It was just a simple, late-night conversation with my eight-year-old daughter Morgan. But it changed my life and my church.
I was sitting on her bed for our nightly prayers. But she had a surprise for me before we prayed. She had been doing some memory work, and she wanted to recite it for me.
"Dad," she said, “Do you want to hear me say the Ten
“You memorized them all?”
A proud grin came over her face.
“Wow,” I said, smiling. “Let’s hear them.”
I lay down next to her and listened as Morgan worked her way through the greatest top-ten list of them all, the one that came in tablet form and was recorded in Exodus 20.
She made her way through them in her singsong way: "You shall have no other gods before me…. You shall not make for yourself an idol..."
On down the list. As she finished, my “teachable moment” instincts kicked in. I said, “Morgan, that was great! Let me ask
you, have you ever broken any of the commandments?”
She smiled again. This time it wasn’t as much a shy smile as a guilty one. Like the smile, I give my wife when she asks what happened to the Sour Patch Watermelons that were meant for the kids’ lunch boxes. I could see that Morgan was trying to think through an answer that would be honest without indicting her. I decided to help.
“Well let’s see,” I said, rubbing my chin. “Have you ever lied?”
She nodded slowly.
“Have you ever wanted what someone else had so much that you wished they didn’t have it?” She nodded, discovering that she was guilty of coveting.
I kept pushing. “I know you haven’t murdered anybody, Morgan. But have you ever felt really, really angry at someone in your heart? Maybe so much that, just for then, you hated that person?”
“Morgan, have you ever, maybe…oh, I don’t know…not honored your father and mother?”
We both knew the answer to that one.
This was not going the way she planned. But hey, that’s how it goes when you get stuck with a preacher for a daddy. She let out a heavy sigh, which I immediately recognized. It’s the same sigh I get on a Sunday morning when someone is losing interest in the sermon. It was time for me to stop preaching and offer the invitation.
Before I had a chance, her eyes became bright and she said, “Dad, I know one commandment I have never broken! I’ve never made an idol.”
Now, I really, really wanted to respond to that!
I wanted to tell my daughter that, as a matter of fact, that particular commandment is the very one we all break most often.
I wanted to tell her what Martin Luther said, that you can’t violate the other nine without breaking this one first. But as I lay next to my young daughter, I decided it best to save the theology lesson for another day. We prayed and thanked God for sending Jesus to take away our sins and guilt. As I left, I gave her a smile and a kiss on the forehead and told her I was proud of her for memorizing the Ten Commandments.
But walking down the steps, I wondered how many people see this subject of idolatry exactly as Morgan did. Maybe they see the Ten Commandments as one more checklist, like the rules posted at the community swimming pool, no running by the pool, no diving in the shallow areas, and no peeing in the pool. Just a long list of rules. And the one about idols is quickly skipped over because they think they’ve got that bullet point covered.
After all, the whole subject of idolatry seems mostly obsolete. That command was for then, not now. Right?
As for those thousand or so references to idolatry in the Bible, haven’t they expired? We don’t know anyone who kneels before golden statues or bows down before carved images. Hasn’t idolatry gone the way of leisure suits, shoulder pads, and jelly shoes? Aren’t we past all that?
Idolatry seems so primitive. So irrelevant. Is a book on idolatry even necessary? Why not a book about rain dancing and witch doctors?
And yet idolatry is the number one issue in the Bible, and that should raise caution signals for us. Idolatry comes into every book. More than fifty of the laws in the first five books are aimed at this issue. In all of Judaism, it was one of only four sins to which the death penalty was attached.
Seeing my faith and life through the lens of idolatry has rebuilt my relationship with God from the ground up. As we’ve talked more about it, many in our church would say the same. Understanding the significance of this issue was a game-changer.
As we look at life through this lens, it becomes clear that there’s a war going on. The gods are at war, and their strength is not to be underestimated. These gods clash for the throne of your heart, and much is at stake. Everything about me, everything I do, every relationship I have, everything I hope or dream or wish to become, depends upon what god wins that war.
The deadliest war is the one most of us never realize is being fought. I understood how my eight-year-old daughter had yet to get a handle on that commandment, but the problem is that most adults haven’t done so either. I wonder how many of the rest of us are just where Morgan was, believing they can put a nice checkmark onto that list and dismiss any concern over idols forever.
What if it’s not about statues? What if the gods of here and now are not cosmic deities with strange names? What if they take identities that are so ordinary that we don’t recognize them as gods at all? What if we do our “kneeling” and “bowing” with our imaginations, checkbooks, search engines, and calendars?
What if I told you that every sin you are struggling with, every discouragement you are dealing with, and even the lack of purpose you’re living with are because of idolatry?
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