“Your name, Lord, endures forever,
your renown, Lord, through all generations.
For the Lord will vindicate His people
and relent concerning His servants.
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak;
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear;
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.”
- Psalm 135:13-18 (TNIV)
What you worship shapes who you become. Becoming is a slow enough process that it is hard to notice in real time. It’s more common that we can look back, only after years of becoming, and say, “I really am different now than then.” Yet that slowness is part of the joy of being shaped by God and by our relationship with Him over the course of our lives. In Christ, redemption takes us quietly by the hand and steadily leads us toward who we were meant to be. By worshipping Him, or lives draw life from the Creator.
The flipside, though, contains deadly danger. If we worship things that are not God, what such idolatry does to us may be just as slow, but also just as extensive and significant. Idolatry has the added factor of deception, so that we may look back at ourselves and think we are the same person as before. But over time, with practice and habit, our spiritual senses will grow dull. Instead of having life to the full, we end up without breath (Psalm 135:18), that is, we are dead.
It’s not just in Psalm 135 that the makers and worshippers of idols become mute, ineffective, and dead like idols. The idea is most vividly illustrated in Isaiah 44:9-20, in which verse 18 plays with an unclear antecedent to tell us that “they,” whether the makers of idols and / or the idols themselves, are blind and ignorant. A fascinating detail is in verse 9, “All who make idols are nothing.” The Hebrew word translated as “nothing” here is the same word used in Genesis 1:2 for “formless.” In other words, those who make idols undo themselves, to the point of de-creation. Mis-directed worship eventually and always kills.
The situation is sort of like a scene from the movie “Ghostbusters.” The heroes are confronting the trans-dimensional Babylonian (ahem, Sumerian) god on the rooftop of a spooky apartment building, and, after some pleasantries, they engage in serious diplomatic negotiations:
GOZER – Subcreatures! Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destructor, Volguus Zildrohar, the Traveler, has come! Choose and perish!
RAY – What do you mean, choose? We don’t understand!
GOZER – Choose! Choose the form of the Destructor!
PETER – Whoa! I get it, I get it. Very cute! Whatever we think of – if we think of J. Edgar Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover will appear and destroy us, okay? So empty your heads. Empty your heads. Don’t think of anything. We’ve only got one shot at this.
GOZER – The choice is made! The Traveler has come!
PETER – Whoa! Whoa! Nobody choosed anything! Did you choose anything?
EGON – No!
PETER – Did you?
WINSTON – My mind’s totally blank!
PETER – I didn’t choose anything!
PETER, EGON and WINSTON stare at RAY
RAY – trembling – I couldn’t help it. It just popped in there!
PETER – What? What just popped in there?
RAY – I – I tried to think –
stomping and screaming from below
EGON – Look!
RAY – No! It can’t be!
WINSTON – What is it?
RAY – It can’t be!
WINSTON – What did you do, Ray?
RAY- solemnly – It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
I’m pretty sure that the Ghostbusters weren’t, among their various talents, also theologians, but they did manage to stumble into some insight. Whatever they set their minds on would determine the manner of evil’s destruction. Idolatry works the same way. In worship and in life, we set our minds and desires in particular directions and toward particular objects. The process of time and effort weave those directions and objects deeply into our lives, making real the things we pursue. Thus, focusing life on certain objects, without moral evaluation, can lead us into a death trap. Idols eventually and always kill.
With that as background, I’ve had to re-evaluate 2020 and a question that keeps coming up.
“Is the pandemic God’s judgment?”
Back in the spring, I avoided any declarations of yes or no. Too clear an answer might mean putting myself somewhat in the position of the Biblical prophets, whose calling from God included specific announcements of God’s judgments in history. God revealed His messages to the prophets in ways and with authority that He hasn’t, and rightly won’t, to me.
Furthermore, I was wary of joining those who seemed overly certain. Among those Christians who have been so sure that the virus was God’s judgment, it has struck me how easy it is for them to identify the target of the judgment. Conveniently, God’s judgment is a direct response to their pet moral issue. “See, I always knew our country was off God’s path! Let’s call for repentance about sin X, and then we’ll see!” “Pastor, don’t you think this is a warning about our disobedience with sin Y?” “God’s finally had enough of sin Z!” Some of the ideas amounted to heavenly conspiracy (“deep firmament”?) theories, given that we all surely knew how God wanted an election to go. It seemed to me that judgment declarations served to vindicate self-superiority and self-righteousness. In contrast, and while the Bible does tell us moral issues God cares about, and shows God acting in history to stem the tide of evil, the focus is on establishing God’s righteousness.
And what about a “no” to the question of whether the pandemic is God’s judgment? For the same reasons as mentioned above, I didn’t feel I could rule out God’s judgment, either. Plus, even if the situation isn’t God’s specific and active judgment, maybe it reflects the broad effects of God’s curse on a broken creation. What if horrible pandemics are a thing that happens from time to time in a world that doesn’t work the way its Creator intended? Did the virus become so nasty as the downside result of genetic mutations, which otherwise seem to be part of how God continues to create life? If so, what we are enduring isn’t a specific judgment as opposed to a lamentable outcome of a world still aching for restoration (Romans 8:18-22).
So I withheld judgment about judgment.
But there is a third option. What if the way the pandemic has developed is being exacerbated by evils already at work in the world and the results are what we could term “natural consequences”? If so, it wouldn’t be God’s active judgment, but a passive allowing of foreseeable effects. Compare: sometimes it’s proper parenting to let your kid feel the pain of having fallen off the couch, especially since you the parent told them not to jump on it. You’ve indicated what was good, were disobeyed, and then allowed reality to be a teacher, because gravity. The judgment is specific, but proceeds in a passive way simply by non-compliance to the way the world works.
Now recall the notion that our idols, those things that we sinfully allow to take up God’s rightful space in our hearts, are bent on our destruction. At times in the Bible, God allows idols to cause destructive effects in order to call people to turn to Him. Witness the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The prophets of Baal are literally half-dead before God does anything. The agents of destruction have been the prophets themselves, in adherence to their beliefs about what would make Baal respond. God didn’t have to do anything but stand by and allow idolatry to proceed to its natural and deadly end.
Those mechanisms of idolatry, and the connection to death, have had me musing about the current mass scale of death in our country. United States casualties may well approach or even surpass the total number of U.S. combat deaths in WWII… in less than one year. Other countries are suffering as well, but even assuming under-reporting, the United States is in uniquely bad shape. What if the difference between normal awful pandemic and uniquely bad pandemic is the exacerbating effects of idolatries? It’s not that other countries don’t share American idols, but a matter of difference of degree.
I think I’m ready to make a cautious, limited judgment about God’s judgment. I think the scale of covid-related death in the United States has to do with us receiving the natural and tragic consequences of our worship of two specific idols.
The first entity is the god named Individual. The United States, by objective measures of social scientists, is the most individualistic country in the world. That has us trumpeting our personal freedoms to shout down calls to be concerned for the wellbeing of our neighbor or our cities or the nation. No, I don’t want to wear a mask because governors can’t make me. No, my institution won’t follow emergency orders because religion is my own authority. No, I won’t get tested, because it’s probably just a flu. No, I won’t stay home because this is a free country. Christians I know think we’re justified because we claim individual personal liberty, surely a God-given principle installed in (our interpretation of) the United States Constitution, which principle is also sanctioned in the Bible… somewhere… right? Christians, have you never read the great dangers of doing “what is right in your own eyes”? Aren’t we supposed to be “slaves to Christ”? I grant that serving Christ is not the same as obeying the State, but we are so selective with that. Meanwhile, standing over against the life of your neighbor (a more literal translation of Leviticus 19:16b, just before “love your neighbor”) is sin. Thousands of Americans, Christian and not, are so focused on themselves that they cannot see how personal choices during a pandemic never stay personal. As a result, our idol Individual is leading us and our neighbors to death.
There is another god at work: Economy. The Almighty Dollar. We can print them faster than we can count. So quickly did the national “we” jump on the truth that without economy, people can’t eat, can’t exercise purpose, and can’t live. But then we used this genuine moral concern indiscriminately to send money to millions of people, including myself, who didn’t actually need it. Heaven forbid that our economy would slow down temporarily such that we would have to find ways to love our neighbors other than sending them more national debt. We have become so entangled with Economy that we use it as the measure of human wellness. Percentage GDP growth. More jobs. Higher wages. Bigger profits. Greater consumption. And these measures are proclaimed as the signs that we are “recovering”? Not from idolatry. Meanwhile, the machine must roll on. We can think of few ways to take care of those who would suffer other than to keep the economy “open.” Thousands of us flout the rules about going to businesses and restaurants, or our leaders prioritize business over education, or they don’t even bother to make such rules. The money has to flow. And so the virus spreads more than it would otherwise and more people die.
Sadly, we are going to continue to cling to our idols. Things will get back to normal. It will feel comfortable to consume like a horde of locusts. It will feel liberating to have more choices available to us again. But the idols eventually and always, under the aegis of God’s judgment, kill.
Of course, we always have the chance to change our worship. If we could center our lives and livelihoods around Christ, He could bring life in place of death. We can act in ways that not only recognize how our choices affect others, but make choices that protect and bless them. Why put yourself in position to be the next person in ICU when you decide to love someone else’s dad who will need that bed? We can turn money into food for nearby mini-pantries or ministries, deliver meals to doorsteps of those in quarantine, or choose to get used to using less stuff these days. How often in Scripture we are charged to choose! About just as often as our failures of choice indicate our need for salvation by grace. Idols kill, but in Christ we have life, both for the hereafter and for the here and now.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
- Philippians 4:8-9 (TNIV)
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties#Total_deaths_by_country. The next months will tell.