I once sat at the bedside of a dying nun. Cancer had invaded her body and on that morning she had been forty-six days without food and very little water. Her paper-thin skin clung to protruding bones. Her blinking eyes were the only sign of life but they were sunk deep in their sockets and blurred with morphine. The only way to fully describe her appearance was to say that she resembled an exhibit in a Holocaust Wax Museum. Why my husband’s great aunt clung to life as she had baffled us all.
After a long morning of silence, of gazing out the window and navigating the awkwardness of imminent death, she spoke and I startled. “Do you know what antichrist means?” She pressed her weighty words past dry vocal cords and I wanted to oil her authoritative syllables. Her question caught me completely off guard. I wondered why in the world this barley-living woman would want to talk about that? Was this a trick question? Delirium?
Aunt Mary had given a lifetime of service to the Catholic church, that is until in her sixties when she had fallen in with some charismatics in southern California. Her life from that point on had been marked by an ardent and daily study of the scriptures. She had also become the family intercessor and resident spiritual influencer.
I shifted in my seat beside her and silently stammered about in my brain trying to formulate a response. It seemed only seconds had passed when in typical crabby-school-teacher-nun-style she whacked my knuckles with the yardstick of her impatience.
“Anti means opposed to,” she said. I resisted the impulse to inform her that at thirty-five years of age I had a fairly good handle on the meaning of the prefix. I had been, after all, the editor in chief of my high school newspaper! She continued, “When you attempt to add anything to Christ, you are operating in the spirit of antichrist.” Suddenly, I knew I was in the middle of a divine teaching moment. I was no longer the benefactor of mercy in the presence of a dying woman, I was a pupil sitting at the feet of Jesus who was dispensing Grace and Truth.
“It’s Jesus plus nothing,” she said. “Anything else is anti-Christ.” She had exhausted herself and effectively silenced me. I may or may not have spoken something like, That’s really good! More than likely I simply nodded as someone who felt the odd emotional mixture of grace and rebuke. With one final chalk-dusted-school-teacher directive she dismissed me. “You better go on home now.”
Pagan images are conjured in our western brains when we hear the word idolatry. We think of Aaron’s golden calf or the demonic-looking idols on television’s Survivor. But idolatry in our day looks different. It takes some intentionality to recognize the idols in our lives and to identify the ways in which we practice idolatry. In my case, I am likely to turn to others attempting to get what only God can provide. I also launch out in activities and commitments hoping to bring myself a sense of purpose and significance. I expend my energies to please people hoping I’ll feel the byproduct of love and appreciation. And I can use food, shopping, decorating, television, internet, and entertainment to numb myself when I feel God is far off.
When God is silent or seems to delay, when He isn’t speaking and He doesn’t appear to be moving or doing GOD stuff in a timely manner, that’s when I’m most likely to practice idolatry. I can tend to add things to my life that bring me comfort and hope. I can begin to doubt God’s intentions toward me.
Before long I find I have cluttered my worship with worldly.
32 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, they gathered together before Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron…. [caved under pressure, came up with a plan to address the people’s needs, made an idol and an altar and began worshiping.]*
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. Exodus 32:1-7 (AMP) *Author’s commentary.
No matter how long or how close we have walked with the Savior, we can easily stumble into doubt when we find ourselves in the face of darkness and trials. Even John the Baptist, while he sat in prison awaiting his beheading, questioned and doubted. “Are you the One?” I imagine John’s uncertainty, turmoil and pondering. I’m about to lose the life I have wholly given over to Messiah and this is how it ends? Did I miss it? Did I mislead others?
Jesus answered John’s disciples. Look at what I’m doing, what I have been doing? If you can’t believe my words, you can certainly believe my works—they vouch for me.
Rather than rebuking John’s doubts, Jesus answered him with many convincing proofs. And in the shadow of John’s uncertainty, Jesus honored John with this declaration: “No one born among women has been greater than John.”
God doesn’t forbid our doubts and questionings, but he won’t tolerate our idolatrous responses to them. He welcomes our heartfelt uncertainties but He will not pander to our infidelity. He said to Moses, Go down at once…your people have corrupted themselves so He says to us: Keep yourselves from the pollution of idolatry—trust that:
He is on time. He is enough. And He is a promise-keeper.