By Dan Schaeffer
My wife and I were browsing through an antique shop in Southern California when our friend Val came up to me holding a small box. “You’ve got to see this,” she said. She held forth a small wooden box. The outside of the box was decorative and attractive, but it was the tag on the outside of the box that riveted my attention. The sales tag read, “7 gods for ½ price.”
Inside the box were seven small wooden gods that had once been the object of someone’s worship. Something that had once been precious to someone was now an unwanted sale item. But the tag stuck in my mind for a long time. It got me to thinking. Who had owned these seven gods? What great feats were these gods supposed to perform? Were they gods of protection, prosperity, or fertility? And why seven gods? Why not two or three or even five?
Who was the god maker? What had they been thinking when they made them? At what point to them did the wood stop being wood and become a god? Did the craftsman believe he was creating a god? Who had these gods belonged to in the first place? What had they been promised these gods could deliver? Furthermore, did they really believe they could own or manipulate the supernatural?
All these questions came to mind. I couldn’t help wondering how many hopes and dreams and prayers had been directed towards that little box. Had the gods received worship? Had some kind of offerings been made to these gods?
Only one thing was really clear, the gods had lost their value to their owner. Through a negative experience, general disregard, or maybe even death, the gods had been abandoned. Now they were no more than a decorative ornament.
Did they abandon their god, or did their god, through failure, abandon them? Did they gradually lose confidence in their god, or through a sudden unexplained calamity did they discover that their god was no god after all?
On September 11, 2001 thousands of lives and dreams and ambitions and plans were destroyed. As a nation we were stunned. Suddenly, our idols of prosperity, strength, technology, weaponry and learning that we had come to believe would protect us from danger, lost their value. The gods we believed would protect us, we discovered, could not. These were gods of our own making, but to our chagrin we discovered they could not live up to the billing we gave them.
Idols don’t just pop up out of nowhere one day; they are created, slowly. We have to whittle away at them, nurture them, shape and form them into something that we can trust. The strange thing is that most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it. Because anything you trust in to protect you physically, financially, or emotionally can become a god. Yes, even believers can dabble in gods. The Hebrews in the Old Testament were notorious for idol worship, but they never stopped worshipping God. They simply added other gods to their divine portfolio.
You can have a god and not even know it. I know from personal experience. Several years ago my 18-year-old nephew, Brian, drowned in his high school swimming pool. He was a varsity swimmer, a natural in the water, a very experienced body boarder in the ocean. While using a dangerous training technique, he blacked out underwater and drowned. Only the day before I had spoken to him at the coffeehouse where he worked. He had grinned mischievously in that style that was his alone, like he had some secret joke on me that he would never tell me. I lost more than a nephew. I lost a sense of security.
Now I had not consciously set up a god and worshipped it. But I had believed, for whatever reason, that death would never take someone that close to me. I had never even entertained the idea that one of my children or my wife, or even myself, would die in any other than a natural way. Of course I understood the theoretical possibility of it, but like the bombing of the trade center was theoretically a possibility, I never really thought it would happen. I had a false sense of security. I believed that I had some special bubble of protection around me and mine. My god had no name, but I trusted in it all the same.
Placing my faith in the wrong thing, I was let down. Was I so very different from whoever had gotten rid of that box of seven gods? It wasn’t my faith in God that was in trouble. It was rather a false confidence in something that was not God that suffered. God had never promised I would never suffer, just the contrary; this was a god of my own making. I needed to get rid of it.
CS Lewis once said that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You don’t always even know what your faith is in until through some trial you find that thing suddenly removed from you.
I knew a man once who put his trust in real estate. He was a very well to do gentleman in our church who managed his properties. He was always singing the praises of real estate, how it was always safe, and the best investment. Then the real estate market collapsed and this man lost everything. Real estate, he learned the hard way, is an untrustworthy god. He didn’t lose his faith in God, but the false god needed to go. Owning real estate is one thing, believing it can always protect and provide for you is quite another. It isn’t the possessing of things that is the problem. It is trusting in them instead of God that becomes idolatry. He lost a god, but he gained wisdom.
I know another man who put his faith in the god of the stock market. He had a “hot tip” about a company. He invested a large amount, expecting to do very well. He lost almost everything. He was a Christian, but like each of us, had simply put his faith in the wrong thing. Investing in the stock market is no sin, but a good thing, can, if we’re not careful, become a “god” thing in our lives. We can trust in our portfolio’s to provide for us, insulate, and protect us from the economic pressures of life. Our God is the only safe refuge in life. David reminds us in Psalm 20:7 that “Some boast in chariots and some in horses, But we will boast in the name of the LORD.”
The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether we don’t all carry around with us an invisible box of gods. Anything in life that we begin to depend on more than God can become an idol. If we’re honest, we might discover we have more than seven. In a sense we spend our whole Christian lives slowly emptying that box out, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes with a gentle, or even not so gentle, “nudge” from above.
What’s in your box? What are your gods? They aren’t always easy to identify, because like the person who took a piece of wood and made an idol, it takes time for something to become a god in your life. It’s quite possible that something in your life that once had little hold on has slowly become more important, and possibly, even a god.
When I was younger possessions meant nothing to me, quite frankly because I had very few of them. But when I bought my first house, and my first new car, and my first of a few other things, I found a very subtle change take place in my heart. I discovered that they began to take on a greater and greater value to me, and the fear of losing them slowly grew. Much like the wood carver who started out with a plain piece of wood, but slowly, cut by cut, found it growing dearer and more precious, I had created a god.
Maybe I’m not so very different from whoever owned those idols after all. I simply create gods in a different way and with different materials. I am a recovering godmaker—and I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone! Maybe you have recently discovered unknown gods in your own life, and like me, you are surprised. You had not thought it possible that you could worship, must less create a god.
But don’t be discouraged. Once you know the gods are there, you can remove them. Not by selling your real estate, or divesting yourself of your stock portfolios, but by acknowledging to God that in some area of your life, a good thing inadvertently became a “god” thing. It is much less painful to give a god up than have it shatter in front of you. There is no sin in seeking physical or financial protection for yourself or your family, but we must continually remind ourselves that the only true refuge in life is God. To put our trust in someone or something else becomes idolatry.
There is no greater act of worship than to empty our boxes of all our idols. I now realize with a renewed sense of urgency that life is temporary and eternity is forever. I also realize that I may be much closer to eternity than I had previously believed. Soon, I will see Him before whom the angels bow, and say “Holy, Holy, Holy.” (Isaiah 6:3) I will be presented before Him one day. And I, for one, want my box to be empty.