“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5).
By John David Hicks
Idol worship is not a sin that most Christians are concerned with. Carving cows out of gold is not normal practice in our churches. We shrug our shoulders at peoples of other lands who bow to their statues of deities. We think that our generation and culture is intelligent and civilized.
Many things can affect your image of God, however, and can ultimately lead to idol worship. Clearly, it is not as obvious as bowing to a golden cow, but we can have misrepresentations about God that can be idolatry.
Words have different meanings to each of us, even though there is general meaning that we all recognize. The word “home,” for example, can mean a building or structure that contains bedrooms, closets, a kitchen, living room, and a bathroom. For some of us, “home” has additional meaning as a place of warmth and love, and happy memories surround its meaning. But for others, home is a place of hurts and sadness, cold and rejecting. Different experiences of “home” change the meaning.
The same can be true of your image of God. How do you visualize God? Is he a cloud of smoke, a long-bearded old man, a shining light, a burning bush? Due to our individual faith, understanding of Scripture, and unique experiences, each of us comes to understand God and his many characteristics a bit differently.
Who is God? What is He like? The answers to these questions have a great impact on your life. The answers predict your spiritual future! Just as water can’t rise above its source, so you will be no better Christian than your concept of God will allow you to become. No person, religion, nation, or tribe will rise above its perception of God.
Psalm 135:18 proclaims, “Those who make idols will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” The character of the God you serve establishes your values and morals. You will communicate to your world the kind of God you know. This concept of God will dictate your attitude about life and give you your character. It will determine your conduct and how you will enjoy life—whether you can be contented, happy, and have a good time or you are a grouch, complainer, and a miserable person. Your concept of God will even control your relationships with other people—whether you have strong friendships and can love another person. Your concept of God will even determine whether or not you can truly love Him.
It is essential that you worship the true and living God, not something unworthy of Him or less than Him. Your idea of God determines how you will relate to God and the character of your religion. If your God is aloof, dogmatic, judgmental, moody, cruel, demanding, and intimidating, you cannot know Him, relate to Him, or love Him. Experiences give you your concept of God. Idolatry is a misconception of God by worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25), the gifts rather than the Giver.
God put these commandments against idolatry in the Bible to protect you and help you. You shall not make yourself an idol, with your hands or with your mind. Today, few men make idols with their hands, but they do in their mind. What is idolatry? Is it bowing down and worshiping some ugly face that is carved out of wood or stone? Yes! But it goes deeper than that.
An idol is an object or an image representing a deity and is worshiped as such. Idol worship is anything that takes the place of God. Idols are a false concept of God, something that is less than God and unworthy of Him. It is thinking that God is something He is not. It is thoughts, concepts, and ideas of God that are unworthy of Him. God knows that any false image you use to portray Him will bring you into bondage or destroy you. When God is ignored, truth and absolutes are cast off. You have no standard or reference point for living. Thus, you will put something, someone, or yourself at the center. Like Solomon, you will discover that without God everything is “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
That is why God is jealous about your concept of Him. Immediately you can see why God gave us this second commandment in the Ten Commandments—God is concerned that you live in reality and come into relationship. When you have a wrong concept of God, you will not be able to know Him or have fellowship with Him. The second commandment is given to guard you and help you.
There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God. It’s similar to the difference between knowing the historical facts about George Washington and knowing America’s first president through interaction and experience. The Bible reveals to us the facts about God and His works. But experience reveals the person and His character. In interaction you find the beautiful expression of what love is all about. The relationship brings out the very best in you and releases faith, hope, and love to be a blessing to others. It is your very nature to have confidence, faith, and belief in someone who has a good and honest character. You can depend on this person and trust him (John 14:24). Thus an intimate relationship can be built. This is God’s design.
But the opposite is also true of a person of bad character, if in your interaction you see this person as deceptive, mean, and cruel. If guilt and bitterness come in, you respond differently. There is no way you would want to trust someone you feel is untrustworthy. A deep relationship is out of the question. Even your emotions will not let you love someone you do not respect.
Several years ago, a young couple with two small children visited the church where I was pastor. On a Saturday afternoon I made a call in their home and shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them. I invited them to give their lives to Christ and become Christians. “Pastor, thank you for sharing what it means to be a Christian,” the husband said. “I would like to know God and have my sins forgiven. But you don’t know how messed up our lives are. We need God. We need a Christian home.”
Then he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, let’s become Christians.” She began to pound on the kitchen table and scream, “I don’t want to be a Christian! I don’t want to be a Christian!” I told her she could relax—I was not going to force her to be a Christian.
“I’m sure in a few weeks my wife will change her mind and we’ll make that commitment,” the husband said.
I tried to encourage them, prayed for them, and left.
The family visited our church a few more weeks, then stopped coming. Once again I called in their home.
“I know you’re wondering why we have quit coming to church,” the wife told me. “You’re a counselor and I know you’ll understand. We’ve been having some serious problems with our little kindergartner and first-grader. Their teachers got involved because the children were so fearful and could not cope in the classroom. The school recommended a professional counselor and he has advised us to quit going to church, because religion is the cause of all our problems.”
I knew no professional counselor would say that without a good reason. So I said, “Tell me about it.”
She told me she had been raised in the South in the Bible Belt. When she was 9, her father was killed in a car accident. Her mother took the children to church every Sunday. She never punished them for misbehavior. Instead, she would point her finger and say, “God will punish you for doing that, or the devil will get you.”
When she was 12 years old, she said, her best friend asked her to go to the movies with her. She asked her mother if she could go. Her mother pointed her finger and said, “God will punish you for going there, or the devil will get you.” She didn’t go.
A few weeks later, her friend asked again and said she had enough money to pay her way—her mother need never know. She decided to go.
“I had never been to the movies,” she said. “When I got in the theater and they turned down the lights, my heart began to pound. I knew God was going to punish me, or from some dark corner the devil was going to jump out and get me. I was so scared that to this day I do not know the movie they showed on the screen. I was so glad when it was over. I made my way home, but the sun was going down, and I knew that from a dark corner or from some garbage can the devil would jump out and get me, or God was going to punish me in some way for going to the movies.”
I looked at her and said, “Your mother has broken the second commandment in the Ten Commandments and her sin has now been reaped on you. Consequently, you, too, have broken this commandment and this sin has been reaped on your children.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
I read the second commandment to her and explained, “Your mother has given you a false concept of God. You picture in your mind a god who is hard, mean, cruel, and unloving. You have conveyed that same image to your children. You point your finger at your children and say, ‘God will punish you for doing that, or the devil will get you.’ No wonder you pounded on the table and said, ‘I do not want to become a Christian.’ You cannot surrender your life to some big ugly monster. Nor can you love one or serve one—and that is your concept of God.”
David understood this and wrote, “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you” (Psalm 9:10). David is referring to the character of God. Do you trust God’s character? In your experience is God hard on people, mean to them, cruel, or unloving? If so, you cannot trust, love, or have faith in God. No real relationship can be established. “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). If you have some false ideas and concepts of God, they will rise up and keep you from surrendering to God, trusting Him, really knowing Him, and loving Him.
Many people today who say they are rejecting God are really rejecting a false concept of God that someone has placed in their mind. Even the church has fallen into this idolatrous trap of the devil. The church today has focused on human needs, happiness, and success, not on God. The hope is that, in meeting the needs of people, they will come to God. But in the confused message comes a messed up concept of God. The emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of man will be met with a right concept of God. Out of this pursuit of the truth of God come the divine presence and a heartfelt relationship. “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks”
The Bible says God created you in His image for fellowship with Him. There is built into every man a longing and a desire for God (Revelation 4:11; Acts 17:27). Eternity is written into your heart, with the conviction that you have a destiny. This awareness knows that there is something beyond this life that no human being, no object or gadget can satisfy. Without God you will feel empty and incomplete. If you look to somebody other than God for your provisions, or look at possessions to fulfill you, you remove God as your source. The rela-tionship that God gives demands genuine love and dependence.
When a society or you deny the reality of God as your Creator, you dethrone God and put something else in His place. These false and unworthy ideas and concepts about God leave you without hope and purpose. You cannot satisfy your “built in” desire for God by replacing God with a man-made image and not the true image of God. All the heathen religions believe that God exists for humans rather than the other way around. Thus they make a god in their image. Their god is strong enough to be acceptable, weak enough to control, and nice enough not to demand justice. By replacing the true God, people think they are not accountable to God. But when they reject the true and living God, they are left with a sense of emptiness, discontent, and purposeless-ness. When God and Christianity are transformed to a human distorted image, it is idolatry that not only hides the face of God but also destroys relationships and takes the enjoyment out of life.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had fellowship with God, walked and talked with Him, and knew His character. There was no distortion of their perception of God. The moment sin entered their lives, however, their view of God became distorted. They hid themselves from God and said, “I was afraid.” Their sin “fogged up” their lens, distorting God and others. They read into God their own feelings of guilt and shame.
We all have sinned; many Christians have allowed God to forgive them of all their sin—except for one big one. Guilt and resentment take their wages with feelings of shame and bondage.
When I was teaching college a ministerial student one day plopped himself in the chair across from my desk and said, “The only reason I’m here is that my wife kicked me out of the house and said, ‘If you don’t see a counselor, don’t come home tonight.’ I thought I would like to go home, so I came to see you.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“I can’t stop picking on my wife—from the way she walks, the way she talks, the way she cooks, the way she cleans the house. I just pick, pick, pick. It’s destroying our marriage. Can you help me?”
“Is there something in your past you will not forgive yourself for?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but how did you know?” He told me he had sex with another girl while he was engaged to his wife. “I have begged God to forgive me, but I am so ashamed.”
“When you will not forgive yourself, you become hard on yourself and on others,” I told him. “Do you know the story of the unforgiving servant?”
In the parable in Matthew 18, Jesus teaches what real forgiveness is all about. A king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants called each to come before him. One servant owed over 10 million dollars. We would understand that today if we said 10 billion dollars. It was more than all the taxes of Judea and Samaria. Even a king in his lifetime could never get that much money. The point of the story: The debt was unpayable. When the servant could not pay, the master ordered all that he had—his wife, children, and possessions—put up for sale. The servant fell on his knees and begged, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.” His master knew he could never pay him back, so he took pity on him, canceling the debt.
After leaving the presence of the king, the servant thought to himself, “That was nice of the king to forgive me, but I should try to pay him back.” He found a fellow servant who owed him 20 dollars, grabbed him by the throat, and demanded payment. The man did not have the money to pay, so he fell on his knees and begged for more time. “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.” But the servant refused to show mercy and had the man cast into debtors prison until he paid the debt.
Other distraught servants went and told the king all that had happened. “Call that wicked servant to me!” the king demanded. “I forgave you all your debt just because you asked me to,” he said to him. “Couldn’t you show mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you? Now out of your own mouth I will judge you. You will be cast into the debtors prison to be tortured until you pay the 10 billion dollars you owe me.”
Jesus’ interpretation of this parable surprises us. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). To the unforgiving and unforgiven, God be-comes a harsh and demanding debt collector. The way you are made is if you won’t forgive, you can’t receive God’s forgiveness. You won’t let yourself. The Bible says if you are willing to forgive, you will be forgiven. But if you will not forgive, you will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:15).
But what if you won’t forgive yourself for the sinful and shameful things you have done. It brings as much injury to you as if you won’t forgive someone else. When God forgives you, He gives you the power to forgive yourself (Romans 8:1).
Yet there are many who have let God forgive them of all their sin, but one—one they are ashamed of. The devil keeps throwing it in their face. They are in “debtors prison,” beaten down with guilt and resentment; tormented by emotional contradictions of striving and anxiety mixed with a low self-esteem, self-despising, and self-hate. You become hard on yourself and hard on others. You pick, pick, pick and find fault, blaming and condemning, trying to collect the 20 dollars to pay off the debt to your master.
What wonderful peace, joy, and freedom came into this young husband’s life when he prayed in my office that day and accepted “the King’s forgiveness,” with no thought of trying to repay the debt. Today, he is a bold preacher of the Gospel of forgiveness—that God can forgive and cleanse you and give you the power to forgive yourself.
David A. Seamands says in his book Healing Grace, “I am convinced that the basic cause of some of the most disturbing emotional and spiritual problems which trouble Christians is the failure to receive and live out God’s unconditional grace, and the corresponding failure to offer that grace to others.” And I would add, “as well as to yourself.”
God is love, agape unconditional love. When you say God loves me if, when, after, since, you put conditions on God’s love. Agape love is without qualifications and is not based on something you do. Not even if there is any good in you. God’s nature is to love. He loves you because He is love! You can reject His love, but you can’t stop Him from loving you. If your sin, shame, or failures could stop His grace-love, there could by no means be any such thing as grace. John 3:16 gives God’s motive in the salvation and redemption of mankind: He loved and gave Himself in Jesus. We have all sinned (Romans 3:23). We are total failures, incapable of saving ourselves (Romans 6:23). The only way of salvation that can bring us into relationship with God must be given freely, undeserved, in mercy and love. That’s God’s grace and it is yours, if you will receive it by faith.
Forgiving grace works when you forgive others, says Jesus as He interprets the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:14-15). The law of forgiveness is written into your mind: If you don’t forgive others, you can’t be forgiven yourself. You won’t let yourself receive God’s grace until you face your past and clear your conscience.
Another way in which the image of God is distorted is through bitterness and resentment toward another per-son. You are unable to understand God and relate to others because of hidden hate and hurts. When you are hurt, wounded, insulted, used, or abused by another, you can get embittered. The resentment and hard feelings obstruct your faith. Hebrews 12:15 says that bitterness so defiles that it can completely take over an individual, family, or church. Instead of trusting God, you want to be in charge of the situation. To give up control and to trust in God is what God is asking us to do. The bitterness and resentment distorts our image of God and thus affects our relationship with Him.
After a revival service a lady inquired, “I used to love to pray, read my Bible, go to church. I enjoyed the music and the pastor’s sermon. Now it is hard to pray; the Bible is like a closed book. At church the music is just words and I get nothing out of the sermon. I am a Sunday school teacher. Can you help me?”
“Who are you mad at?” I asked.
“How did you know I was mad at someone?” she said.
“Those things are symptoms of bitterness and resentment,” I replied. “Jesus’ only interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Irritated, she answered back, “But you don’t have to live with that man!”
“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t have to live with your husband. But God would never tell you to love an enemy without giving you the power to do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
Later that week she testified of a new joy and relationship with God because she let go and gave her husband to the Lord.
When you do not forgive, you punish yourself, feeling that is God’s attitude toward you. When there is resentment or unforgiveness in the home, work, or church, there’s no forgiveness. Like a cancer, unforgiveness must be cut out and cleansed from your heart if you would see what God is like. Or you will create a god in your own image and likeness.
How do you get rid of sin in your life? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God is faithful and just to keep His word, forgive you, cleanse you, and make you righteous. But you must receive it (John 1:12).
There are other ways in which the image of God can be distorted in your mind. Some of you grew up with parents who were abusive toward you. When pastors or Christian teachers talk of a loving Father God who is accepting and loving, it is hard for you to imagine because you have never received appropriate love from your parents. Your parents created a distorted image of God that makes it difficult to love and know the true and lov-ing God of the Bible. You want to love Him and know Him, but it is hard to see God any other way but how other people have treated you. You see others living in joy and satisfaction with God, and you wonder why God does not seem close to you. Let go of the false image and start getting to know the true image of the God of the Bible—a God who loves, accepts, forgives, encourages, hopes, and dreams with His children.
Similarly, well-intentioned teachers and ministers of the Gospel can distort the image of God. Some have preached for years on the punishment of God and have failed to illuminate His grace. Yes, God demands justice, but He is not out to “get you.” He desires that you come into communion with Him, not out of fear, but out of love. God is all good; His desires for you are all good (Jeremiah 29:11). God will not force you to love Him. Only in trust, love, and faith can you come into relationship.
So how can we know God? The question is answered in John 14:8-9. Philip asked Jesus to tell us what God is like. “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us,” Philip said. Jesus answered, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Any concept of God that is against the character of Jesus Christ is not of God. You cannot separate the words and works of Jesus Christ from those of God the Father. Father and Son are the same Person in power, in char-acter, in love, in everything. E. Stanley Jones put it like this: “You and I do not know anything about God, except through Jesus Christ. And everything else you had to make up.” He is right!
Jesus promises, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well” (John 14:7). The quest for God, for truth and reality, ends in the Lord Jesus Christ.
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
God has spoken through Jesus, revealing and demonstrating His love and grace. Paul makes it clear that “God was in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
Anyone who worships God without Jesus Christ is an idolater! Jesus said, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Then Jesus goes on to say, “Come and learn of Me.” In His prayer in John 17:3 He said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
The Bible tells us that we are to worship God only (Exodus 20:3). All through the New Testament Jesus is worshiped as God. The Gospels are four pictures of God in action. There we see Jesus’ compassion, concern, and care for people. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
John uses logos in the Greek (“word” in English) to describe God come in the flesh. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “Word” meant “speaking, a message, or words.” Jesus as the logos perfectly reveals God’s mind and character. Why did Jesus get so angry in the temple and drive out the money changers? They were giving a false concept of God and worship. But the best picture of God is at the cross, where God in Christ lays down His life for us (John 3:16). Here is a God whose love will not let me go—a love that is unconditional and without limits.
“The manner of God’s self-disclosure in Christ is mind-boggling,” says James Hamilton in his book The Faces of God. “God disclosed Himself in the form of a baby. The Almighty God did not disclose Himself in a violent display of His power. Rather, He disclosed Himself in the form of a helpless, lovable baby. Of all the options for self-disclosure that were open to Him, He chose this one. It was a purposeful act, done to make Himself known to man in the least frightening way.
“A baby has magnetic appeal. Our hearts reach out in love to a baby, just as the Father reached out to us in love in the sending of His Son. Since Jesus is ‘the exact representation’ of God, or as Paul said, ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), we no longer need to wonder what God is like. Nor do we need to wonder how He feels about us.”
In any relationship we must know the person in order to love him or her. Do you know the God in Christ who came to reveal Himself to you as a tiny baby, a compassionate friend, a loving Father? The God who knows all about you loves you. He so loved you that He gave Himself in the person of Jesus Christ for your sins, to redeem you, forgive you, and reconcile you to God. You are that pearl of Great price; Jesus sold it all to win you. You can trust this kind of God. You can give yourself to this kind of God. He deserves your respect, your love, your life, your all! HE LOVES YOU!
To keep from committing idolatry, you must have a relationship with God. But has the true image of God been clouded by sin or experiences? Each of us has our own sin, struggles, and failures in life. But God’s invitation is to bring them to the cross for healing, cleansing, and forgiveness. This God of love who loves you and cares about you wants a relationship with you. Jesus says to you, “I stand at your heart’s door and knock. If any-one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and have fellowship with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20 my paraphrase). Out of this love, acceptance, and forgiveness, faith is born.
To My Prayer Partners
“And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
A poor widow, living in the Ozarks of Arkansas, was called on by her pastor who heard she was in need. She complained of her condition. The pastor asked if her son helped her. “He writes me every month and sends me a piece of paper that has a picture on it with my name.” The pastor asked to see the letters. He found more than 50 letters. In each letter was a money order for more than a thousand dollars.
Is that your condition? God has promised to supply all your need. But have you claimed it? David found God faithful: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:4-6).
Thank you for your prayers and support.
Your Brother in Christ,
John David Hicks