by Pete Wilson
On my first trip to Kolkata, India, I visited a temple called the Kali Temple. Thousands of Hindus in Kolkata line up every day to pray to the goddess Kali. They worship her hoping to get power, victory, and healing in certain areas of their lives.
Some of the ways they worship astounded me. Not that many years ago, child sacrifices were common. Today, a hundred to a hundred fifty goats are sacrificed daily at the Kali Temple. A pool just outside the temple is believed to have healing powers. People pay to have their family and friends lowered into the murky, stagnant waters. There is also a tree with red ribbons hanging all over it. When I asked about the tree, I learned that women pay money to buy these red strings and then tie them to the tree, praying that Kali will allow them to have children.
I walked away with a supreme sense of sadness and darkness. How could a group of people be lured into such a ridiculous lie? How could they not see that this was just an elaborate moneymaking scheme for a handful of greedy priests?
But do you know what is equally ridiculous? You and I believing that a little more money is going to make us happy. You and I believing that moving up one more position at work is going to give us value. You and I believing that if we could just get that person to love us, we would have security.
idols aren’t just in pagan temples
Idols, in other words, aren’t found just in pagan temples.
You see, I’m not really concerned that we are going to worship a tree. The real problem in our culture is not the making of physical idols—what some call external idolatry. What we have to guard against in our culture is internal idolatry. Ezekiel 14:3 describes this: “These men have set up idols in their hearts.”
What is an idol? Traditionally we define it as anything that is more important to us than God. But I find that people shrug that definition off too readily. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that nothing is more important to us than God. So let’s define it like this: Idolatry is when I look to something that does not have God’s power to give me what only God has the power and authority to give.
It’s when we take good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turn to them in the hope that they’ll provide what only God can provide.
It’s when we buy into the empty promise that such things can give us the significance, security, safety, and fulfillment we crave.
It’s when we feel a God-given appetite and try to fill it with something that isn’t God.
John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is a perpetual factory of idols.”1 I agree. When I look back on my own life I see a distinct pattern of depending on trivial things to give me what only God can give me. And the results aren’t pretty.
If I’m really honest with you, there are nights after the lights go out and the noise in my life dissipates that I lie there in bed acutely aware of an inner emptiness. And while I have moments and even days of what seem to be deep satisfaction or soothing peace, those feelings quickly dissipate. I run and run after them, but they seem as fleeting as a disappearing sun, and then once again that gnawing inner emptiness is back.
Have you felt it too—that unquenchable longing that tempts you to sacrifice everything you have and everything you are to be a little more beautiful, a little richer, a little more powerful and successful, a little more secure or in control, a little more loved—all in this futile attempt to heal the inner emptiness? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of “if only”:
• If I owned this, I would feel worthy.
• If I achieved that, I would feel significant.
• If I had what they have, I would be content
• If I made a little more money, I would finally be satisfied.
• If I got that promotion, I would feel valued.
• If I could only get that person to love me . . . I would have security.
But sooner or later we discover the heartbreaking truth that no matter how beautiful or rich or powerful we become, it’s never enough.