There’s a memory seared into my mind from when I was twelve years old. I was watching from the backdoor of our home as my father brought out an axe.
Laying prostrate on the ground was a 3-foot-tall intricately designed statue of Buddha carved from wood. The axe went flying through the air from over my father’s shoulder landing with a loud thwack! The first stroke severed the statue’s head. Another thwack! Then another. Pieces of red wood went flying all over the yard. Finally, all that was left were indiscernible remnants of what was once our family idol. This scene also gave me a lasting impression that life for my dad and our family would never be the same.
Before my parents were born again by the saving grace of God we had certain household rules regarding our idol. “You don’t play with the idol. Don’t pat it like a pet. Don’t move it like a toy. Don’t touch it, period!” My parents explained that the Buddha would prosper us and bring us good fortune as it watched over us. In return for the idol’s provision and care, we were to pay it respect and show reverence in its presence. We were to worship it.
As I watched through the backdoor as my father crushed this idol, one thing became crystal clear: the reality of the gospel demands the killing of one’s idols.
Hear God’s word as he calls us to dismantle all our idols and reject those things which feebly attempt to hold the place that only he occupies:
“You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).
And in Acts 17:29, Paul declares:
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him [Jesus] from the dead.”
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes, “The human heart is indeed a factory that mass-produces idols (a quote from John Calvin)” and that “an idol is something that we look to for things that only God can give.” And, “According to the Bible, idolaters do three things with their idols. They love them, trust them, and obey them. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.”
I know the truth of these statements well. It’s not always the 3-foot-tall wooden statues that I’m dealing with. I have watched beautiful things and good gifts from God become my idols: children, marriage, relationships, career, money, reputation, education, knowledge, and even ministry.
I must ask the Lord to examine my heart and see where any idols may be purporting themselves to be gods so that, by God’s help, I can dismantle them. Getting rid of my idols is a lifelong, challenging process, but it means the difference between true everlasting joy and vain fleeting happiness of no eternal substance.
The day I watched my father chopping up our idol I began to see how no one can begin the work of getting rid of their personal or family idols without Jesus’ help. Not long after witnessing the idol-chopping scene in my backyard I also repented of my sin and believed in Jesus.
Jesus Christ must first deal the initial death blow to our sin by forgiving us of our sin. We can have this forgiveness through faith in his substitutionary death on the cross. So when I am tempted to idolize things like personal comfort, ease of living, and control over people and circumstances, I am reminded of God’s hatred against idolatry, his love for sinners like me, and of the axe he has provided, his Son the Living Word—Jesus Christ— who alone can dismantle these idols.
My father’s example of chopping down that carved image impressed upon me the awesome reality that Jesus is more precious and more powerful than any lame idol. And although I’ll struggle with my idolatry until Jesus returns, I’m confident that by God’s grace I can announce that this idol factory is “closed for business.”