Monday, July 16, 2007

Idols...And the King

I've been reflecting a bit on the first commandment. If you look it up in the Bible it's really quite lengthy, but the important part is that God says that He is God, and that we shouldn't worship any false gods, nor make any idols for ourselves. One might be tempted to think that this commandment isn't really a problem for most serious Christians; after all, when was the last time you saw any of your Catholic or Christian friends or neighbors making a graven image, or bowing down and worshiping a statue of what was supposed to be a lion but looks a bit more like a horse with a really fluffy mane which they made in the senior center last Wednesday?

We smile, of course. But we're wrong. Oh, not about the lion-horse and secret rituals in suburban garages; about false gods--at least, about a looser interpretation of what this commandment requires of us. Strictly speaking, to be guilty of the mortal sin of idolatry we'd actually have to worship something other than God (and besides this grave matter we'd have to be have full knowledge and sufficient reflection, the usual conditions for mortal sin). But in a lesser sense, we can make created things into "idols" without actually worshiping them; that is, we can seek them with undue focus and elevate them beyond what their material nature is worth. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, put it this way: "Earthly goods are not bad, but they are debased when man sets them up as idols, when he adores them. They are ennobled when they are converted into instruments for good, for just and charitable Christian undertakings. We cannot seek after material goods as if they were a treasure. Our treasure is Christ and all our love and desire must be centered on him." (Christ is Passing By, 35)

How do we know if we've made something into a false god? How do we know if some material good is more important to us than it has any right to be? How can we tell if our treasure is truly Christ, or if we've let other things get in the way of our desire for Him?

For those of us whose vocation is in the world, who have not taken a vow of poverty, this can indeed be difficult to determine. We aren't forbidden to use the world's goods, or to own property; as Josemaria Escriva's quote above reminds us, we can even do good in this way. But there are times when we don't have the proper detachment to our earthly goods, when we get caught up in materialism and make some things in our lives entirely too important.

If your house were on fire, what would you try to save? If the answer didn't relate to family members, that might be a clue that some of your possessions are becoming a bit too important to you.

If you had to go to the hospital overnight for minor surgery, what ten things, apart from the clothes you need to wear home, would you pack? If more than eight of those things are cosmetics, you may want to reflect a bit.

If you flew to another city for a three day visit to family members, and your suitcase was lost, how many things would you have to buy to replace the contents of your missing suitcase (other than any gift items you planned to give those family members), and how many items would you need to borrow each morning to get dressed (i.e. hair styling devices)? If the total number of purchased and borrowed items is more than twenty or so, you might have a bit too much in the way of earthly treasure.

Those examples, of course, are rather tongue-in-cheek. But the point is there: how many things in your life are so important to your daily comfort that the temporary or permanent loss of them would cause you to suffer great inconvenience, and put you seriously out of sorts? I'm not speaking, of course, of some prescription medicine you might have to take; nor do I include those things which make it possible for people with disabilities to live independently, or anything of that caliber. Of those things we don't have to have, but choose to have, how many of them have in some way become idols to us?

I used to be afraid that my contact lenses were getting to be false gods to me. I really, really like having contact lenses, and find my glasses uncomfortable, blurry, annoyingly in the way, and difficult to deal with. The thought, about my contacts, would cross my mind: could I actually live without these things?

Then I got corneal ulcers from the lenses, and had to go back to wearing glasses for three years. I'm very glad that happened, because I got the answer to my question: yes, I could. I even adjusted back to wearing glasses, and though I still found them annoying I preferred clear vision to removing them.

Now, I'm very grateful to the genius who invented these, which gave me the chance to wear contact lenses again. But I'm also grateful that God helped me see the whole thing more clearly, including the fact that as long as I could give up my contacts cheerfully when He asked me to, my preference for them wasn't a bad thing at all; and as long as I'm prepared to give them up again should it be necessary, it's perfectly fine for me to keep enjoying the benefits they provide.

That's the only test I know of to settle the question as to whether some material good has become more important to us than the King of Heaven, or at least more important that material goods have any right to be: the "Can you give it up?" test. Again, of course, I'm not speaking of things that are necessary to our health and safety, but only of those things we choose to own, which are not actually needed. If we found ourselves being called by Christ to give any of those things up for the sake of His Kingdom, could we do it? Cheerfully? Immediately? Joyfully?

If we're asked to make a choice, which will we choose? Idols? Or the King?


All Blog Spots said...

nice blog

c.m.w. said...

When we live in a world where things can easily be replaced, is it enough to ask "If you had to leave it behind, could you?"

Isn't there a big difference between saying, "I could give this up" when you know it is only temporarily until you can find a better solution and saying "I can give this up willingly. It is not important in my life."

And wouldn't your internal disposition have something to do with it as well? To say "I don't need my contacts" is one thing, but if someone sits and thinks about having contacts again, dreams of wearing contacts that won't hurt his eyes and prefers only those pictures that were taken without glasses is quite another issue, isn't it?

I guess when I think of "making idols" I think of big things, not small. The unquenchable desire for more money, choosing games and personal entertainment over the needs of your family and home, or the consuming fascination to be recognized and admired. Maybe I am wrong and should be reevaluating everything from my computer to my crockpot.

Honestly asking questions, not arguing.

Red Cardigan said...

Good questions, c.m.w.

It's true that in our society that which we give up can often be replaced. But I don't think something has to be 'big' to be a false god--it just has to be far more important than it has any right to be.

Take the crockpot, for instance. When mine broke I replaced it; it's useful, it helps me prepare meals especially on busy winter school days, and it has a positive impact on the family food budget because it allows me to prepare some inexpensive foods I might otherwise not prepare. All of those reasons to own one are fine, and even though when I did replace the broken one I had those thoughts of "Am I being too materialistic? Do I really *need* this?" I came to the conclusion that while I certainly could live without one, it wasn't a bad thing to have or to use.

Could someone make a crockpot a false god? Sure! But this would mean that you see the crockpot as completely indispensible; if it broke you'd be in the car in less than an hour on your way to buy a new one; when you traveled out of town you'd take it with you to prepare meals on the road--and if you ever truly *had* to do without it, you'd be miserable and grumpy and mad at God for taking it away from you.

See the difference?

In a way, it's like Jonah and the plant that was giving him shade, as he waited for the destruction of Ninevah. As God pointed out when He rebuked Jonah, Jonah was more upset over the death of the plant than the possible death of all the inhabitants of Ninevah--and the plant didn't even truly belong to Jonah!

To me, that's what we need to remember--we don't really "own" any of our things. A gracious and benevolent God allows us to have them; whether he provides us with them directly (like Jonah and the plant) or indirectly (as when our DH's earn money and provide us with things) matters little. And what He has given, He can take away. As long as we're willing to accept that about our things, I don't think we're making them false gods.