A friend contacted me recently to say that she’d re-listened to a message I preached a couple of years ago on idolatry from Exodus 32, when the Israelites built themselves a bull to worship. You can listen to it here if it takes your fancy. She then asked me an intriguing question, “what does idolatry look like in a time of lockdown?”
This piece is my attempt at an answer. On the day this is being posted, the next stage of Lockdown easing commences along with a thousand jokes about ‘cautious cuddling’. Perhaps I’ve missed the boat for this to be timely, but I do wonder if in the providence of God this is exactly when we need to hear it.
As a word of introduction, people often confuse saying that something can be an idol for saying that something is bad. On the contrary, I think that all four of these idols can be very good things. When we give them undue weight and attention is when we get into trouble.
Our freedom has been curtailed for a little over a year now to greater and lesser degrees at different times and in different parts of the country. As I write we’re in the early stages of “Lockdown 3”, which is the second national lockdown we’ve been through. My city has also had a many months long period of local lockdown, “Lockdown 2” which was basically the same as the local lockdown and risen rapidly through the national tier system. Each of these brought different—often subtly different—limits to our freedom.
We can feel like it’s wrong that our freedom has been curtailed. There’s something to this, we could probably have done with more reasoned debate on the costs associated with stripping us of our civil liberties. Honestly though, my umbrage at being told what to do has less to do with my principled view of the limitation of the British state’s power, and much more to do with me hating being told what to do. I’ve got some fancy arguments and political positions, there might be something to them, but I need to reckon with the fact that they’re often a cover for my idol: freedom. I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.
Freedom is not worth the weight we put on it. Freedom in Christ is. As Luther said in his On the Freedom of a Christian,
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
That’s worthy of some careful reflection.
The freedom we enjoy is historically unusual (and occasionally highly unhelpful). It may be right, but it is not an inalienable right. It very easily becomes an idol.
We are desperate to be safe, and terrified of death. Our fear of death is understandable. There’s some things to be afraid of! Death is our last and greatest enemy. It is resolute in its stand against life. If we do not know Jesus then death is more than simply a cruel and tragic inconvenience, it is terrifying.
We are all trying to be safe at the moment. We’ve even started saying it instead of goodbye, “stay safe” we call as we end our zoom calls. Most of us understand that the risk to us from the virus is minimal, but the risk to others from us catching it could be much larger. We want to be safe and that’s reasonable.
In the last few decades, we have become to speak about safety as an absolute good. It isn’t. Safety always has costs, and nothing is completely safe. Nothing. Life is a vapour (James 4). It passes briefly. We are not long-lasting beings and we clutch on to the life that we have tightly.
What does idolising safety look like? Fear of acting because you or someone else might be harmed. Escalating your definition of harm until it is difficult to do anything but sit tight and affirm each other.
Mitigating risk is good, and we should, but life is inherently risky. It is very easy to make safety into an idol. When we do, we will spiral to a place where we can’t act at all.
We’re all cramped in on top of each other. I’m what sometimes people call “an introvert”. My default recovery position is on my own. People tire me out, however much I enjoy their company. Putting aside that the whole introvert/extravert dichotomy is overstated, and people aren’t as set in one mode as Myers and Briggs would like us to thing, I feel like I need my alone time.
For much of the pandemic, due to house renovations, we’ve had one room you can sit in. Helen & I are on top of each other all the time. Of course we love each other, but sometimes we would just rather sit in a different room.
I need my alone time. Except, I don’t. It’s an idol.
Alone time is not a right and you don’t need it. You prefer it. It’s good for you. You don’t need it. Most people in history haven’t had it.
You are not the master of time. We thought we were, we’ve carved it up into sections with our calendars and our watches. And then we started trying to increase the number of minutes in the day by so called productivity. We reclaimed the night with electric light. We work more hours in the day, on average, than any people before us. We have made time our servant.
It isn’t meant to be.
Now, all of these things aren’t bad (well, the last one was), but they have effects we don’t notice. One of them is that we think we have a right to control our days, to plan what goes in them. We don’t. James reminds us that we are a vapour, here one minute and gone the next. We don’t last, and often our plans come to nothing (James 4).
Sitting behind these three is the big idol of our culture: control. We feel like we should be able to decide what happens next. We have agency over our decisions, the course of our life, and what we do with our days.
It is patently evident that right now, we are not in control. We are at the mercy of governments who have legislated to rule over what we do within our own homes. Rightfully or not (and for the record, I think much of the British government’s action has been justified but am concerned by the ease at which we have allowed them to enter our homes. The Englishman’s home is his castle no more), we are not in control.
Dear friends, we never were. It was easier to maintain the illusion in other days, and we maintain the illusion very well. We manicure and curate our lives through our social media feeds and chosen activities to demonstrate to others (and mostly to desperately convince ourselves) that we are able to control everything. We can hold it together. We can master the day. We can rule our lives.
Our God is in heaven and does what he pleases (Psalm 115). You aren’t, and you don’t.
The idol of control is exposed. You are not in control.
When Moses found the golden calf, he burned it with fire, ground it into a powder and mixed it into the water supply. Idols are to be found, crushed, mixed with water, and drunk. That’s because by doing so our bodies turn them into what they really are, and as we pass them we get to witness what they really are. Crush your idols. Drink them. Pass them. You are not in control. You are not the master of time. You cannot ensure your safety. You are not unconstrained.
And then go to the God who is free and unfettered. The safe and caring Father. The Potentate of time, master of the careening Universe. The King on the throne.