Our world is one of profound moral confusion. When social scientist Christian Smith interviewed young adults on their views on morality, most of them said that right and wrong are simple matters of “common sense.” Yet when we look at the world, we find that morality isn’t very common at all. In fact, if there’s any common thread, it’s the fierce commitment to the preservation of individual choice. No one has the right to challenge the views of someone else. To do so would be intolerant at best and bigoted at worst.
Because morality has become so deeply personal, one of the arguments I often hear is this: “I’m not hurting anyone.” Do you see the argument? As long as my behavior doesn’t damage anyone else, it must be morally acceptable—so lay off.
The problem is that if the gospel is true, then the God of the universe is deeply hurt by anything that violates His ferociously and eternally holy character. And that’s what we see God reacting to in the book of Ezekiel—a book that calls Israel to repent of her sins in the face of a God who is in control of every circumstance.
In chapter 8, we see God offering Ezekiel yet another vision—not of Himself, but of the nation:
In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord GOD fell upon me there. 2 Then I looked, and behold, a form that had the appearance of a man. Below what appeared to be his waist was fire, and above his waist was something like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming metal. 3 He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy. 4 And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the valley. (Ezekiel 8:1-4)
Ezekiel is being offered a panoramic view of Israel’s idols. What is an idol?
“An idol is anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that… is central in my life, anything that seems to me…essential… An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that… holds such a controlling position in my life that… it moves and rouses and attracts so much of my time and attention, my energy and money.” (Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, “Idolatry” in Life in God: Studies in 1 John)
In Ezekiel 8, we see God addressing four specific idols. And if we’re honest, these idols are no less powerful today.
IDOL 1: JEALOUSY
5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, lift up your eyes now toward the north.” So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.” (Ezekiel 8:5-6)
The first idol is jealousy. Jealousy occurs when I do not find joy and satisfaction in what God has given me, and instead look for it in the life of my neighbor. Have you ever experienced this? You might say: “My life would be better if _______________.” And you know you’re experiencing jealousy when you fill in that blank with something that belongs to another. “If I only had a job like his.” “I wish my spouse was more like that.” And it’s an idol that never goes away—because there will always be someone that you perceive as being “better off.” The end result is a continual game of one-upsmanship, a game we’re all destined to fail.
IDOL 2: SELF-INDULGENCE
7 And he brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, there was a hole in the wall. 8 Then he said to me, “Son of man, dig in the wall.” So I dug in the wall, and behold, there was an entrance. 9 And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” 10 So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. 11 And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. 12 Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.'” 13 He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.” (Ezekiel 8:7-13)
The people of Israel had taken to worship images of beasts and reptiles—finding satisfaction in things other than God. Do we worship images like this? Of course not; we’ve just grown much more sophisticated. Left to our own devices, we fill our need for pleasure and power with sports, with pornography, with hobbies—with anything that allows us to experience joy and satisfaction. And this also means that it’s not just “bad” things that can become idols—even “good” things become an idol when we give them too great a priority.
IDOL 3: SELF-SUFFICIENCY
14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. 15 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.” (Ezekiel 8:14-15)
Tammuz was the Babylonian god of fertility, who promised the people a life of blessings. If you remember, the people of Israel were enduring hardships during their exile in Babylon, so it’s understandable that in their desperation they’d look elsewhere for a shred of hope.
While the surface problem was worshipping another god, the deeper issue was the idol of self-sufficiency. They failed to trust God, and turned to other solutions. Do you trust God to run your life? Often it’s easier to find our own way. We can trust our education, our training, our ability to find and raise a family. God seems almost unnecessary—maybe even more like a hobby.
IDOL 4: SPIRITUALITY
16 And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. (Ezekiel 8:16)
The final idol was one of spirituality—or perhaps better yet false spirituality. Worship of the sun was common in many ancient eastern cultures. We can only speculate why—perhaps it’s because unlike God, the sun can be visibly seen. The same is true today: when we gather for worship, we can become more focused on the visible expressions of worship (music, preaching, etc.) then the object of our worship. If I focus on God in my worship, I become a growing student of His Kingdom. If I focus on the expressions of worship, I become a consumer of religious services. I learn to critique the smallest details of a spiritual gathering based on whether I found the experience to be “engaging” or “relevant.” When my spiritual life becomes reduced to these qualities, I have become addicted to a spiritual idol.
GOD’S RESPONSE TO IDOLATRY
What is God’s reaction to these idols?
17 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger? Behold, they put the branch to their nose. 18 Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.” (Ezekiel 8:17-18)
If the gospel is true, then I can no longer base my morality on whether or not I’m “hurting anyone else.” Instead, I base my morality on whether or not I’m offending God’s righteous standards. And there’s more. A life lived for self will only bring ruin. In an article in the New York Times, Erica Goode cites research that shows that high self-esteem can actually be linked to negative human behavior:
“High self-esteem…was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors…[in studies] carried out on aggression, they found that it was narcissism, self-love that includes a conviction of one’s superiority…that led people to retaliate aggressively when their self-esteem was threatened…[College students] who were invested in appearing attractive…reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia…They also became more depressed as the year wore on.” (Erica Goode, “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills,” New York Times, October 1, 2002)
Goode cites one of the researchers who concludes:
“The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs…ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.”
We live in a world that insists that my life is moral so long as I’m not hurting anyone. But nothing is more damaging than self-interest. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus abandoned His own rights by coming to earth to seek and save the lost:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
If the gospel is true, then it means that in myself I am profoundly lost. But it also means that in Christ, I find more joy and satisfaction than any idol could ever offer. To surrender our idols can be a painful and difficult process. But the rewards are beyond measure. What are you going to serve today?