Idolatry is putting in God’s place an image or idea of Him with which I can live more comfortably. This is manufacturing my own god, fastening on to a fantasy.
I read today how philosophers agree that most people can’t take a lot of reality. We don’t want a sovereign God who hates sin, so we make up a different version. We don’t want to acknowledge our sin so we call it something else or dismiss it entirely. We don’t want the reality that we cannot please God with our own efforts, so we say it isn’t so and make up a version of Christianity that is contrary to that which is described in the Bible. Facing reality is important, especially concerning sin . . .
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 1:6–2:1)
In reality, the Gospel condemns every person, but also in reality, Jesus Christ died for every person, offering forgiveness, justification, and eternal life to all who will admit the truth and their need for the genuine God. I’ve not had a huge problem with making up a different God. I know that He is who He says He is . . .
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:6–8)
However, I’m not always been that clear with other parts of life. My imagination could write novels and other works of fiction and fantasy. If things are not as they should be, instead of facing the reality of life, fantasy and illusion have been a temptation. I watched my mother do it every time she was in a situation that was too difficult for her. Once my dad invited friends for the day because he liked to visit with the husband, but mom cringed at the thought of spending time with his overbearing wife. We watched her escape, first by saying she didn’t feel well, and in two hours become genuinely ill and in bed. Her imagination became her reality. Even though she was normally a great hostess, she could no longer function.
My escape is not illness, perhaps because I value comfort too much. Yet I can reject reality by refusing to think about those tough situations or acknowledge that they exist. Sometimes I fear that if I focus on these things, I might have to do something about them, often something that seems too difficult for me, or something that I don’t want to do.
However, God keeps teaching me that He is available for the tough stuff. He can give me whatever I need to conquer the realities I face. I don’t need to run away from whatever I fear, not do I need to find something else to focus on rather than do what God is asking me to do.
One danger of rejecting reality is disobedience, but imagination can be idolatrous. It is the sin of setting up something to trust instead of God. Instead of doing that, God offers a wonderful promise. For me, this is His “rod and staff” that corrects and guides me . . .
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. (Ephesians 3:20, the Message)
I don’t need to imagine a better scenario or think up some way that God could solve my problems. Instead, He invites me to trust Him. He can do far more than I can ask or imagine!
I also realize that His working in those problems is connected to the way He works in me . . . so I had better let Him be working in me, not focusing on the idol of my imagination, but accepting reality as it is and doing whatever He asks me as I face it. Imagination is a creative gift from God, but using it to avoid reality and obedience can be a very dangerous thing.