When I lived in Nepal, I used to watch my neighbours do their morning worship rituals around their small garden shrines or in the temples that stand prominently at the street corners. Idols were everywhere. And some of my friends made a living out of fashioning idols for the tourist trade. Some of them were quite exquisite carvings of wood or opal and would fetch a tidy sum. But not all idols people had in their home were quite so sophisticated. Let me tell you about some others that I watched being made.
I was cycling through the Washerman’s Quarter and noticed a large crowd assembled on the roadside. My curiosity piqued, I pedalled over to get a look at the drama unfolding before the crowd. A quack pharmacist pushing his latest cure for fevers? No. A monkey doing tricks for tuppence? Wrong again. A family of Indian Gypsies were making idols for a living.
There they were, sitting cross-legged on their mats. The woman was sitting in front of a hot charcoal firepit they had dug into the ground. She was skimming the dross off some red-hot liquid in a crucible. Her husband was fiddling about with something in a box. It turned out to be a box of fine clay dust in which he was making an imprint of an idol. As I watched, the woman picked up the crucible with her long-handled tongs and passed it over to her husband. Deftly pouring the molten metal into the mould, he had a few seconds to look around at the crowd that was so eagerly watching this spectacle. A good day’s business was lining up. Women and men were bringing their broken pots and tools of copper, brass, bronze, even aluminium, and laying them at his feet. Soon, and for the price of a cup of tea, their twisted rubbish would become desk-top deities adorning their homes. In what seemed like an impossibly short time, the craftsman lifted the lid of the box and pulled out the new idol. He passed it back to his son whose job was to paint the image and spruce it up for its new role. And that was that. One more happy customer.
As I pedalled away, I reflected on what I had just witnessed. Do they really think it is that easy? Instant gods. DIY spirituality. Aren’t they even the slightest bit bothered that you can turn a bashed-up pot into a pot-bellied Buddha for a few rupees? But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that my friends in Nepal are no different, really, from many of my friends in Britain. As someone once said, ‘God made us in his image, and we turned around and reversed the compliment.’ You don’t have to use pots and pans to make idols. All you really need is a bit of imagination, and an imagination that does not accept guidance from God will always create idols.
Let’s face it: we all love to hear about a God who is loving, don’t we? But how many of us want to accept a God who is angry? We hear a story in the Bible that tells us God hates the rebellion of people and we make excuses for skipping over that one. It’s uncomfortable. It must be the product of an unenlightened culture.
Or we see the suffering of a loved one and don’t want to believe in a God who allows such a thing to happen.
Or we hear that God doesn’t approve of some of our lifestyle choices so instead of changing our lifestyle we change our image of God.
What we are doing is we are creating an idol. We are fashioning a god of our own liking, one that smiles beneficently down on us and never makes us feel uncomfortable. We melt one image and create another, more conducive to our lifestyle.
A wise man said this: ‘Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.’ He was right. And we all tend to do this. Whenever we say something like this – ‘Well, God surely doesn’t expect us to be perfect, does he?’ or ‘I think there are many ways to get to God,’ – we are making an idol. Because God has actually told us what he is like. When we look up at the stars and marvel at the vastness of the universe, God is telling us about himself. He is telling us we are his creatures and as he is our creator, he deserves to be worshipped. It doesn’t take much thinking to realise that if we are not worshipping him the way he wants us to then we are in trouble.
The problem with trying to figure out what God is like by looking at the universe around us is that it takes us only so far. We can work out that we are his creatures. But we can’t work out how we can relate to him as we should. We can figure out that God must be immensely awesome. But we can’t work out exactly what sort of life pleases him.
For that, we need God to communicate to us more directly. That is what he has done in giving us the Bible. God spoke through people and told them what he is actually like, how he has created human beings special (the Bible says ‘in his image and likeness’), how we humans have tried to go our own way and have wrecked ourselves and our planet in the process, and how he has put in place a rescue plan.
God’s rescue plan
Did you see the film The Martian? The lone astronaut left behind on Mars by mistake could be rescued only by an audacious and carefully executed mission. We are not alone on the Earth, but we are in big trouble. So God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, to us. The Son of God took to himself human nature so he could be one of us. So, if we want to know what God is really like we need only look at him. And that is what we do when we read about him in the Bible. It is there we read that the God-man died at the hands of religious leaders who felt threatened by him, though he never did anything wrong.
But the amazing thing is this: it was all part of God’s plan. By dying on the cross, Jesus Christ took on himself the punishment for the rebellion and failure – the Bible calls it sin – of people like you and me. And he proved that he could do that by rising from the dead on the third day.
Human beings, as we have seen, have a universal tendency to create idols – we fashion our own idea of what God is like. And that puts us in trouble. But the Lord Jesus has come on a rescue mission. If we want to know what God is really like we must look at Jesus. You can do that by reading the Bible for yourself – you can start with one of the accounts of his life by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. (If you don’t have one ask the person who showed you this article to get one for you.) As you read, ask God to show you what he is really like and ask him to replace the idols of your imagination with his true image. A great man once said, ‘What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.’ He was right. And it makes all the difference.