We've never seen good and evil well. The black and the white, the wrong and the right, the hideous and the heavenly—we confuse them. That's probably why the Trinity warned us about that ancient tree. The knowledge of good and evil, especially since the fall, hasn't been our forte. The worst of it is that we're hardly aware of this. But it comes out perennially in something we thought we mastered a long time ago: idolatry.
While there have been popular efforts to show how idolatry goes beyond wood and stone—hitting the dreaded three of sex, money, and power—we still think idolatry lives on the periphery, that the "major sins" deal with breaking the other commandments: adultery, theft, murder, coveting. But a passage from Matthew's Gospel reminded me how ignorant we can be of idolatry's presence. We might not see this because the passage deals with "unclean spirits," not idols. But I'll explain.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” (Matt. 12:43–45)
UNCLEAN SPIRITS VS. IDOLS
Jesus is talking about "unclean spirits," not idols. And it's important to recognize the difference between the two. Idols are human constructs. They are mute sub-creations of created beings, substituted for the one, true Creator. As Isaiah and Jeremiah often decry, idols are blind, deaf, and mute (Isa. 2:8; 40:20; 42:17; Jer. 10:5, 8, 14; 51:17). They are dead things treated as living. Unclean spirits, on the other hand, can and often do speak and act. This happens many times when an unclean spirit confronts Jesus and is cast out (Mark 1:23, 26; 3:11; 5:2–13; Luke 4:33–36; 8:28; 9:42; Acts 8:7). It's noteworthy that Jesus himself refers to one of these unclean spirits as a "demon" (Mark 7:29), showing that the terms can be interchangeable. Unclean spirits, demons, are active and animate spiritual adversaries, while idols are inactive and inanimate sub-creations of perverse souls. We need to bear that in mind.
Yet, despite the difference between idols and unclean spirits, they serve the same spiritual purpose, because they serve the same dark lord. That purpose is to draw God's people away from the preeminence of the Father, Son, and Spirit and plunge them further into darkness, doubt, and self-destruction. Idols do this by substituting false gods for the true God and getting people to worship something created. This culminates in the worshiper taking on the image of the idol: a dead and lifeless thing (hence the self-destruction). Unclean spirits serve the same purpose by actively tormenting God's image bearers—sometimes by bringing them physical pain (e.g., Matt. 4:24, where demon possession is linked to other physical ailments) and other times by doing evil through them (Luke 4:34–35; 1 Tim. 4:1; James 3:15).
And the broader principle in this passage, I find, applies to idolatry just as much as it does to unclean spirits. It's a principle Jesus attaches not just to a person or a faction of people but to an entire "generation." In other words, this is culture-wide critique. And here's the principle: the moment you think you're "good" in terms of evil attacks, you're open to even more dangerous ones.
The moment you think you're "good" in terms of evil attacks, you're open to even more dangerous ones.
It's a scary thought, isn't it? You'd think that the more work you put into cleansing yourself, to ridding your life of evil, the more holy you would become. And while that can be true by the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes us more like Christ, when we're talking about life apart from Christ, it's a whole different picture. Apart from Christ, you can't make yourself more holy. You only have the ability to fill your life with deeper and darker evil. The terrifying part is that you'll likely be unaware that you're worse off than you were before.
This rings true especially in our day with the rise of idolatry. (Can you guess what the new idol is?) It's the sort of idolatry that takes over when the Western house has been "swept and put in order" by what Charles Taylor called a self-sufficient humanism (A Secular Age, 18). That's fancy talk for "a way of life in which we have full confidence in our own ability to flourish apart from God." We forget the transcendent and focus on the immanent. Right here on earth, we have everything we need to be "basically good people" who live "basically fulfilling lives." According to this spirit, all organized religion ever did, especially Christianity, was breed bigotry, irrationality, hostility, and egotistical speculation. It was corrupted. And self-sufficient humanists say, "We're done with corrupt Christianity. We're cleaning house."
Well, get ready . . . because now we get those seven other spirits more evil than the first. Or, maybe we just get the evil that's always been buried inside us and was waiting for more space to grow: the arsenic of autonomy.
THE IDOL OF SELF
The new idol (though it's as ancient as time itself) is invisible. It's not wood or stone. It's not even sex or success or money or power. It's more entrenched, more hidden, tucked away in a dark corner of the soul, but whispered to on a daily basis. It's the idol of self.
In his book Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self, Matthew P.W. Roberts draws our gaze to this self-inflicted guile. Far worse than corrupted religion, the idol of self is both mute and verbal, passive and active. It cuts across the categories of idolatry and demonology. It's something we've made, of course, like all idols. But it also seems to take on a life of its own, to war within us. This is because the idol emerges not from a surface-level desire for something (fame, money, power) but from the deeper human desire to be something. It's our desire to be free, our desire to be autonomous, our desire to be . . . gods (Gen. 3:5). Whereas the old idolatry moved from desire to worship—I want this, and so I'll honor that—the new idolatry of self moves from desire to worship to self. It's regenerative. In other words, it's a form of idolatry custom built to produce more of itself. It's the vicious circle par excellence. It starts with the desires of the self, and it ends with the desires of the self, and then it starts with the desires of the self . . . The only thing that satisfies it is the unwavering pursuit of more self.
Note what Roberts says.
With the emergence of the Free Self as the most prominent idol of the West, the identity-defining effect has taken a somewhat different form. Now the deity is the freedom of the individual to follow his or her own desires, to construct his or her own person. This is what makes a person truly human. And therefore what I want to do, my desires and passions, becomes not merely an important part of my experience but definitive of my very person. Just as Athena defined the self-perception of the Athenians, and Artemis of the Ephesians, and Dagon of the Philistines, so the desires of the Self has come to define those in the West. Doing what I want is really being me; what I want is who I really am. My desires define me. They are my identity (p. 45).
This seems to be the most dangerous form of idolatry precisely because it's invisible. It's buried so deeply in our marrow that it's easily relabeled and overlooked: political freedom, self-worth, human integrity, independence. These are the words that cloak the idol of self. And such words appear innocent because of the deep-seated (but evil) belief that "natural" human desires are good. "If my desires come from my heart, they must be good; they must be natural! They're organically arising from inside me." But then there's that verse from the prophet Jeremiah: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9)
RESPONDING TO THE IDOL
What do we do with this new evil? How do we respond to the Secular Western house swept clean but now filled by something so much more evil than an allegedly corrupted religion? Those aren't questions articles are built to answer. But we certainly have broad strokes directions from Scripture.
1. Remember that true worship requires divine heart surgery. Jesus was clear that human hearts—brushed free of old evils but then filled with darker ones—are not without hope. He said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matt. 12:34–35). We live out of our treasure troves, but those treasure troves are seated in the heart. If a heart is not rejuvenated by the Spirit of God, it will continue the worship of self. Our advocacy isn't for a culture to move towards moral improvement; it's for Christ to capture hearts. Our call is simultaneously to turning and true worship. As Roberts put it,
We are naturally enslaved, not by external conventions which deny our desires, but by our desires themselves. Our captor is not oppressive peoples, cultures or beliefs, but our own hearts. The enemy to be destroyed is me, my own sinful lusts. My desires have enslaved me, and my desires have condemned me. But Christ died and rose again to set us free. He died in order that we might die with Him, and was raised so that with Him we might be raised to newness of life. This is the Christian gospel. (p. 85)
This alone can lead the heart to true worship, which is the very thing we were made to do. "We exist for one infinitely greater than ourselves; when we fill our souls with his worship, we find ourselves in Christ lifted up to his throne and transformed into his likeness. When we seek to fill our souls with nothing other than what we can already find in our souls, we shrivel ourselves to nothingness" (p. 128).
2. Stop pretending that people aren't worshipping. We can often feel embarrassed using language like "idolatry" and "worship" in conversation. The terms seem stale and puritanical. We'd rather use the substitutes for self-worship—terms such as "self-discovery," "self-worth," "independence" or "authenticity." But as well-intended as this is (and there may be occasions where such use is appropriate), it often clothes the naked truth that the self, with all of its attendant desires and aspirations, is still treated as primary.
We are worshiping creatures. The question isn't ever whether or not we're worshiping; it's whom or what we're worshiping.
We are worshiping creatures. The question isn't ever whether or not we're worshiping; it's whom or what we're worshiping. In our age, the discovery and worship of the self is center stage. And strange as it may seem, one of the hallmarks of self-worship is loneliness. As Roberts notes, "The creed of the self-discovered identity is inherently solipsistic. It leaves each of us, in the end, utterly alone" (p. 162).
It's hard not to draw a correlation between the idolatry of self and the rise in depression and anxiety in the United States. Nineteen percent of the population (18 or older) suffers from anxiety (myself included; see Struck Down but Not Destroyed), and the numbers are even higher for adolescents (31%). And one study showed 10% suffer from depression. The numbers are more alarming for youth. I'm not saying that there's a simple causal relation between the focus on self and rising anxiety/depression in the West, but I'm more than confident that there's a relationship. We are not made to focus on ourselves; we're made to focus on God and others. And focusing on ourselves can only lead us toward the darkness buried beneath our smile—the same darkness that's been overcome if Christ dwells in us.
The idol of self won't be leaving anytime soon. It's never really left us in the first place. But in the secular house of the West, people will never truly "find themselves" until God's Spirit reminds them who it is they were made to worship. That's the hallmark of faithful Christianity: one body worshiping one God in three persons. When worship is off, the self will be lost. Being found isn't a matter discovery; it's a matter of devotion. As long as the idol of self stays up on the Western pedestal, we will live in a culture of lost souls. Pray for the finding.