Idolatry is about exchange: some reflections on Romans 1:18-32
What would most people in the west today say idolatry is? Amongst my non-Christian friends most wouldn’t really believe in the possibility of idolatry at all – after all don’t believe in any god, or don’t believe you can know which is the true God, like most of my friends, then you can’t believe in idolatry!
Perhaps the sort of thing they would think of is the worship of the Hindu gods like Ganesh.
On the whole they would think that was pretty silly and would actually find it hard to imagine that anybody could really, actually think that worshipping such a figure had any real impact at all. They would probably imagine that even Hindu’s don’t REALLY believe it makes any difference; because the idea of worshipping an idol is so far from their whole way of thinking about the world.
Christians, of course, are a bit more familiar with the concept of idolatry. Most of us have heard enough talks or read enough on the subject to know that you don’t have to actually think that something is divine in order to make it an idol. In fact we know that most of the things we are most prone to make into idols in our western European culture are not even pretending to be divine; things like sex, power or money not idols because we think they are God but because we devote ourselves to them as if they were gods.
However even that insight that’s still not quite at the heart of the Bible’s teaching on idolatry.
I think the single most important feature of idolatry in the Bible is that it always about an exchange; you can’t simply add devotion to something to your life because whenever you do that you also take something away. It is the creation, as Tim Keller puts it, of "counterfeit gods."
This idea is expressed in two places in Romans 1, a passage which speaks about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and also about all of us, showing that their sin is repeated by us all down the ages:
1:23 - They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.
1:25 - They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.
Idolatry isn’t just an unfortunate accident. It’s not that we overlook something that we ought to do. Instead we take something, the glory of God, and swap it for something else, images. We possess the truth, and trade it in for a lie.
In Romans 1:18-20 Paul demonstrates that when we did that, you and I, we knew what we were doing. God has made plain and obvious in the world that he exists, v19, and that he is eternal and all powerful, v20. That much is visible from the universe that God has made.
So there is no logical, rational or reasonable reason at all for anybody not to believe in God. The reality of his goodness is, v20, “clearly seen” in the world. We have all taken the good things that we all have; the knowledge that God exists, that he is eternal and all-powerful. A knowledge we all possess, no matter how hard we try to suppress it, and exchanged it for something else.
This means that our crime, our sin, is much worse than simply ignoring or failing to spot something. Imagine that my wife builds for me a beautiful garden, with wonderful flowers, fountains, paving and trees. It would be a terrible rejection of her love and affection if I simply never went in the garden. But our idolatry, our worshipping something else, our exchange of the truth for a lie, is far more akin to hiring a JCB to trash it all and then putting down concrete over the whole garden.
Idolatry is about exchange. So although there are many other ways of describing sin (lawlessness, rebellion, transgression...) all sin is, in one way or another, an expression of idolatry. We'll consider that more in part 2...