Among American Gods: No Graven Images


For Meditation

“Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior. ” 

― Martin Luther

This quote by Martin Luther illustrates what is truly at stake in the second commandment.  When God says you shall make no graven images - you shall make no idols - he is making at least two claims about idolary.

The first claim is that we can create gods. In his book Playing God, Andy Crouch shows us that image bearing consists of making meaning and making stuff. And Idolatry happens when we seek ultimate meaning in either stuff created by God, or stuff we ourselves create. Crouch says, “We take something good and try to make it great in our lives.” The Apostle Paul put it this way in Romans 1, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”  Idolatry is the ultimate abuse of our creative power. We take a created thing and glorify it, deify it, and thus imbue it with god-like significance.

The second claim is that our idols work, at least for a time. They are functional. But what does it mean that our idols “work”? Our idols - our functional saviors - provide some measure of meaning, significance, love or validation. They are not inert. They seem real to us. And so we turn to them in our time of need. We worship them because they meet something unrequited in us.

Consider the man who desires a career, which is a good thing. After all, humans were created for dominion. We were meant for live lives of flourishing purpose in the world. But if this man finds his ultimate worth in his career, then he will deify his status. He will deify his reputation. He will deify his ambition. His savior becomes his work. It saves him from the hell of Failure or Obscurity. And it delivers him to his heaven of Success. And so he worships it.

Or consider the woman who desires a good thing like marriage. Genesis 2:18 says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” But what about when marriage becomes ultimate to her? What happens when she “clings to it” as Luther says? In that moment, she diefies her desire. A husband becomes for her a functional savior that saves her from the hell of singleness. He delivers her into her heavenly kingdom - a family. And so she worships him.

Here is the stark reality about functional saviors - they always fail us. They were always only ever false. They are fictional saviors, never intended to bear the burden of being ultimate. In time, every idol collapses under the weight of godhood. Every idol comes with an expiration date. And unlike the Triune God, idols are not good and they are not true. So “great is the fall of them” in our lives, to the ruin of our identities, our friendships, our families, our neighborhoods and our institutions. Idolatry always results in diminishment.

The second commandment is a prohibition that seeks to protect us from the ruin that false gods cause when they fail us, and the diminishment of creation that follows. But more than that - the second commandment reminds us that the creative power of image-bearing, when ordered rightly, can lead to the flourishing life and to the flourishing of all creation.

This week as we prepare to encounter God in this commandment, I would challenge us to set aside 15 minutes to prayerfully answer some of the following questions:

1.     Using Luther’s language, what do I “cling to and confide in”? Some other angles to get at this answer might be:

  • Where do I find my ultimate significance and worth and value during this season of my life?
  • What do I want other people to think about me when they see me?
  • What do I fear the most in my life? What is my “personal hell”?
  • What functional savior do I turn to to deliver me from this hell, or to save me from my fear?

2.     Examine the fiction behind this functional savior:

  • Is it truly functioning? Are you happier, more fulfilled, are you whole? What is missing that the idol cannot provide?
  • Is it helping your most vital relationships flourish?
  • What sort of help, support, community, etc do you need in order to walk way from this functional savior?

Our weekly worship guide can be found here once finalized. 

Exodus 20:4-6

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments."