The origins of idolatry

Idolatry is the worship of an idol or cult image, being a physical image, such as a statue, or a person in place of God. In Abrahamic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, idolatry connotes the worship of something or someone, as if God. In these monotheistic religions, idolatry is fundamentally abominable.

Idolatry can be traced to Cain, the first son of Adam. As implying the worship of another thing, or things, other than God, Cain was guilty of idolatry. He may not have realized that the cause of his jealousy towards Cain was a result of putting the ego in place of God.

“…Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering, he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:2-5 NIV).

The two siblings were united on the aspect of giving offerings. But they were divided on the principle of God’s sovereignty. Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. Abel gave fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The distinctive line is attitudinal.

Why was God not pleased with Cain’s offering? And why did God favour Abel’s offering? The fact that Cain became angry after God favoured Abel’s offering, shows that Cain’s motive for giving was to receive praise. Who did Cain seek to impress with his offering? Cain’s giving was for purposes of receiving God’s favour, which went to Abel, instead.

The person who got disappointed was Cain, rather than God. Therefore, between Cain and God, Cain was more important. From this, it is clear that practising idolatry is putting oneself in the place of God. God’s will is most important. One needs to be more concerned about God’s will than his own.

With the right attitude, Cain would have celebrated God’s choice of Abel’s offering. God could not be number two, in Cain’s life. Cain’s anger was centred on his ego. Therefore he was completely oblivious of the true God.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7 NIV).

God gave counsel to Cain, but the idolatrous attitude was overwhelming. Cain could have cast away his ego, to be in communion with God’s will. Anything that one loves, ahead of God is an idol. The strange thing about most idolaters is that they rarely consider themselves idolatrous.

Idolaters are under the pretext of worshipping true God. But their zeal would be driven by ego, as seeking god’s favour. They desire to please God but complicate that with their ego. This is generally what makes idolatry complicated. Idolaters are more zealous than true worshippers.

That behaviour lies in Adam’s curse. After the Garden of Eden incident, God pronounced hard work, as necessary for survival. In other words, a man obtains a good living out of hard work. This leads to self-importance, naturally. The fruits of hard labour make a person feel gratified.

That value makes one crave respect, causing the sin of Cain, as long as respect is not achieved. This is different from those who see God in everything, including their intelligence in executing their hard work. However, the importance of hard work is in providing service to God. Serving anything else is idolatry.

The reason for Cain’s anger was not receiving what Cain expected, from God. No one wants disappointment in this life. The aim is to obtain whatever would be intended, thereby portraying idolatry in self. God’s will would be absent. God’s counsel to Cain was to rule over that sin.

The more one seeks to please the ego, the more the encroaching sin dominates. Doing the right thing is giving praise to God. Abel gave God the fat portions of his produce. Being created in God’s image implies that nothing makes one angry, without angering God. And nothing pleases one without pleasing God.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:21-24 NIV).

A bad omen was manifesting, against Jesus. Simon Peter sought to sympathize with Jesus. He assumed that Jesus would be impressed. But, if impressed, Jesus would have been idolatrous. Unlike Cain who failed, Jesus was able to master the sin by rebuking Peter.

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” In his naivety, Simon Peter could not separate the difference between one’s interests and God’s interests. Jesus seized an opportunity to give the most important datum, ever advanced on earth:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 NIV)

Denying himself, is what Cain failed to project? Jesus demonstrated His awareness of God’s sovereignty, by denying Himself. Nothing else is more important than God. When Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” He was revealing that the idea of self-importance ahead of God, originated from Satan. Like most humans, Peter had been captured in this idolatrous viewpoint.

God’s will carries the advantage, more than ego is assumed advantageous. The things done by an individual, in this world, ought to have a bearing on God,  rather than on self. Being captured by the mind of Cain is very easy.

Those living today can be pontific in stating that Cain was a wicked fellow. Just by pronouncing that statement, one gets entangled in the same sin. There would be no denial of self by the person pronouncing such a statement. Our toiling on this planet portrays only one reason:

We are of the dust and to dust, we shall return. Parents can be very good at teaching their children to become achievers. But as long as such achievements are for satisfying personal ego, idolatry would be reigning supreme. All sins are represented in such reasoning.

To Adam, he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil, you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust, you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19 NIV).

As human as Jesus was, He did not desire to go through pain. But by choosing to deny Himself of personal comfort, Jesus was aware of the meaning of idolatry. As far as Jesus was concerned, God had to come first, ahead of personal comfort.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:38-39 NIV).

Jesus was facing the sternest test, on the question of self-denial, for the sake of humanity. He even prayed for God to find another way to redeem humanity. But Jesus had to carry the cross, prevailing through the prayer facility. God’s will had to be done, ahead of His own will.

Since Cain, the burdensome sin of idolatry is overbearing on humanity. Jesus defeated it, by way of submitting to God’s will at the garden of Gethsemane. He paved the way, by which we can all escape from the sin that overwhelmed Cain. All controversies, known to exist in this world, come from idolatry.

Worshipping sculptures is not the only sin of idolatry. Nothing is worse than worshipping one’s ego. Jesus revealed what would happen with idol-worshippers, in Christianity. That event is characterized by the most unbearable disappointments, ever to affect humanity.

 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and, in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV).

Prophesying in Jesus’s name, in His name driving out demons and in His name performing many miracles should not be regarded as adulterous. Evildoing was in seeking to please the ego. Those people would be practising idolatry, possibly, without even realizing it. Their exposure is in behaving like Cain.

They project themselves to Christ as good workers. They may have been good workers to humanity. But not to God who saw evildoing in their thoughts. That evildoing nurtured their ego, ahead of God’s will. They were idolatrous, even though possibly viewed favourably, by most people. True heroes are mostly those not in the public domain.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV).

Just imagine what happens when thousands or millions of dollars are realized, anonymously? There would be no one to give credit to, under those circumstances, except God. The above passage gives a teaching on principles of avoiding idolatry.

Hero worshipping is idolatrous. People idolize those they assume to qualify as heroes, without realizing that they would be practising idolatry. The idolized person would be content and feel comfortable, but such praises are limited to this world. Hence, Jesus says that their reward would have been realised.

Such benefactors would have received their reward, coming from those idolizing them. As long as expecting rewards, one practices idolatry. Kindly acts attract praises, but with the repercussions of losing out on future promises.

God is supreme over everything. Surviving in this life requires attuning one’s mind to conform to God’s mind. That person becomes angry, where God is angry. He becomes irritated, where God is also irritated, or happy where God is happy. There are those committing crimes of murder, assuming to please God when the opposite would be true.

They would be behaving like Simon Peter, assuming to fight at Jesus’s corner. Nothing else surpasses the works of Jesus as removing all doubts about what constitutes true Christianity. Jesus said He was the bread of life. Meaning that without applying the behaviour of Jesus, in one’s conduct, the person would still be practising idolatry.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2 NIV).

Andrew Masuku is the author of Dimensions of a New Civilization, laying down standards for uplifting Zimbabwe from the current state of economic depression into a model for other nations worldwide. A decaying tree provides an opportunity for a blossoming sprout. Written from a Christian perspective, the book is a product of inspiration, bringing relief to those having witnessed the strings of unworkable solutions––leading to the current economic and social decay. In a simple conversational tone, most Zimbabweans should find the book as a long-awaited providential oasis of hope.

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