I used to be part of a running group, which I really enjoyed. I loved the exercise in the open air and the camaraderie amongst the runners. As time went on, there was talk of 10ks and half-marathons and the coach encouraged us to set targets of competing in longer distance events in order to make our regular training sessions more meaningful. Whilst I wanted to be part of the more ambitious group, the stumbling block was that most of the events were on a Sunday, clashing with church. If I had opted to take part, it would have deprived me of great opportunities to meet with God through worship, word and fellowship! Additionally, it may have caused some members of the running group to question the sincerity of my professed commitment to Jesus. I would have appeared to be a ‘take it or leave it’ Christian! Going to church when it was convenient, but not bothering if something more appealing came up! So, no Sunday runs!
What’s the link with today’s reading? Well, Paul begins by addressing idolatry, which in today’s culture, means whatever we value as more precious than God. These are things which consume our time, thoughts, energy, emotions and possibly money. Modern idols can be anything – work, status, money, physical appearance, success, belongings, hobbies, likes on social media or even exercise, as could have been the case with my running. None of those things are intrinsically wrong – they only become idols if we give them higher place in our hearts and minds than we do God. The Message translation reveals another facet of idolatry: ‘people reducing God to something they can use or control’. Whenever we give greater significance to something else in our lives, we diminish God and treat Him like a puppet, expecting Him to bless the plans we concoct from our own imagination or reducing Him to the size of a lucky charm on a key ring.
In today’s scripture, Paul talks about idolatry in the primary sense of the word, whereby pagan gods were the focus of food sacrifices. His desire is to teach believers how to navigate the various settings in which such food should be consumed. Paul’s original context of how to deal with edible offerings to idols is barely applicable to us today, but the principles of handling idolatry in its broader sense are very relevant:
• Firstly, remember that we are one with Christ. Paul explains that our oneness with Jesus is manifest when we take communion (verses 16-18). The Eucharist is not just a symbolic act of remembrance, but it is a spiritual union that binds us together with God and with one another. It follows, then, that who we spend our time with matters. Idolatry is often prompted by the need for approval of others. As we engage with those we seek to impress, we can form unhealthy bonds that are in opposition to the one we have with Jesus.
• Idols have no power in their own right, but when we succumb to them, we give the enemy an opportunity to influence us and take our eyes off Jesus (verses 19-20).
• We can’t serve God and idols, (v.21). When Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen had completed his statue of Christ in 1838, he was offered a commission to carve a statue of Venus for the Louvre. His answer, was “The hand that carved the form of Christ can never carve the form of a heathen goddess” (William Barclay: The Letters to the Corinthians).
• Honour God (v.31). This heart attitude will keep us on the right track and help unbelievers see the truth of our faith.
There was a time I fell completely short of the right heart attitude. Although running never become an idol to me, my work did. As a school teacher, I used to spend hours preparing lessons – devising ways to engage students in class; researching games, music and video clips to make learning fun; inventing role plays, chants, tongue twisters to help students remember key language; making endless PowerPoint presentations with interactive elements to stimulate the learners – and even developing new administration systems to make school life more efficient. I devoted endless time to school work!
Then one day, I went for an internal interview for a promotion. On paper, it should have been mine, but I didn’t get the job. I was completely devastated. I felt like my whole world was falling apart! I lost confidence, nursed hurt and kept replaying the scenario in my head. After several weeks of agonizing, I had the revelation that I had been forging my identity in who I was at work, rather than who I was in Christ. God showed me that work had become my idol. Nearly all my waking thoughts had been about work and I had squeezed God in where I could!
As soon as I realised, I asked God for help and He changed things around so dramatically, that instead of my being resentful and wounded about the situation, I had peace in myself and abundant grace towards the person who had got the job. So much so, that I was even able to support and help them grow in their role. I had put God back in His rightful place and He gave me everything I needed to carry on with my work, but in a more measured way!
The thing about idolatry is that it can creep up on us. I never set out to need to be appreciated at work – it developed over time! It took the wisdom of God to block my promotion for me to see that I was no longer trusting in Him alone, but relying on workplace feedback to rate me on how I was doing as a person! I am so glad God rescued me and brought me back into a right relationship with Him.
Idols are false gods. We can’t have a relationship with them and they just suck us dry! How many likes on facebook will fulfil us? How toned do we need to be to be admired? How much money do we need to feel secure? How many diets before we are beautiful? How many accolades before we feel worthy? How many milestones before we are accomplished? God is the only one who can fulfil all our needs. He showers us with love and kindness in exchange for our insecurities and fears. We do not need to base our self-worth on what people think of us. God showed me that the only promotion I will ever need is the one He gave me when I accepted Jesus into my life, the promotion from sinner to beloved daughter. I pray that, in the light of today’s passage, we examine our hearts afresh, uprooting any idols and re-setting God as top priority.