That was my reaction as I read the words.
Once in a while Eugene Peterson paraphrases a line in the Bible and catches its meaning in a startling, even painful way.
This was one of those times.
In a culture that likes to think of itself as progressive and informed, the idea postulated in the phrase seems both archaic and arcane. We are advanced, cultured, refined and intelligent.
So what was the phrase that startled the breath out of me?
“Casual idolatry is lethal.” (Psalm 119:118b MSG)
My first response was…Idolatry!? Oh come on! We do not carve little wooden figures, imbue them with magical powers and bow down to them in an effort to curry their favor. That is the stuff of primitive societies.
We know better.
My second thought was, “casual idolatry”…how can idolatry be casual? Like “casual Friday” at work where you wear jeans and Nikes?
But honestly, I think those reactions were driven from a deeper place in me. One that was being confronted by a harsh reality. I was uncomfortable…very uncomfortable.
So since this was a paraphrase, I decided to look it up in Hebrew and see what it really said. I was hoping Peterson was off his rocker on this one.
What he paraphrases “idolatry” literally means deceit or delusion. And “lethal”? Translate it, Useless or fraud. I wondered…how did Peterson get casual idolatry from “delusions,” and lethal from “fraud”?
Other translators say: “their lies mislead them”; “what they deceive themselves with is false”; “their cunning is vain”. Here is a good one: “… their delusions come to nothing.” Seems I was about to wriggle out of my discomfort zone.
Then it hit me. Peterson was right. Whenever we “drift away from (God’s) sayings” (119:118a) we become purveyors of casual idolatry: the delusions of the ordinary idol.
Most of my life-illusions are based on some God-result I expect from something or someone other than God. Whenever I’ve chased those delusions, it’s killed something precious to me.
Casual idolatry has proven absolutely deadly in my experience.
How many times do I by lack of attention or intention allow something small to so impact my life, feelings and behavior that it gains godlike power over me?
- Some person so nonessential to my life suddenly alters my direction.
- Some priority so counter to my truer values acutely controls my decisions.
- Some passion so contrary to my deeper longings abruptly hijacks my devotion.
You see, I get the danger of real idolatry. Anyone who has battled addiction in themselves and others knows the truth that we can easily be children of a lesser god. Being controlled by something bigger than yourself is a battle many of us have faced and some of us have won.
But the more common form of idolatry is in fact the most dangerous. It isn’t the compulsive impulse of high-risk, life-controlling problems.
Most idolatry is daily…mixed into the rub and reality of moment-by-moment living.
As I’ve thought about it, these “delusions” of casual idolatry are evident when we:
- Give superficial things more meaning than the relational. When I allow the surface concerns of the daily to push aside the deeper concerns of the eternal, I will sacrifice family, friends, strangers and enemies on the altar of expedience. Relationship has no chance in competition with my routine’s incessant demand for attention.
- Give artificial things more significance than the substantial. When I believe the hype of cultural and personal propaganda about the worth of things like money, success and pleasure I will automatically exchange lasting values with the passing fads. Reality swims against an unyielding tide when faced with the sales-pitch of fantasy.
- Give trivial things more weight than the essential. When I buy into the frivolous lie that I just have to have something–anything–to possess personal worth, I will quickly jettison things of absolute importance to make room for those that bring recognition. The basics always fall short on the value-scales of societal appraisal.
These are our ordinary idols.
When we have a distorted view of God it skews us into a parody of what we were meant to be. Referring to idols, the Psalmist said: “Those who make them will be like them.” (Psalm 115:8)
Messed up god = screwed up person.
It is no wonder that when asked to teach His disciples to pray, Jesus made the apex cry: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one…” (Matthew 6:13)
Drift is the natural state of the soul when the anchor of His extreme love and extravagant mercy are sacrificed to a rival. God has little tolerance for the things in our lives that constantly impose their demands on our allegiance.
He knows us. He understands our tendency to cook up golden calves instead of waiting in a cloud of uncertainty for ultimate answers.
“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; Prone to leave the One I love…”* is the honest state of our journey as we slip through the labyrinth of alternative offers to the simple grace found in Him alone.
My only success in combat against this pull of casual idolatry is the passion of worship.
Worship is a remedy for the searching of my soul. It allows me to once again hear God define Himself apart from the distortions of culture, religion and my brokenness.
In times of worship I am reminding myself of Who He really is and how He really loves.
Like the ancient Philistine god, Dagon, who kept getting knocked off his divine pedestal by the presence of Israel’s simple Ark, so casual idolatry cannot stand in the atmosphere of authentic intimacy.
You see, my God is no ordinary idol!
*Come Thou Fount