I love to read. You might even say that books are a bit of an addiction for me. The evidence is obvious: my home and office are over owing with bookshelves, which are over owing with books. I even got engaged in a bookstore!
So when one of my favorite authors (and one of my heroes in faith), Ellsworth Kalas, announced in a seminary class that he was about to tell us the three most important books we could ever read in life, I sat up straight and took notice. My pen was poised and ready to scribble down authors’ names and titles. Surely the first one would be the Bible. But what after that? I was sure my life was about to be changed by his choices. It certainly was.
“The three most important books you’ll ever read in life,” Dr. Kalas announced, “are your checkbook, your datebook, and your diary.”
I remember my initial confusion. Then Dr. Kalas went on to tell us that these three “books” could teach us more about our hearts than any other book we could read. They teach us where we spend our money, our time, and our attention. If we understand these three things about ourselves, we have a starting point to know what holds the place of utmost importance in our lives, what we worship.
Worship is far more than what happens in an hour-long church service on Sunday morning. It’s about letting something become our reason for living and purpose in life.
Human beings are innately created to worship. It’s part of our makeup as spiritual beings. We all assign the role of god to something. To find out what that might be, we only have to follow the paper trail left in our checkbooks, calendars, and journals. If we track the decisions and motivations recorded in those three books, we’ll discover what we truly value. Worship is more than just belief. It means orienting our lives to give honor to something beyond ourselves. Whatever we put at the center of our lives is what we worship.
Worshipping an invisible God takes quite a leap of faith. It’s so much easier to believe in what we can see and touch with our hands than in a God we cannot see. To fix this problem, the Babylonians (and many other cultures like them) made idols, physical statues or representations of their gods. These were made of wood or metal and placed on an altar where people could worship them, bow to them, and make sacrifices to them.
The leaders of Babylon tried to force Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to take God from the center of their lives and put false gods and idols in His place. Since God held a place of honor in their names, the Babylonian leaders took away those names and replaced them with names honoring false gods, idols. The gods at the center of their new names were Bel, Aku, and Nebo.
Daniel became Belteshazzar. Bel signifies the title “Lord” or “Master” rather than a proper name. This title was possibly used to signify Marduk, one of many Babylonian gods. Hananiah and Mishael became Shadrach and Meshach, with the idol Aku at the heart of their new names, the Babylonian god of wisdom. Azariah became Abednego, to honor Nebo, the Babylonian god of the moon.
The Bible addresses the damaging nature of idol worship in a poetic chapter of Isaiah. It actually brings up some of the exact idols mentioned in the new names Daniel and his friends received.
Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low;
their idols are borne by beasts of burden.
The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary.
They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden,
they themselves go off into captivity.
The imagery of these first two verses is of large, heavy idols placed on the backs of donkeys or oxen to be moved. Instead of powerfully lifting burdens, these idols themselves become a burden. Instead of freeing people from captivity, they themselves can be carried into captivity.
God’s objection to people worshipping false idols is less about His need for adoration and more about how horribly it affects our lives when we give our worship away to the wrong things. God insists that we worship Him not because He is self-interested but because abiding in His character is in the best interest of His children.
God cares about us so much that He wants us to orient our lives to worship the only thing that can unburden us, Him! God mourns the fact that while people should be bowing to the God who made them and can save them, instead they are carrying around heavy idols. In the images of Isaiah 46, God ridicules the idols for themselves bowing down because they are causing such a burden to the people and animals forced to carry them.
Instead of lifting people’s burdens, these idols cause an extra burden on their lives, adding to the burdens they were hoping the idols would help to alleviate. The truth is that idol worship damages our lives. It’s a tragic irony that the very idols we suppose will save us are the things that destroy us.
God loves us so fiercely that He fights to destroy anything that could harm us. It’s no accident that when God hands out the Ten Commandments for His people to follow, He begins with these two:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above
or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Exodus 20 reminds us that only God can save, that He brought His people out of Egypt, where they were slaves. This reminder is closely connected to the command that they should have no other gods and should not make idols. The implication is that when we turn to anything but God for help, we are deceiving ourselves, burdening ourselves, and separating ourselves from the help and salvation He is so eager to give. The benefits of choosing to worship God impact not only our own lives but also trickle down to thousands of generations that will follow.
While our current culture doesn’t often create physical idols to represent false gods (statues of clay and wood and bronze), we do have a problem with idol worship. We adopt things in our own lives and place them in the seat that God alone should occupy. We may take relationships or control, worry or financial resources, jobs or children, desires for food or sex, beauty or wealth, and begin to make them the center of our thoughts and priorities.
The question at the heart of the book of Daniel is this: What will you worship?
Daniel and his three friends are given that choice again and again. Will you eat food offered to idols? Will you bow down to a golden statue? Will you pray to the king instead of praying daily to the God you love? Each conflict they face, each major choice they make, is about choosing whom they will worship.
The same is true for us. The most basic conflicts of our lives arise when we begin to worship things besides God. When we turn our lives over to Him, our most basic records (like our checkbook, calendar, and journal) will indicate choices that honor Him, decisions we’ve made because we want to be more like Him. His name and His character will shine through the line items, daily entries, and appointments, and our lives will reflect His joy because of it.
Idols will always burden us. God will always lift our burdens.
An awareness of the ways our hearts easily slip into the worship of other things is the first step in turning them back to God. When we remind ourselves again that He is the source of our comfort and strength, the giver of every good and perfect gift, the choice to worship Him with our whole lives flows naturally. I hope that you have discovered the joy of worshipping the One who unburdens, who lifts up, who brings peace and contentment. In a world filled with competitors for our attention, He is the one choice as object of our affection who will give more love than He could ever receive.
I would love to hear from you. What are the idols we commonly worship in our culture—things that draw our attention, money, and passion in a way that diminishes our love for God?