It must have been six months or a year ago that I watched my iPhone—my brand new iPhone—sliding, then flipping, down a flight of stairs. I had just pulled it from my pocket and somehow lost my grip on it. It clattered down one step, then the next, then the next, all the way to bottom.
Idolatry has been much on my mind lately, idolatry ancient and modern. In the Old Testament there must be a hundred stories of the Israelites raising idols and then cutting them down again. The story repeats itself all through their history. Time and again they abandon God in favor of idols of wood and stone, violating the terms of the covenant they have made with him. The Lord is patient and through priests and judges and prophets calls his people to repent, to return. Eventually they do, and as a sign of their repentance they cut down those idols.
Have you ever considered what it would have been like to actually cut down an idol? To take an axe to a wooden god must have been a very tangible expression of repentance. Beverly Chao Berrus writes about this very thing:
There’s a memory seared into my mind from when I was twelve years old. I was watching from the backdoor of our home as my father brought out an axe.
Laying prostrate on the ground was a 3-foot-tall intricately designed statue of Buddha carved from wood. The axe went flying through the air from over my father’s shoulder landing with a loud thwack! The first stroke severed the statue’s head. Another thwack! Then another. Pieces of red wood went flying all over the yard. Finally, all that was left were indiscernible remnants of what was once our family idol. This scene also gave me a lasting impression that life for my dad and our family would never be the same.
We are idolaters still, though few of us bow down before wood and stone. Most of our idols are not so easily destroyed; we cannot take an axe to an idol of reputation or significance or sex. But these are idols, too, that draw the attention of our hearts and minds and demand our allegiance.
My iPhone threatens to be an iDol in my life. It represents so many of the things I value. It represents significance (every email, every retweet, every text message somehow tells me that I am valuable); it represents productivity (I can use it to get more done in less time, at least in theory); it represents reputation (I’m an Apple guy, not one of those Android or Blackberry guys). Watching it fall down the stairs gave me a glimpse of the folly of idolatry. After all, if my idol can be destroyed by falling down a flight of stairs, I probably ought to aim a little bit higher.
We laugh at the idolaters of old. There is something comical about reading the story of Dagon falling on his face—his carved face—before the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 5). The first day he simply fell on his face; the second day he smashed his face. It’s funny. It’s a little less funny when it’s my idol lying on its face at the bottom of the stairs.
But it actually was funny. It was a gift. It was a gift that showed me the utter folly of investing too much of my hope and joy in something made of glass, silicon and aluminum (which are, after all, not too far removed from wood and stone). Not only that, but it showed me again that anything I can hold in my hand, anything I can drop down the stairs, is just a tool, just a bit of the meaninglessness, the vapor, of this life. It may be a good thing, but it isn’t an ultimate thing because it isn’t an eternal thing.
My iPhone promises joy and it even manages to deliver some of it. It really does make me more productive and it helps me stay in touch with the family when I am on the road. These are joys, indeed! But I allow it to hold out the promise of too much joy and this is the battleground in my heart; it simply cannot deliver all it promises. I bought some joy, but then I dropped it down the stairs. And this convinced me that I need to elevate my joy to something bigger, something better, and something higher.