Everyone worships something.
There is no immunity from worship no matter what your view of God is. Specifically, the point is that we naturally “worship” what we love. Biblical scholar G.K. Beale has a whole book on the theology of idolatry in the Bible titled We Become What We Worship (no light reading for sure). Dr. Beale didn’t come up with this nifty title on his own. I imagine he was inspired by Scripture:
“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”
(Psalms 115:4–8 ESV)
When Westerners think of idols, we may think of figurines or statues typical of the Eastern (or even Southern) Hemisphere peoples. We might think ancient; but not modern; primitive; not industrial; or even superstitious; but not reasonable.
As sophisticated urbanites who see National Geographic-esque portrayals of tribal deities in the Majority World, we might think: “Not us.” But if the Bible written so long ago and is sufficient and relevant for us today says much about idolatry, should not we assume that idolatry is our problem, too?
Jesus said it in different words: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If your cell phone gets lost, your wifi goes down or your Ring doorbell glitches while you’re out of the house, we may get a glimpse into your heart.
The late revered Dr. John Calvin has famously been quoted to say: “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge [factory] of idols.” In his day and age, he may have been saying this in the contextual “stew” of Romish and Popish idolatries. But he goes on as if he were sitting with us today:
“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth. That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited.”
Idols don’t just appear (Exodus 32:24) or drop out of the sky (Acts 19:35). They are formed and fashioned. They are conceived as the psalm above attests. And then they are cherished and coddled. They are bowed to. In other words, they are worshiped. But they aren’t so adored neutrally.
In our day and age, idols are anything that emptily and/or ignorantly substitute for God. It can be a thing, an idea; an imagination; a person. It can be a whole complex of these. We may not personally take a hammer to anvil along with some silver and bang out something that we literally genuflect to. But, we constantly are capable of pumping out affections or allegiances toward things that comfort, amuse, distract or secure us.
This is exactly what Dr. Beale says in book:
“People will always reflect something, whether it be God's character or some feature of the world. If people are committed to God, they will become like him; if they are committed to something other than God, they will become like that thing, always spiritually inanimate and empty like the lifeless and vain aspect of creation to which they have committed themselves.”
As Christians today, we are like those to whom St. Paul wrote: “...how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God…” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). We are no longer slaves to any other god or idol. But, our hearts (to Calvin’s point) still have potential to reenact our former slavery. Though we are saved from bondage to any idolatry, we are not immediately saved from the attraction to some idols. With the saints of the ages, let us fight the magnetism by “hating worthless idols and simply trust in the Lord” (Psalm 31:6).