Ash on the Altar: Reflecting on Our Affinity for Idols
Have you ever read through the Old Testament, muttering, “Why do the Israelites keep setting up shrines to pagan gods?” They trembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai as it burned. They were guided through the wilderness by pillars of fire and smoke. Ample food sprang from the desert wastes for forty years. They experienced not one but two miraculous partings of water—the Red Sea and the Jordan River. Their outnumbered armies were delivered again and again from their enemies. They even heard the thundering voice of God.
But, time and again, they strayed, and we continue to stray far from the King and Creator whose Spirit dwells in the hearts of His children.
Throughout the Bible, God calls upon the Israelites to return to Him. In the process, He doesn’t just ask them to abandon their idols or set them aside. He demands their destruction.
I imagine many Israelites, in a flood of emotion, took a hammer to their idols. But, over time, as life’s struggles wore on and emotions faded, they mixed mortar, resurrected their lifeless gods, and renewed their worship.
“As life’s struggles wore on and emotions faded, they mixed mortar, resurrected their lifeless gods, and renewed their worship.”
We’re no different. How many of us recognize an idol in our life and set boundaries to limit its influence but never distance ourselves fully from it? (Or run to behavior modification rather than invite God’s intervention?)
Idols can be anything. Relationships, careers, achievements, possessions—anything that encroaches on a life fully surrendered to the God who loved us enough to die for us. Often, idols are good things that occupy a disordered place in our hearts.
Let’s use the Temple in Jerusalem to illustrate this. In this magnificent building, built by gifted human hands, the Spirit of God was enthroned above the Ark of the Covenant, shrouded by a curtain in the Most Holy Place. The earthly Temple was full of beautiful items used to worship the Father, all consecrated, all holy.
Our souls are a reflection of the Temple. The Holy Spirit sits enthroned there as well. Imagine the blessings of your life encircling that throne–gifts to steward well. Unfortunately, too often, they find their way behind the curtain, taking a place reserved for the presence of God.
“Unfortunately, too often, the blessings find their way behind the curtain, taking a place reserved for the presence of God.”
Your career isn’t just a vehicle for you to get rich. Your creativity isn’t meant to be an opportunity to heap up praise and influence for yourself. All good things are gifts from the Father, intended to bring Him glory in any number of ways, spiritual and secular. If we step out of the way. If we make ourselves small.
Our enemy would love for us to bask in the light of these blessings and fool ourselves into believing we’re worshipping God.
Sometimes, responding to an idol will be simple. It may not be easy, but at least you’ll know how to move forward. In other cases—particularly, relationships—prayerful wisdom and guidance from God and other believers will be needed. Either way, don’t wait another day to act.
In Judges 6, God tells Gideon to destroy his father’s pagan altar and the wooden idol beside it. (Unconfronted idols can yield generational sin.) He then instructs Gideon to build a new altar and offer a sacrifice using the splintered remnants of the idol as fuel.
“Our enemy would love for us to bask in the light of these blessings and fool ourselves into believing we’re worshipping God.”
In the same way, when we surrender an idol to the Lord, we can cling to the hope that doing so will draw us closer to God. The same smoke that brings tears to our eyes reinforces our devotion to our Heavenly Father. Our idols only glorify Him as ash on the altar.
If areas of your life are unhealthy fixations or bring unreasonable disappointment or frustration, dig them up. Interrogate your motivations. Pray and consult those who know you best. Ask them what you cling to. And never forget that we serve a God who is what we need, whose mercies are new every morning, and who pursues us always.
Will you join me in hunting for idols?