In my last post, I made the argument that as individuals and as a society, we must be on the lookout for two types or stages of idolatry. The first (and earlier) stage is when we begin to treasure God’s gifts above him, while still reaping the benefits of previous fidelity. The second (and later) stage is when, through persistent idolatry, God judges us by giving us over to our cravings. The result is that we deepen in our rebellion and come to hate the gifts that formerly delighted us.
So here’s my contemporary application: Much of what we call “Red-State America” (the South, rural and suburban parts of most states) is in the first stage of idolatry. The fidelity of our parents and grandparents (and, in truth, even farther back) has produced great blessings and fruit in society. However, many have grown to love the gifts over the Giver. The family, the free market economy, safety, security, and prosperity; the list could be multiplied.
We value and treasure these things, but we easily forget where they came from. Such gifts have not been the normal state of existence for most of humanity throughout history. But, as we come to treasure these things above Christ, God will bring discipline in order to turn our hearts back to him. Apart from connection to the vine, the fruit will die. Not immediately perhaps, but in due time. This type of idolatry is subtle and many times difficult to see because it can still masquerade behind a faux-gratitude and reverence for God.
On the other hand, what we call “Blue-State America” (the Coasts and urban areas) is in the later stage of idolatry. Here, rejection of God is more overt and public. Rebellion is flaunted. Persistent glory-exchange has resulted in God’s judgment upon us, in which he hands us over to our self-destructive lusts. As the judgment deepens, we come to despise the former gifts (traditional family, free markets, etc.) because they remind us of Him.
Now then, here is the big challenge, especially for those of us who identify more readily with “Red-State America.” In our rejection of the brazen rebellion, self-destruction, and godlessness of those farther down the road to perdition, we must make clear that we are not simply calling for an earlier, more benign form of idolatry. We must be willing to cast down idols, root and branch. Repentance, regular and heartfelt, is what is required of us.
Let me close with two analogies.
Imagine a hill with a slight incline (perhaps 1-2 degrees) that eventually turns into a steeper incline (20-30 degrees). You start a ball at the top of the hill. At first, it barely seems to be moving, but over time, it picks up speed, especially as it crosses into the steeper incline. Eventually the ball falls off a cliff.
Our goal is not to put the ball back to where it was rolling slowly down the hill to hades. Rather, we want the ball at the top of the hill, and we want it to stay there. In other words, we don’t get Brownie points for rebelling more slowly than the other guy.
Analogy number 2:
The apostle James compares sin to conception, pregnancy, and birth. ” Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). I’m going to modify the analogy a bit.
In type-2 idolatry, we are at 34 weeks and the baby could come at any time. The pregnancy is obvious, the baby is kicking, and Mom and Dad are picking out the colors for the nursery.
Type-1 idolaters, who aren’t quite ready to be “parents” yet (it’s a messy business), want to become 2 months pregnant and stay there. They (we?) want our idolatry in moderation.
But that is not how idolatry works. Societies, like individuals, are not static; they are on trajectories. They are going somewhere. Our task as Christians is to figure out what direction we’re headed so we know whether to punch the right pedal or the left. Do we need to speed up or turn around? And if we’re headed in the wrong direction, we shouldn’t regard taking three steps forward and one step back as a viable solution.