Self-possession and the Folly of Idolatry

Luke Timothy Johnson’s book Sharing Possessions (Eerdmans, 2011) has one of the most searching and profound discussions of idolatry that I have ever come across.  I hope to be sharing more from this extraordinary book in the weeks to come, but for now, here’s one powerful and convicting passage that every Christian should read:

“Some questions like the following may help us get the point: What is it, really, that enables us to get up and face each day’s activity? What is it that we will make room for during the day, no matter how busy our schedule? By what measure do I look back over the day, or week, or year, and consider it a success or a failure? In the daily round, is the high point the end of work and the beginning of leisure? The first drink? Is that which I will fit into my schedule no matter what my three-mile jog? When I lie awake in my bed with a feeling of discontent, is it because I did not get done all the work I intended to do that day, or did not get some time to myself, or did not spend time with my children and wife, or looked foolish in a conference, or dread facing a job interview tomorrow? When I look at others of my own generation, as I suspect we all do, and think about ‘where I am’ in my life, what measurement do I use? Do I think of myself as a success or failure in relation to others, and on what basis—my health, my wealth, my work (process or product), my fame, my family, my power over others, my good looks? These are not complicated questions, but they are, for most of us, difficult ones, for they have a way, cumulatively, of locating our center. . . . For, if idolatry is a functional phenomenon, the real question comes when I ask, ‘Where is it that the meaning and power of my individual human life is sought? In what or where do I seek my sense of worth and identity? What is it, seen or unseen, which is the “bottom line” for me, the source of my hope? What is it without which life would not be worth living? What is it for which I move and act, without which I stumble and fall? What gets me depressed? What is it, in my actual life, that functions as my god?’


. . . The attractiveness of idolatry lies in its claim to manipulate ultimate power; the folly of idolatry lies in the fact that any power that can be manipulated cannot be ultimate. . . . When we hand over the measurement of ourselves to forces that are just as much created as we are, then our gods are truly illusory. . . . The truly depressing thing about idolatry is that, by making the relative absolute, the contingent necessary, and the end-all that which is neither end nor all, we have distorted reality—not just the ‘reality’ outside us, but the whole orientation of ourselves in the world. Not only do we close ourselves off from the true source of our being and worth; we also close ourselves off from that very thing we worship. We no longer see it as it is, and therefore we worship not the thing itself, but our desire for it to be god. A creature perceived as god cannot but be diminished by that perception. Not only that, but the being and freedom we seek are also diminished, for in feeding our idol our own sustenance is drained. Seeking freedom, we end in enslavement, for no worldly power can establish us in freedom, but only bind us when we worship it. All idolatry is a form of compulsion. We must compulsively labor, must endlessly toil to strengthen this god that has no existence beyond that which we give it.

. . . I spoke of riches as being one of the classic objects of idolatry. When we look at the matter more closely, however, we see that every form of idolatry is a form of possessiveness. Whether it be beauty, material things, power, or prestige, the centering of ourselves on some created reality as ultimate involves a claim of possessing. This which I have is the touchstone of my worth, the supporter of my identity and being. An idolater is one who, quite literally, seeks to have god in his pocket. The power worshiped is shown service precisely so that it can be controlled. The idolater seeks to own god, and since the true God cannot be owned, the idolater fashions one more amenable to manipulation. By possessing what we identify as our ultimate power, we make claim to possessing ourselves.” (pp. 47-49)

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