Last Sunday I preached a sermon titled “The Big Problem” from Romans 1:18-25 (you can hear that sermon on the Columbia Church of Christ Sermons page). In this passage Paul is explaining why the wrath of God is being revealed. The reason, which is the big problem, is idolatry and it has resulted in all kinds of wicked and evil behavior that has brought destruction to life God created us to live.
Paul is pretty specific about the nature of this idolatry. Here is what he says in Romans 1:21-23:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
That gives us a big clue about the nature of idolatry. Rather than giving thanks to and glorifying God, that thankfulness and glory gets misplaced as futile thinking sets in. The initial result is a “foolish heart” that becomes “darkened”. Here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, the heart is referring that place within us from which all thoughts originate . We use the word heart in this sense when we say a person has a good heart or that they have evil in their heart. By describing the heart as “foolish” (NIV, ESV) or “senseless” (NRSV), Paul is describing people who have lost complete understanding . Consequently, these idolators begin giving thanks and glory to the images of people, birds, animals, and reptiles.
It is important to recognize that the images which are idolized always represent some institution or power within creation. In this manner, the idolatry always rejects the authority of God and attributes much of what rightfully belongs only to God to the created things as trust is placed in these created things, exalts and praises such things with glory and thanksgiving .
Here in America, as good Western-thinking people, most of us are way too sophisticated to idolize some statue of a person or animal. However, when it comes to politicians and parties, for Hollywood and Sports, for lucrative careers and material goods… Whatever the case may be, we see the outworking of such idolatry expressed in wicked and evil behaviors just as Paul observed (cf. Rom 1:26ff).
Perhaps the biggest idol, and the one which few want to consider, is the nation which garners so much patriotic attention. Of course, this does not mean that everyone who is patriotic has allowed patriotism to become idolatry. Yet there is a lot of patriotic idolatry. When in tribalistic thinking a person’s patriotism exclaims “love it or leave it” to those who criticize something about America, there is idolatry. When God is imaged as American like we get with The American Patriot’s Bible, there is idolatry. When we look to the nation for our hope, trusting in it’s horse and chariots otherwise known as military power, to try and secure what God promises to us in Jesus Christ, there is idolatry.
With that in mind, I want to make three suggestions for how American Christians can relate to the nation and be God’s blessing upon the nation. First, renouncing patriotic idolatry does not mean we must be unappreciative of the blessings we have from living in America. We should be thankful and we should give that thanks to God. The more we give thanks to God, the more God receives the glory and that means we are also pointing people to their Creator rather than created things. Second, renouncing patriotic idolatry does not mean we must be unconcerned about “God and country.” However, rather than treating the American dream or vision as God’s will, we should learn to speak prophetically and live missionally in America so that the kingdom of God reigns over the nation. Lastly, the nation is people and people whom God loves dearly. Therefore we love the people as Christ loves us. Like Christ, we become servant who sacrifice for the sake of those whom God loves.
- Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 508, which defines the word καρδία as the sense of the “seat of physical, spiritual, and mental life…”
- Ibid, 146.
- See Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 164-165, who defines idolatry saying, “Idolatry dethrones God and enthrones creation. Idolatry is the attempt to limit, reduce and control God by refusing his authority, constraining or manipulating his power to act, having him available to serve our interests. At the same time, paradoxically, idolatry exalts things within the created order (whether natural objects in the heavens or on earth, or created spirits, or the products of our own hands or imaginations). Creation is then credited with a potency that belongs only to God; it is sacralized, worshiped and treated as that from which ultimate meaning can be derived.”