Kings and false gods - Rivals
Many years ago, my grandparents gave me a ‘Bible through the year’, where passages from the Old and New Testaments, together with a Psalm, are set out as daily readings to enable you to read the whole Bible in a year. I haven’t read it for a while, but one of my prime memories, from when I did, comes from reading through the book of Kings. In an almost liturgical way, each new king is introduced in a similar system: setting it in the year of the reign of the opposite King in Israel or Judah, the new King is introduced, and the name of his mother given. There normally then follows a statement as to whether this individual was a good or a bad king. The reasons given are not political, or how much he did for his country, but religious. A bad king encouraged the use of idols; a good king didn’t, inspiring the worship of the Lord alone - although many of the good kings have the addition ‘except he didn’t destroy the hilltop shrines’, the ‘high places’. A really good king destroyed these as well, focussing the worship of the Lord in the temple. Now whether you think this is a good way to categorise kings or not is irrelevant; it is clear from the Bible that the country was better off when following the Lord, as they were called to do, rather than straying after the idols of surrounding nations. It is probably also clear that many today wouldn’t see these passages as directly relating to themselves. After all, nowadays we do all follow the Lord; no Christian gets diverted into worshipping Baal or any other Old Testament idol.
But are these passages as irrelevant as they seem? Do we truly not worship idols, or are our idols merely different? The point of the judgement on these kings was that they either worshipped the Lord, and encouraged their people to do the same, or they encouraged the use of idol worship. The latter may or may not have mixed this with worshipping the Lord, and may even have thought that they were doing their best for their country, in worshipping the local deities. They may or may not have realised how diluting the worship of the Lord was going to impact their country. How many of us can truly say that our worship of God is never diluted by our honouring some of our own local ‘deities’? Some of which may well be seen as good, and positive to encourage ... except where they rival our devotion to the Lord; which we may or may not comprehend. I wonder what a summing up of our lives, comparable to that in Kings, would say? and which local ‘gods’ would we be seen as worshipping?
Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t follow our local culture, nor that our society today is totally bad, and we shouldn’t be caught up in its concerns. Some of the questions of today are truly issues we should be interested in, and encourage others’ interest also. But not at the expense of our following of God. These issues – whatever you identify them as – are matters in which we should be involved as part of our dedication to God, not in rivalry to it. Yet, how to tell the difference? How to truly know when this particular concern, which is good and needs working at, has become a rival for God, our own particular ‘idol’ as opposed to part of the way we serve God? Helpfully, I don’t have any specific answers to that question. It would be very easy to say, ‘well do x and y, and then you’re okay’ or to pose a few questions and if the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a problem. But I suspect it’s not that simple. Often our concern for these issues is part of our faith in God, and issues from it; to discern if and when it becomes a rival may well take serious prayer, as well as discussion with a spiritual director, or a trusted pastor.
There are also potential idols that are perennial: not part of our specific culture today, but more or less permanent rivals for God. You cannot, after all, serve two masters (see Matthew 6:24). Do you seek God, or do you seek riches? Do you seek God, or do you seek power over others? Do you seek God, or do you seek to be right? Do you seek God, or do you seek to save yourself? Do you seek God, or do you seek safety? Do you seek God or do you seek controversy? Do you seek God, or do you seek to be loved/served/affirmed? Do you seek God, or do you seek to stir up trouble, under whatever guise you may hide that? Do you seek God, or do you seek to use others, for whatever means? Do you seek God, or do you seek to assuage your pride? Or, as is far more likely, are you genuinely trying to follow God, while also seeking something else? After all, none of us does this perfectly (see Romans 3:23-4). This may be far less an exercise in simply ridding ourselves of whatever ‘idols’ divert us from God, and more an ongoing part of our following of Jesus, as we seek to give ourselves more wholly to him; part of our journey of faith where we investigate, and become aware of our potential idols, and continue to be aware of how they impact our faith; part of our journey where we don’t condemn ourselves for having idols, but where we seek to change them so that they are devoted more and more to God, rather than existing as a rival to God. To somehow convert that energy, that seeking after something that is not God, so that it becomes part of our following of our Lord. Again, it may well take serious prayer, as well as outside help, for us to become – and remain – aware of whatever it is that diverts us from our Lord. If I remember correctly, very few, even of the good kings, were given a wholehearted stamp of approval. But, ultimately, it’s not about seeking a stamp of approval; it's about the love of our God. For God is love; it is that simple and that difficult; God is love, and there nothing can truly rival that.