart from our Maker, and at the expense of other people made in his image. Sensing that we have less and are less than we could be, we push away those who get in the way of our desperate grasp at greatness. All the while the image of God is dishonoured in ourselves and in one another: man and woman; mind, body and spirit (e.g. Rom 1:24-32). God’s good gifts become passions, pleasures and addictions that enslave us; love and kindness give way to malice and envy. We don’t have to look too far around us to see ‘normal’ life experienced as ‘being hated and hating one another.’ (Tit 3:3)

 The Image Restored

We and every one we meet are broken images of our Maker. Our ‘neighbour’ deserves to be taken seriously, to be listened to and shown deep respect and be cared and provided for. But God’s love for us goes deeper than mere acceptance, or the ‘tolerance’ which is the best offer of our culture.

One example of this truth is seen in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. Jesus met this woman at ‘Jacob’s well’ in the heat of the day and asked her for a drink. Culturally for Jesus to be alone with her in this place would have been seen as morally dangerous and questionable. The woman recognises the complications involved in their meeting; and the fact that they are worlds apart (John 4:8): Jesus is a man and a Jew. She is a woman and a Samaritan (John 4:7-8).

But none of these difficulties proves an obstacle to Jesus. While there is an important theological question in the air (the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews regarding how God would have us know and worship him c.f. 4:19-26), Jesus focuses on the life—the ‘spiritual worship’—of this one woman who bears God’s image. He shows deep compassion as he gets personal and goes to the heart: ‘Let’s talk about what’s really going on in your life.’

Her relationship status is ‘complicated’. For reasons unclear, she has had five husbands and the man she currently lives with is not her husband (4:16-18). There is no doubt a lot of pain and frustration, and much in her life that must have felt to her like an irretrievable mess. But Jesus does not set out to belittle or to condemn her. Rather, he shows her what she can’t see about herself or about God. Later when she shares her testimony with her village, it is clear that she does not see Jesus’ questions as intrusive or condemnatory:

Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah? (4:29)

 When the ‘Sovereign Self’ Encounters its Maker

We want to be a ‘plastic people’, defined and moulded by the endless choices of our misfiring desires

The prevailing mood of our times has been aptly described as ‘the culture of the sovereign-self’. We imagine that we can improve on God’s world. We seek a permanent holiday from God’s reality, plans and purposes. We want to be a ‘plastic people’[6], defined and moulded by the endless choices of our misfiring desires. Sometimes that comes forth as unbridled consumerism — ‘I acquire therefore I am.’ Often, these days, it comes through in our experiments with gender and sexuality.

But, as Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman shows us, God has a better template for our lives. God was not holding out on humankind when he made us in his image. He offers us every spiritual blessing in Christ. He promises to transform us into the glorious image of his Son (Eph 1:3; Rom 8:32).

At present we experience the frustration born of our broken image. But we do not lose heart, for through our brokenness, God prepares for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2Cor 4:16-18 c.f. Rom 8:37; 1John 3:1-3; Col3:1-3; 1Cor 13:12). This is our eternal life in the Lord Jesus Christ, that we hold out to everyone around us.

We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1John 5:20-21)

[1] One possible translation of the Hebrew word for ‘Idol’ is literally, ‘nothing.’

[2] C.S, Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory,’ from, Transposition and other Addresses. (London: Geoffrey Bles; 1949), 32-33.

[3] Bill Fay, Life is People. (Dead Oceans; 2012).

[4] Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The image of God and its inversion, (NSBT 36; Apollos/IVP: Downer’s Grove, Illinois; 2015), 22.

[5] Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis. (Leicester, England: IVP; 1984), 94.

[6] Lints, 159. I have taken his concept of the ‘plastic world’ and adapted it in this section.