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In the Western world today you will not find in public places very many idols of the type that you can see in Nepal. Does this mean that the West is superior and has largely got rid of its idols? Not at all!
Nepal has been very much in the news of late, as a result of the serious earthquakes which recently hit this desperately poor nation so devastatingly.
I have spent time in Nepal, visiting missionary friends who were assisting in healthcare and development projects. Although there is a vibrant, growing Christian church in the country, the culture is overwhelmingly Hindu in most regions.
The Nepalis are so friendly and hospitable; yet I have never been to a country where there are so many altars and idols in public places: one on almost every street corner, with the dried blood and the uneaten rice giving evidence of sacrifices that have been offered to them. One particularly vivid memory that I have retained is of a father demonstrating to his 7-year-old son how to sacrifice a chicken as an offering to one of these idols.
Hosea tells us in this chapter that Israel in his time was very much like Nepal is today: altars and idols all over the place (verses 4-6, 11-13), political instability (verse 4 - remember the massacre of the Nepali royal family in 2001?), food shortages (verse 7) and large, powerful neighbours (verses 8-10). And just as the oppression of the idols can be so keenly felt in Nepal today, so too Israel was oppressed by her idols.
In the Western world today you will not find in public places very many idols of the type that you can see in Nepal. Does this mean that the West is superior and has largely got rid of its idols? Not at all! The idols are still there, but now they have become much more subtle.
For an idol is anything or anybody that takes our heart away from God, that takes the place in our life that is rightfully his. So, we could think of so many things in the West that can become idols: money, possessions, sex, physical wellbeing, celebrities, film stars, musicians, football teams, sportsmen and women, to name but a few. All have the potential to fill our hearts and minds, so that there is little or no space left for God.
The Bible is clear that an idol has no personality of its own (1 Corinthians 8:4); but whatever is offered to an idol is actually offered to demons; and this is incompatible with vibrant Christian faith and is actually a provocation to God (1 Corinthians 10:19-22).
How can we tell if we have an idol in our life? How can we know if, for example, our following our football team, or a certain film star or musician is simply a healthy leisure pursuit or an idol? How can we tell if our possessions or our career have become an idol?
One simple test is to look at what we spend our time thinking about. For example, how much of our thought life is taken up with our football team, or with a group, a solo artist, a film star who we really admire?
How often do we find ourselves dwelling on sexual images in our mind? How much time do we spend thinking and plotting our next salary increase, or our next promotion at work, or how we could afford to buy that thing which we have so wanted for so long? And, in contrast, how much of our thought life is focused on our relationship with Jesus and how he is at work in our lives and in the world around us?
The answers to these questions may be quite revealing, even disturbing; and they are very important. For it is vital that we root all idols out of our lives because they are so inherently destructive (verse 4). Hosea points out that also they stop us from being productive (verse 7), they take away our human worth and dignity (verse 8), they bring us under oppression (verse 10), they bring God’s displeasure upon us (verse 13) and ultimately they cause us to forget God (verse 14). Who in their right mind would not want to avoid these fearful consequences?
John writes a beautiful letter in the Bible whose central theme is how to receive God’s love and give back that love to him and to the people around us. Then at the very end he finishes with these surprising words: Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
I had often wondered why John introduced this seemingly random, unconnected thought right at the end of his letter. Then the penny dropped: idols demand our commitment and our affections and are the one single thing that will most prevent us from receiving God’s love and from sharing that love with him and with others. So, let us keep ourselves from idols.