Romans 12:2

Romans 12:2 - "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect."

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Idol of the State



As many are already fully aware, the recent presidential election has caused a great variety of reactions amongst American voters.  Having known how volatile this election would be, I purposed in my heart to standby and observe the reaction of both Christians and non-Christians to the election of Donald Trump.  What I have seen in the couple of days since the election has only solidified my view that there is indeed a strong level of idolatry within American society, even amongst those who are Christian.  This specific idolatry that I speak of is that of idolatry of the state.


Some might wonder as to what I mean when I speak of state idolatry.  Before I explain that concept I first wish to address the general concept of idolatry.  Simply put, idolatry takes place when a person elevates any created object (such as a person or thing) into a position that only God Himself should hold.  That is, it is a rebellion against and an overthrow of God’s reign and rule in order to establish another in His place.  This act can take place in a very explicit and prolonged manner, such as in the Canaanite worship of Ba’al, or the Greek worship of its pantheon of gods.  Yet this act can also take place in a very implicit and sudden manner, such as when a person invokes ‘luck’ in gambling, or when an employee cuts corners on a task or job in order to achieve an economic benefit.
Idolatry can be very specific, or it can be very broad.  Most of the time, when we think of idolatry and the worship of idols, we might be tempted to picture an oddly dressed person bowing down before a stone or wooden statue while making wild gestures and mumbling some sort of unintelligible phrase.  Yet this form of idolatry, despite being truly idolatry, is but the tip of the iceberg.  Most of the time, idolatry takes place without conscious thought or effort, sometimes even amongst God’s people.  In fact, a strong argument can be made that all sin, when boiled down, is the result, or outworking, of idolatry in a person’s heart.  Let us consider a few examples in Scripture of both explicit and implicit idolatry:

1 Kings 18:25-29 (ESV)
25  Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.”
26  And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made.
27  And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
28  And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.
29  And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

In this passage we see a clear example of idolatry taking place in a rather explicit form.  The priests of Ba’al truly thought that their god would rain fire down from heaven and consume the bull on the altar.  Their act of self-mutilation stemmed from their belief that Ba’al’s wife/sister had cut herself out of mourning for Ba’al’s death, and that this act of mourning had ultimately brought Ba’al back to life.  The priests in opposition to Elijah were re-enacting that event in order to try to awaken, or restore, Ba’al.  Let us now consider two examples of implicit idolatry depicted in Scripture:

Genesis 3:1-7 (ESV)
1  Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
2  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,
3  but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
4  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.
5  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
7  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

Colossians 3:5-8 (ESV)
5  Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
6  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
7  In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.
8  But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

In the passage from Genesis, we see that Eve, in her abandonment of God’s command, engaged in a form of idolatry.  The form was hidden, but essentially she had set herself up as the final arbiter of what was right and true, considering that Satan just might be right.  Rather than recognizing God as the source of truth, morality, and justice, she placed herself in God’s position.  Adam, far from innocent in this matter, was held to a greater level of responsibility, given the fact that his purpose was to protect Eve from the attacks of Satan, and to lead her in obedience and submission to God.  This he failed to do, and so both suffered the consequences.
As for the passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Paul describes covetousness, or greed, as a form of idolatry.  That is, the desire to have some material or earthly thing to the detriment of all else is idolatry.  It is the act of placing one’s love, hopes, and desires into a created object, rather than placing one’s love, hopes, and desires in God, the Creator.  As Paul mentions repeatedly in Romans 1, those engaged in idolatry have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”  In other words, idolatry involves the love, devotion, and submission of the person to the worship of a false god.


As we have briefly seen, the act of idolatry involves setting up a false god to be worshipped, adored, trusted, and served.  Yet just as the true God has a standard of behavior and holy living (as espoused in God’s law), the false god also requires a certain type of behavior and response from the worshipper.  For example, if one is greedy for a particular item, the demand of that false god is that the worshipper make sacrifices for it.  In the case of trying to acquire a particular item of desire, it might mean that the worshipper stops paying certain bills, steals money from others, or even steals the very object that he desires.  In either case, a sacrifice is being made to that idol, in the hopes that the idol will deliver what it promises.  Keeping along with the picture of greed, the item in question promises to provide the worshipper with lasting peace, joy, comfort, and satisfaction.  Yet in this case, as in every case of worshipping false gods, the promise is empty.  The idols lie to their worshippers and can never deliver on their promises.  The pleasure that they provide might be intense but it will only last for a short time before the unfulfilled desire, or emptiness, returns.  
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of implicit idolatry is seen in the act of drug addiction.  In such cases the addict has established a particular substance as their god.  The drug promises glory, joy, peace, and happiness, yet delivers none of those things.  In return, the drug demands obedience, submission, and sacrifice, each time demanding more and more.  Ultimately, the person finds themselves enslaved to the drug, making ever increasing and damaging sacrifices (such as friends, family, and work) in order to satisfy the demands of the idol.  Yet no matter how hard the person tries, or how much they sacrifice, the false god never delivers its promise.  Instead, it delivers death.  
This idea of addiction as a false god that leads to death is, interestingly, recognized and understood even outside of Christian circles.  General revelation (as revealed in God’s creation and established order) shows us that false gods bring death, a truth that is proclaimed even by unbelievers.  As an example, the heavy metal band Metallica, a group not at all claiming the name of Christ, has, in one of their most well-known songs, properly personified the false god of drug addiction.  Consider a portion of the song lyrics below:

End of passion play, crumbling away
I’m your source of self-destruction
Veins that pump with fear, sucking darkest clear
Leading on your death’s construction
Taste me you will see
More is all you need
You’re dedicated to
How I’m killing you

Come crawling faster
Obey your master
Your life burns faster
Obey your master

Master of puppets I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing
Just call my name, ‘cause I’ll hear you scream
Just call my name, ‘cause I’ll hear you scream

Needlework the way, never you betray
Life of death becoming clearer
Pain monopoly, ritual misery
Chop your breakfast on a mirror
Taste me you will see
More is all you need
You’re dedicated to
How I’m killing you

Come crawling faster
Obey your master
Your life burns faster
Obey your master

Master of puppets I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing
Just call my name, ‘cause I’ll hear you scream
Just call my name, ‘cause I’ll hear you scream

Though the band Metallica accurately depicts and personifies the object of worship in drug addiction, the fuller truth of the matter is that all sin is the result of a some sort of idolatry.  Each of the idols, whether drugs, money, sexual pleasure, or power, exist in various forms.  Yet they each have demands of their own upon those who worship them.  They have their own sets of rules and expectations of behavior.  The question is not whether a person will worship, but who or what they will worship.  Humans will either worship the one true God of Scripture, or an idol.  In either case, they will never be ‘free’ in any autonomous way.  Rather, they will be the servant of either Christ or a false god.  As Christ Himself declares, those who practice sin are slaves to sin (John 8:34).  Paul also declares that a person is either enslaved to sin or freed from sin and enslaved to God (Romans 8:20-23).  The point to see in all of this is that there is no third option or neutral ground.  All persons either submit to idols and serve them or submit to Christ and serve Him.


The last thing I wanted to address concerning idolatry in general, before moving on to idolatry of the state, is that of image.  First, it is important to remember that God made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27).  As a result of sin, humans, instead of worshipping the one whose image they bear, turn around and create false gods to worship.  These gods, ironically enough, bear the fallen image of man.  This is seen very clearly in the Greek pantheon of gods, each of whom acts in a very human way and carries no sense of transcendence or holiness.
The second thing to consider is that those who engage in worship end up being changed, or molded, into what they worship.  Many of us are probably familiar with the phrase “you are what you eat.”  Yet despite the truth of this, it is more accurate to say “you are what you worship.”  The result of this is that the naturally sinful and fallen person, ends up spiraling downward into death and destruction.  This is because they begin with creating a false god in their own image, worshipping that god, and ultimately becoming more like that god in ever increasing and intense ways.  It is the quintessential example of self-destruction.
The opposite, or upward spiral, can be seen by looking at the life of the Christian.  A person, having been made in the image of God, has an image that is marred, or damaged, as a result of sin and death.  That is, though the person still truly is in God’s image, the image is not as it should be as a result of the person’s broken relationship with their Creator.  This is a problem that all of mankind suffers from.  Yet when a person is given spiritual life and the gift of repentance and faith, their image begins to change.  This change is not a change away from the original, unfallen image, but towards it.  Furthermore, the person’s image is not restored on its own merits, or according to its own standard.  Rather, their image is conformed to that of Jesus Christ.  They ‘put on’ or ‘are clothed with’ Christ and His righteousness.

Romans 8:29 (ESV)
29  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Colossians 3:10 (ESV)
10  And have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

1 Corinthians 15:49 (ESV)
49  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
18  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

In each of these passages we see the same event taking place: those who are in Christ are being renewed and conformed into His image.  Christ is whom they worship, and Christ is whom they are becoming more like.  They originally were in the image of God, yet that image was distorted and marred because of sin.  Now having been redeemed, they worship Christ and conform to His image.  If they are truly Christ’s followers, they become Christ-like in their thoughts, words, and actions.
Though this is a beautiful picture, the reverse takes place in the lives of those who worship idols.  That is, those who worship false gods will be conformed to the image of that idol.

Psalm 115:1-8 (ESV)
1  Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
2  Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
3  Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
4  Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
5  They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
6  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
7  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8  Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.

Here in this psalm we see in verse 8 that those who make the idols and trust in the idols become like the idol itself.  Though there is much that could be said, and unpacked, regarding this concept, Paul declares the truth of this in Romans 1 when he explains how those who are engaged in idolatry end up becoming twisted in their behavior.  This twisting is all-inclusive, and includes the following things:

Romans 1:28-32 (ESV)
28  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
29  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,
30  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
31  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
32  Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

We see from this passage that those who engage in idolatry ultimately end up being filled with all manner of wickedness and unrighteousness.  This is not to say that every person who engages in idolatry commits all of the acts listed above.  What it does say is that these behaviors ultimately stem from idolatry.  Just as being made in the image of Christ affects one’s thoughts, words, and actions, so too does being made in the image of an idol affect the same things.  The prophet Jeremiah suggests this when he says that those who follow after worthless idols themselves become worthless (Jeremiah 2:5).  In applying this to the example of addiction, those who are addicted to alcohol or drugs end up having their words, thoughts, and actions centered upon the object of their desire.  Another example of this is sexual sin, where things such as pornography have a long-lasting effect upon those who subject themselves to it, even so far as to impact their view and treatment of the opposite sex.  Ultimately, the damage done by idolatry as well as the demands that the idols make can be hard to see at first.  Yet the damage is all too real.


Having briefly set forth the basics of idolatry, I now want to apply this to that of the state, or civil government.  As I mentioned earlier, false gods and idols can take the form of anything, from a stone statue, to a person, or to a group of persons.  Any organization, or even an idea, can become an idol in the heart of an individual.  The same is true for the central government.  Though government is an institution ordained by God (Romans 13:1), it also (like any other created thing) can become an idol that seeks to take the place of God.
Consider for example Jesus’ teaching regarding paying taxes to Caesar:

Mark 12:13-17 (ESV)
13  And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.
14  And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
15  But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
16  And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”
17  Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.  

Now, upon reading the above event a few things can be said.  First, we see that Jesus did not forbid the paying of taxes.  Second, we see that Jesus highlights the fact that the coin, or denarius, bore the likeness (image) and inscription of Caesar upon it.  This was the very basis for His argument.  That is, Caesar could receive that which belonged to him (the coin), because it bore his likeness and image.  Yet God’s image, not Caesar’s, was upon mankind.  This necessarily leads us to two conclusions.  The first is that Caesar has no authority or right to demand to himself what rightly belongs to God.  The principle thing in mind here is worship.  God alone is to be worshipped, not Caesar.  When Caesar seeks to usurp the role of God, he makes a grave error and oversteps his bounds.  On the flip side of the coin (the second conclusion), humans are not authorized to give to Caesar that which rightly should be given to God.  That is, people must not attempt to worship Caesar or put him in a position that God Himself should hold.  
So how does Jesus’ teaching relate to our world today?  Well, to be honest there are few political leaders who demand worship in the explicit manner in which Caesar demanded worship.  Caesar required his subjects to burn incense to him and to declare “Caesar is Lord,” which was a reference to his deity.  Today, perhaps only the leader of North Korea can be said to behave so explicitly.  Even so, many governments, including the United States Government, are notorious for usurping to themselves authority that is not theirs.  That is, they seek to establish themselves as the source and giver of hope, joy, justice, and peace, things that only Christ Himself can provide in any true and lasting sense.  One just has to recall President Obama’s quasi-Messianic declaration of hope and change to see the existence of idolatry within civil government.
Furthermore, consider for a moment what most Americans do when faced with a natural disaster or state of emergency.  They call upon FEMA, or some other government entity, to rescue and deliver them.  Though government certainly has a role to play in dealing with national tragedies, it is in fact a mark of idolatry for people to lift their eyes to the Federal Government rather than first lift their eyes to God.  Sadly, both Christians and non-Christians are guilty of this idolatrous behavior.  The effect of this idolatry is the same as it is with other idols.  When the civil government is placed in the position of being worshipped, it will make demands upon the worshippers.  That is, it will set laws and standards of behaviors that those who worship it must submit to in obedience and faith.  Yet since the civil authority views itself, and is viewed by the people, as a god, the result will be tyranny.  This is because if there is no God above the State, then the State itself will set itself up as god.  It will establish rules and laws according to its own whims and wishes.  It will seek to bind the conscience and hearts of the people because it desires to be worshipped.  This is the true definition of tyranny, and so those people who wish to have true political freedom must first be free from sin.  Though more could be said on tyranny and liberty, the point to be made here is that idolatry of the civil government is a modern practice.
Perhaps the clearest example of the worship of the civil government is seen in the desire for a utopian society (heaven on earth).  Whether it is Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, or President Obama’s Hope and Change, each of these ideas is an example of the civil government attempting to inaugurate a redeemed and glorious society.  Every person recognizes, upon looking at society, that something is wrong.  There is brokenness, pain, suffering, injustice, and poverty everywhere.  Yet we make a mistake when we think that the civil government has both the responsibility and the ability to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The civil government is not the Messiah, and it is not God.  Of course, for those who do not believe in God, their only hope for utopia is for the civil government (Caesar) to bring it to pass.  In a very sad way this is an inevitable truth.  We as humans yearn for true justice, peace, happiness, and prosperity.  Yet only God has promised those things upon Christ’s return and the consummation of His kingdom.  Those without God have no recourse but to bow the knee to Caesar, in the hopes that Caesar will provide peace on earth and prosperity for all.  Yet Caesar, like any other false god, makes promises he cannot deliver.  Each time he fails the people will feel deep disappointment, although ironically they will look for the next person in line to be their Messiah.  The cycle of idolatry will then continue.
This worship of Caesar by the unbeliever is understandable, given the fact that they refuse to recognize Christ.  What is truly saddening is to see God’s people engage in the same idolatrous worship.  Of all people, followers of Christ should always place their trust and hope in Jesus.  He is on His throne, and He will judge the nations.  Only the Alpha and the Omega can bring about everlasting peace, joy, happiness, prosperity, and justice.  Only the true Messiah can usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  When Christians fail to remember that, and instead look to the central government for their hope, salvation, and redemption, they essentially are declaring that Caesar is Lord and Jesus is not.  This is something that we as God’s people need to repent of on a daily basis.  There is a place for the civil authorities, but it is not in the place of God.

Psalm 146:3 (ESV)
3  Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

So what does all of this mean for God’s people?  It means that regardless of who is elected to the presidency, Christians need not fear or panic.  Caesar was never intended to bring about God’s kingdom, and so Christians must not be afraid that God’s kingdom will not come.  Certainly it is true that a particular leader might cause more problems, particularly for God’s people, but should Christians expect anything less from Caesar?  The same is true on the opposite side of the coin.  Christians must not demand, or expect, that their elected ruler will inaugurate God’s kingdom.  It is not fitting for God’s people to demand this, and it is not fair for a civil authority to be pressured into trying to fulfill that role.  Regardless of whether the elected person or persons will bring trouble or joy to God’s people, God’s people should always remain calm, avoid obscenities, refrain from bouts of rage and anger, and refrain from despair and depression.  Such emotional responses are the result of insecurity, and such insecurity only exists when trust is placed in an idol.  God’s people, of all people, should know that false gods cannot deliver their promises, and that they are a foundation of sand.  It is expected that unbelievers will experience insecurity and lash out, because their hope is placed upon a false god.  Yet such behavior has no place amongst Christ’s people.  He is their rock, their fortress, and strong tower.  In Him they have complete security.


In the end, both those who despair at the election and those who cry out in joy risk being guilty of idolatry.  This is easy to see regarding those who respond by placing their hearts and hopes in the hands of the civil authorities.  They hold the civil magistrate to expectations that only Christ can accomplish as Messiah.  In this way they place Caesar in a position held only by God.  Yet at the same time, those who weep or despair are equally at risk of idolatry.  This is because, even though they reject the chosen high priest, they still worship the same false god.  The idol itself is that of civil government, and for a time the worshipper will despair because the high priest is not one whom they would have chosen.  They have not refrained from placing their hopes and hearts in the hand of Caesar.  They simply are waiting for the next Caesar to come along and deliver them.  This too is idolatry.
With this in mind, my encouragement to those who call themselves Christian is to place their trust and hope in Christ, not in Caesar.  By doing so they will have a level of security and peace of mind that unbelievers can never have.  Furthermore, they will be a testimony and witness to those around them.  They will demonstrate an attitude of peace, patience, kindness, and love, while avoiding the extremes of despair and ecstasy.  Lastly, they will be in a position to point others to Christ and His promises, rather than going along with the idol worshipers by trusting in the promises of Caesar.  Simply put, give to Caesar what belongs to him, but never forget to always give to God what rightly belongs to Him.