What Idols Taught Me About God

My first exposure to idols came through Sunday school stories of golden calves and bloodthirsty statues. As compelling as these dark stories were, they belonged to another time and another people, far removed from my Midwestern world. For me, idols existed only between the leather-bound pages of my Bible.

But these invisible idols lived only in the heart, and so they seemed less sinister than those of gold or granite.

As I grew older, I began to see the idols that existed in more subtle forms in my own world — wealth, acceptance, accomplishment. Unlike the Baals and Asherahs of the Old Testament, these were gods I could relate to, which sometimes lured me away from the one true God. But these invisible idols lived only in the heart, and so they seemed less sinister than those of gold or granite.

Then I moved to Taiwan, an island off the coast of China, and my understanding of idols changed again. As I encountered Taiwan's idol worship almost daily, I began to grasp the true nature of idolatry. In the process, I gained surprising insight into my own worship.

In a land of false gods

Roughly the size of Delaware, Taiwan teems with idols. In fact, few — if any — places on earth have a greater number of temples per square mile. More than 11,000 temples are scattered among the bustling roads and alleys, the rice paddies and betel nut fields, and the ridges and valleys of a central mountain range. More than 340 deities from the Buddhist, Taoist and traditional Chinese pantheon rule the hearts of the Taiwanese.

As a foreigner, I gained an inkling of how the apostle Paul must have felt as he walked through the streets of Athens. Struck by the sheer abundance of the Athenian gods, he declared, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" (Acts 17:22-23).

As in Athens 2,000 years ago, the signs of idol worship are evident at nearly every turn in Taiwan. In open doorways, lotus-shaped lamps glow upon family altars. In the dim light of temples, wooden idols with painted faces stare vacuously through the smoke of incense. On sidewalks, shop owners burn "ghost money" (fake bills that represent money in the afterlife) in open fires, hoping to appease both deities and ghosts.

Taiwanese worship is often noisy and extravagant. Worshipers parade through the streets with horns and firecrackers, bearing the palanquins of puppet-sized gods on their shoulders. Mediums, supposedly possessed by the spirits of the gods, flail their bodies in a scripted trance and flog themselves with spiked objects until blood flows from their scalps.

Beyond the sights and sounds of Taiwan's idol worship, I found a grim spiritual reality. Yes, I was disturbed that lifeless idols had taken the rightful place of the living God. Equally troubling was that a loving relationship with the Creator had been hidden from their hearts by a self-seeking and fearful worship that debases the human soul. This, I came to realize, is the true nature of idol worship.

Taiwanese worshipers know nothing of a deity who loves them or longs for a relationship with them. Their gods are neither good shepherds who lay down their life for their sheep nor fathers who run with open arms to their prodigal children.

While the gods offer no affection, they do provide a way to secure personal blessings. Like shrewd businessmen, worshipers seek the services of the most useful deities. They bring their wishes for health or prosperity to the temple, and if their prayers are granted, they return with offerings to settle their debt. It is, at the very core, a business arrangement.

Many of Taiwan's devout make offerings of fruit and incense to ghosts, gods and ancestors, hoping to avert personal disaster. The spiritual realm is a dark and fearful place, and their worship "pays" for a bit of spiritual protection.

How often do I see Him as a cosmic insurance plan against the vagaries of life? Does my worship sometimes look more like idolatry than a redeemed relationship with my Creator?

An uncomfortable light

As I witnessed this system of worship, I discovered that idolatry is more than just serving lesser gods. It is as much about a false understanding of worship as it is about a false object of worship.

This revelation shed an uncomfortable light on my own spiritual tendencies. How often do I treat God like a hawker of miracles and a dealer of blessings? How often do I see Him as a cosmic insurance plan against the vagaries of life? Does my worship sometimes look more like idolatry than a redeemed relationship with my Creator?

Sadly, I have to acknowledge that at times I seek His blessings without first seeking His face. And far too often, it is fear and worry — not desire for the Lover of my soul — that bring me to my knees. I have, to some degree, embraced a false view of God.

I suspect I am not alone. How many others in the church have settled for a lower worship, even as they reach for the Most High God?

In spirit and in truth

Only a profound understanding of God's character can purify our prayers and redeem our praises. We serve a righteous, almighty and passionate God who loves us with such abandon that He died for us so that we may worship Him in spirit and in truth. When I meditate on this greater reality, I am compelled to respond with a higher worship.

What does it mean to worship God in spirit and in truth? It is a devotion driven not by fear but love — for perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). It is motivated not by self-interest but by personal surrender — as Christ instructed His disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross" (Mathew : 16:24).

When I submit all my desires and fears to God, I find a pure worship that draws me into the loving presence of my Creator.

Taken from Focus on the Family magazine, May 2007.
Article copyright © 2007, Focus on the Family.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Michael Ridgeway works at Focus on the Family.