Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the LORD will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols” (Ezekiel 14:1-5).
As we reach the end of yet another year, it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months. At the beginning of the year, many were talking about “20/20 vision,” and developing a vision for the year. Being an election year in America, many found hope in both major candidates and proclaimed that they were the hope of America. Then COVID-19 hit. Masks. Lockdowns. Isolation. While the year started out with great promise to many, the year has seen America more divided than ever–and the church fares little better.
Don’t worry, though, this is not a post about politics–except to say this: Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden are the hope of America (or any other country).
No, this is a post about what the church has learned (or rather still needs to learn) from this year. There have been some things exposed that need to be dealt with in the church, if she is to reclaim her biblical identity and mission.
Idolatry in the Heart
What is the root cause of such nasty division? How could the church, bought with the very blood of Christ turn in on itself in such dramatic fashion to make many believers ashamed? This goes beyond political stances or even disagreements on non-fundamental theological issues. The root cause of this is idolatry. “Idolatry? Here in America?” Certainly. We tend to think of idols in terms of tangible things. A statue. A crucifix. Something to take to a priest to be blessed.
The truth is, however, that idolatry is firstly a condition of the heart. Notice what the Lord said to Ezekiel in this passage: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces” (v. 3, emphasis added). The elders that came to the prophet had idols in their hearts. They were not openly worshipping false gods or images. They were outwardly following the rules. Yet, the Lord pinpointed the real truth, that their hearts were full of idolatry.
How does one have an idol in the heart? When one worships, serves, and/or gives primacy of place to the idol. What kind of idols are we talking about? Anything and anyone can become an idol. Money is an obvious one, so is power, fame, etc. There is, however, one big idol that the western church has not only overlooked but has embraced in large measures: the idol of Christian Americanism.
What is that? What does that mean? The idol of Christian Americanism says that to be an American Christian you must think, vote, and act a certain way. It holds aloft the ideals of democracy, freedom, and individualism, proclaiming them as gospel truths–and indeed almost synonymous with the gospel. At the base of this idol is the foundational idea of “my rights.” Americans have rights. Humans have rights.
What’s wrong with those things? Aren’t they good? In a way, they are very good. All should be treated as equal and treated as image-bearers of God. Yet, the concepts of democratic individualism and “rights” have done more damage to the church than most of the heresies throughout her history.
While we are individuals and the gospel celebrates our uniqueness, we are joined to others in the Body of Christ. Democratic individualism undermines the corporate identity of the church.
While we are never to place another person above (or alongside) God, we are called to give up our rights in favor of the benefit of others.
The idol of Christian Americanism is not much different than the lie of the serpent to Eve: You can do it your own way. You can be your own god. That is admittedly a strong statement. Yet, what else are we to say when believers turn on each other as they have? What else are we to say when a believer judges another’s salvation based on political stances? What else are we to say when a believer flippantly regards proper directives from authority, simply because he or she disagrees with them–or worse yet because he or she refuses to recognize said authority?
Over the past weeks on social media I have witnessed:
- believers calling for civil war in the wake of the election
- believers refusing to recognize the President-elect, saying “he’s not and won’t be my President”
- believers refusing to follow mask mandates in the midst of the COVID crisis because “it’s illogical and doesn’t make sense”
- believers saying or implying that if one votes for a particular candidate, he or she must not be a Christian (both sides are guilty of this)
- believers making fun of, mocking, or implying that those who wear masks are silly, babies, walking in fear, or worse yet, duped by the government (and perhaps traitors).
The Stumbling Block of Iniquity
Notice what verse 3 also says about the idols of the heart. The one who has an idol in his heart has set a stumbling block before himself. He will trip and fall because of his own idolatry. And he will fall into iniquity. One cannot avoid falling into sin when they are being led by idols. It’s impossible. In the passage, the Lord says, “Should I let myself be inquired at all by them?” The tone of the question is, “Why would they even think that I’d listen to them when they try to inquire of me while their heart is full of idolatry?” This happened in Israel and it is certainly happening today. Many who profess Christ have set up such idols in their heart. What does the Lord say about that one who does inquire of the Lord with those idols?
I the LORD will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols (vv. 4-5).
There are several things we need to understand and heed in this passage:
- Idolatry in the heart estranges one from the Lord. Notice the Lord mentions “the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.” Like Israel, a believer can become estranged from the Lord through idols of the heart. He has set his idols up in his heart as god.
- The Lord will answer the idolatrous one “according to the multitude of his idols” (NKJV). He will give the idolatrous one over to his idols. This is similar to the language of Romans 1 where the Gentiles are said to be given over to their idols and the lies that they have believed. What does that mean? It means the idolatrous one will become more and more set in idolatry.
- The Lord does this because He wants the whole heart. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel.” The NET says “in order [that I may] capture the hearts.” How does this work? As with all sin, in order to truly repent of it, one must come to the end of self. The Lord gives over the idolater to the iniquity of his idols so that he may eventually see the emptiness of those idols. That is not a pleasant journey. Solomon took a similar journey, and he said, “Vanity! All is vanity!”
A Call to Repent
What must the church do? The answer to idolatry is always repentance. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to identify and expose the idols of the heart so that we may repent of and forsake them. We must distance ourselves from the idol of Christian Americanism.To do that we must remember:
- we are first and foremost citizens of heaven and that we are aliens and strangers here
- this world–let alone this country–is not our home
- we are citizens of a kingdom–with a King; though he does not physically reign yet, his rules still apply to his subject
- we are called to look out for others first; if wearing a mask is to the advantage of another then we should lay down any supposed rights and do so
Above all we must repent and repair the breaches within the church. We must go to brothers and sisters that we have hurt through our idolatry. And we must be willing for the Lord to show us those people. For those of us who have been hurt, we must find the grace to forgive.
Let 2020 pass away. Let 2021 mark a new beginning, where the Bride of Christ reclaims her identity.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43:19-21