If you grew up in Africa, the word ‘idol’ immediately conjures up images of people offering food items or performing rituals to some sculpted artifact or a natural feature (such as rocks, rivers, or trees). And your reaction would probably go like this: “Our ignorant ancestors were uneducated; that was why they could hold to such silly beliefs. We, their descendants, know better than to kneel before such lifeless and unresponsive gods.”
However, you would be sadly mistaken; idols are way more than we think.
According to Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton in The Transforming Vision, idols are good, created things which we have absolutized and religiously pursue to give us fulfillment. They are aspects of God’s world put in God’s place to provide what only God can give. So many things have been thus misused, including money, sex, fame, and even reason.
Here in Nigeria, and much of the modern world, politics has also assumed the status of an idol. We look to the state and the machinery of government to ease the problems of human life. Problems like crime, poverty, disease, and natural disasters are seen as ailments to be ‘fixed’ by the state. Spheres like Education, Justice, Business, Media are routinely regulated or controlled by the government. And the mass of humanity looks to their national governments and international organizations like the UN to create a peaceful and prosperous society.
Such a reliance on government proceeds from a wrong view of the human condition. It fails to see sin as the root of the human problem and it does not recognize redemption as the true solution. It has no place for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth through his word and his Spirit. It thus reveals a different worldview altogether.
Our worship of politics itself is indicated by the priority given to it by our news media. The significant headline often has to do with some political activity, decision, or scandal. And the prominence of political elections itself is a display of this false worship. Public life revolves around political office holders – their statements, actions, and inactions.
This is not to deny the importance or significance of the state or the political process. It is a vital part of human society, and the government is a gift from God for the purpose of providing order in our communities (Rom. 13:1-7). It becomes an idol, however, when we look to it to provide what only God can give or depend on it to stand in his place. By looking to the government to transform society or to create heaven on earth, we ascribe to it a function it can never perform.
Human society truly progresses as the humans who make it up are renewed and become more loving, just, and kind. Legislation and governance have their place in restraining sin and maintaining order. But they will always fall short of true transformation. That is what only God can give, and this is what he does through the Gospel.