I frequently quote John Calvin's phrase, "The human heart is a factory of idols." Sometimes God seems to allow us to stay ignorant of this fact as we limp on with our sub-par gods. And sometimes He takes on idolatry head-on.
Scholars note that the ten plagues God sent to Egypt to kick off the Israelites' Exodus seem perfectly suited to illustrate the total impotence of the gods of Egypt.
The Egyptian god of the Nile, Hapi, is unable to stop the Nile from turning to blood.
Heket, the goddess with the head of a frog, is speechless when frogs start emerging from the Nile in the form of a plague.
Geb, the god of the earth, is strangely absent when lice start forming from the dust of the earth and begin their attack.
And so on, culminating in the end where Ra, the sun god, can't stop the region from being shrouded in complete darkness, and Pharoah himself, worshipped as a deity, cannot stop his own son from being killed.
These are too many coincidences, and the intent may be to cause the Egyptians to question whether their gods could do much of anything. We usually focus on God's deliverance of the Israelites, but His goal must have been was what it always is--the redemption of all nations. When God first tells Moses to tell Pharoah to "Let my people go," He shares His fuller plan: "And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord...." (Exodus 7:5). This is not a threat but a promise. And we're told a few verses later that a "mixed multitude" went out with the Israelites as part of the Exodus. Egyptians and a hodge podge of other nationalities left because they believed. God's attacks on idolatry are intended to elicit faith.
The first part of Isaiah 41 has a similar emphasis. In a passage reminiscent of the book of Job, God declares His power and his mystery, culminating with this microphone drop:
I, the Lord--with the first of them and with the last--I am he.
The passage then describes idol makers throughout the islands and various lands who work together to frantically craft some idols who might be able to help them out. The NIV Application Commentary for Isaiah 41 says it's as if they're enjoining one another to "build better idols." The ones they've got don't seem to be helping much during the world-wide upheaval they're going through with the rise and fall of the Assyrians, then Babylonians, and now--likely--Cyrus the king is on his conquering way.
One can indeed either build better idols or abandon the current ones for something Real.
I've been thinking all year, on and off, about what idols may have been unearthed this past year. Is it possible that God is revealing our idols during this time, perhaps blatantly so? Probably many of us could identify a few idols that may have been revealed during the pandemic. Here are a few suggestions:
As a behavioral scientist, I love science. I believe that God has provided humans with the capacity to discover, create, and implement in a way that improves the world via scientific processes. That being said, I would argue that the "because...Science" comments can border and likely cross over onto the idolatrous side. While I do have friends who actually worship Science with a capital "S," I am particularly thinking of those who are accidental Science worshipers. That is, they reveal the idol by what they put their trust in, what their everyday language reveals, and their emotional reaction when their idol is questioned.
Health has long been an idol in the United States, I believe. Our obsessive fear of death has now translated into a fear of pain, suffering, and illness of any sort. We seem to expect a painless existence and over-medicalize ourselves to try to make this possible. Again, where do we put our trust, what does our everyday language reveal, and what is our emotional reaction (e.g. extreme fear) when we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot control what happens to our own bodies?
And then there's Self. The almighty Self, in the United States. I'm not sure there are many of us at all who are completely immune from this idol. Its worship is taught to us from infancy. Our hyper-individualism and elevation of self is more or less the American way. And when one's freedoms are impinged on in the slightest (particularly for those who are not used to their freedoms being touched very much) the fury is swift and definitive. When I conducted my dissertation study on grief, I was very surprised to find anger to be the commonality for people who really couldn't let go of the pain. Underneath the sadness was actually a huge chunk of anger. I'm again surprised to see anger at the core of so much behavior that we've observed this year.
When our idols are revealed to be powerless, what should our response be? We can dig in and stubbornly hold onto these idols. Alternately, we can let them morph and become better idols, as we keep tweaking and transforming the same old ones in the hopes that something new happens. Or, we can surrender them, admit that we don't have all the answers, and turn to the Being with the mic drop, the great I AM.
Pope Francis wrote an opinion article in the New York Times in November 2020 entitled, "A Crisis Reveals What is In Our Hearts." In it, he says,
It is all too easy for some to take an idea--in this case, for example, personal freedom-- and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.
His application of what to do instead is,
If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain...This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. God asks us to dare to create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis... The pandemic has exposed the paradox that while we are more connected, we are also more divided. Feverish consumerism breaks the bonds of belonging. It causes us to focus on our self-preservation and makes us anxious. Our fears are exacerbated and exploited by a certain kind of populist politics that seeks power over society. It is hard to build a culture of encounter, in which we meet as people with a shared dignity, within a throwaway culture that regards the well-being of the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled and the unborn as peripheral to our own well-being.
So far, in the United States at least, I don't know that we've become less selfish during this time. I definitely don't think we've learned what lessons may have been sent and are still being sent. Sadly, for those of us with idols, we may not be out of the woods yet in this current crisis. And, even if we are, there is always a future crisis on on the horizon. This is not pessimistic thinking--whether it's a global pandemic or a personal health crisis, our lives aren't meant to be heaven on earth. We can try to close out all pain, all unpleasantness, all the things and people who bring us distress. And yet, somehow the pain leaks in through the cracks. Happiness studies reveal that the most wealthy among us are not the most happy. There appears to be a "happy medium" of contentment with having enough but not too much. The pain leaks in even when you have the means to try to buy your way out of it.
Lord, we read in Isaiah how you are the Helper of Israel. Please be our Helper now, our true Antidote to what really ails us. Help us to turn to You as the true answer to our worries and concerns. You are the Deliverer.