During last night’s Bible study, a local man who lives near the chapel stopped by. His name is Bobby and he’s become quite a good friend of the church. He usually shuffles in at times which suit him, but we’re always happy to see him as he appears to be searching for answers. At the end of the Bible study, he raised his hand like a curious schoolchild and very sincerely asked, “What’s wrong with idol worship?”
Bobby’s question was good for two reasons: firstly, considering where he lives – Southall being known as ‘Little India’ and home to the largest South Asian community outside of India, thus lots of idol worship activity; and secondly because it brought back some memories of my own. You see, I too, like many people around the world, grew up worshipping idols.
Because the hour was late, Bobby and I didn’t have much time to discuss the question. So I told him I would write a brief response to his question and give my opinion via a blog article.
So here is what I would have said to Bobby if we were sitting on a park bench under the noonday sun with cheese pickle sandwiches, a nice cup of tea and without time nudging against us with its pointy elbow.
I was an idol worshipper
The first thing I would say to Bobby is that I was born to Hindu parents in 1982 in West London, Southall. I can understand and relate to his question. Whilst this does not give me birthright privileges to comment on idol worship, I do feel that my personal experiences merit enough currency to help Bobby find answers.
Neither my parents nor any of my siblings, including myself, were particularly devout. One could describe us as the “picture postcard”, nominal, modern-day British Asian family. Speaking for myself, I would certainly have best been described as a noncommittal Hindu – observing in form and name only and not practising in personal belief and behaviour. And so, like many Hindus, I was aware of, but not acquainted with, the Hindu Scriptures: The Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana.
There was however one particular Hindu practice that I did observe for a short period of time growing up: idol (murti) worship (bhakti/puja). This practice, which lies at the heart of Hinduism, is the primary subject of this article.
Every Sunday, my parents took me to one of many Hindu temples (mandir) in and around the Southall area. Upon entering the temple, we would approach the various statues and in an act of worship bow down before the deities and utter a few words of prayer. Looking back at this now, I wasn’t given any explanation as to the meaning of it; I was simply doing what everyone else was doing and assumed this to be the norm. I had no personal connection with the statues but remember feeling invaded by a growing sense of foreboding as I carried out the ritual.
I soon began to question this practice within myself. With this weekly practice I began to feel troubled and enormously uncomfortable with what I was doing and seeing. In hindsight, I guess it was my conscience that was pricking me.
I became a follower of Christ
The second thing I would tell Bobby is that after much searching, at the age of 21, I became a Christian; a believer and follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. The claims of Christ and the things He did as recorded in the New Testament Gospels took a hold of my life and changed me as a person.
Upon hearing Christianity’s basic tenet: That there is only one God, who is Lord of heaven and earth; He is from everlasting to everlasting and His fame and glory are the praise of heaven. This God was also holy and perfect. In Him there was no sin and all His ways are without corruption. Furthermore, I discovered that this eternal God loves sinners and to save them from their miserable and wretched condition, He became a man and came in the person of Jesus Christ. To save us from the penalty of our individual sin, Jesus died the death that we deserved upon a cross for our sake. This was God stepping into human history to redeem us from our hopelessness and helplessness. After hearing this, I was hungry for more.
These things were both enlightening and troubling to me. They were beyond anything my feeble mind could comprehend. My ears had never heard anything even close to what was now resounding in my mind. If what Christianity proclaimed was undeniably true, then I came to recognise the ramifications for myself – and indeed all of mankind – were eternal in value. How could a loving yet perfect God forgive a sinner like me? I mean, what good judge freely pardons a criminal.
I positively knew beyond a shadow of doubt that I was a sinner. (I have witnesses too: My family and friends would gladly affirm that). This then led me to logically conclude that if I am a sinner, so too must everyone else. I mean, everyone is tainted with the same sinful nature as me – perhaps we’ve all just found our own little cunning ways of reasoning, silencing and quashing the moral voice of conscience God gives to us.
All of this combined led me to recognise the holiness of God, the sinfulness of my own life and therefore my desperate need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. It was then that the Lord Jesus Christ’s death upon the cross made sense. I had broken God’s Law though sin; Jesus was God’s loving provision who freely pays my fine. God had sent Jesus to make atonement for my sinfulness. He Himself was stepping in to resolve the dilemma of His holiness and my sinfulness. I broke the law; He paid the fine by dying on the cross and shedding His own precious blood. It was God’s loving gift towards someone who was clearly undeserving. It’s what Christian’s call the Gospel: The good news that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Wow. Upon confessing and repenting of my sins, I placed my faith and trust in God’s provision of salvation; His own dear Son Jesus Christ. I knew I had encountered the living God. The sinful things I once did without batting an eyelid, I now began to despise and feel ashamed of. Today, it is only by the grace of God that I no longer worship idols, but worship the true and living Saviour.
Idol worship does not always involve a statue
The third thing I would tell Bobby is that idol worship does not always take the form of worshipping a physical statue. To worship anything other than the true and living God is idolatry. Many worship their money, jobs, family, lifestyle, sex or ego. Millions of people around the world worship at this type of altar. To create a god of your own preferences is idolatry. The god that many people have invented to suit their own lives and beliefs is often a passive, white bearded, “man upstairs” type figure who gives a lending hand during difficult times. This type of imaginary god is non-confrontational, takes no real issue with sin and has nothing to say about right and wrong. These are all examples of modern day idol worship. The Second Commandment of God’s Law (Exodus 20:4-6) forbids God’s people to worship anything other than Himself.
What the Bible says
In explaining why idol worship was wrong, I read the following verses from the Scriptures to my friend Bobby.
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)
Idol worship is wrong because of what the above passages from Scripture proclaims so clearly. Whilst these verses teach us several things, here are nine that deal with idol worship:
1. There is only one God
2. God is spirit, living, creator and sovereign
3. God does not live in temples
4. God is not served by human hands
5. God does not need anything
6. God is not like gold, silver or stone
7. God wants to be known and has made a way to be known
8. God is like Jesus Christ
9. God will judge the world, including idol worshippers
I’ll end with the words of Jesus. He spoke these words to those who are stuck in dead, empty religion and worship what they do not know. If you long to know the true and living God, hear these words and respond to Christ today:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)