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God Lite: The Idolatry of Reduction

  • Chip Ingram Living on the Edge
  • Updated May 04, 2021
God Lite: The Idolatry of Reduction

When I lived in California, I would always treat out-of-state visitors to one of the most impressive scenes in all of nature. I would take them to Redwood National Park to see the awesome beauty of the redwood forest.


If you've ever been there, you know how majestic and inspiring those enormous trees are. And if you've ever tried to explain them to someone who hasn't been there, you've probably noticed how difficult it is. It really can't be put into words; it can only be experienced.


Now suppose I gave you a box of toothpicks and a bottle of glue and told you to make a model of the redwood forest as a way to demonstrate its majesty for those who have never experienced it. How would you respond?


You might try to explain to me how insufficient any toothpick model would be. Or you might not even be able to stop laughing long enough to get the words out. Obviously, any image of the forest itself would do it injustice. It wouldn't capture it at all.


That's why God gave us the second commandment. In the first commandment, He told us who to worship. But He knew our hearts. The second commandment deals with the manner in which we worship. "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:4-5).


What does this have to do with us? This was a command for ancient peoples who were used to idols made of carved wood or molten metal. They knew nothing about an invisible, transcendent God, so God told them not to reduce Him to an object. But that's not a problem these days, is it? People just don't do that anymore; we don't make wooden or metal images of God. Can't we take a breather on this commandment?


No, and here's why. There is something in the human heart that wants to reduce God, to shrink Him and make Him manageable. We want to get Him on our terms where we can control Him. So we come up with some system of religion where we envision God, because if we can see Him or systematize Him, we can predict Him or even manipulate Him. And if we can predict or manipulate Him, we can get Him to fulfill our agenda.


Reducing God

We can see that happening in Exodus. Right after the Ten Commandments were given, the Israelites made a golden calf while Moses was up on the mountain talking to God. It was the first example of the slippery slope of idolatry. Their golden calf wasn't a violation of the first commandment; the text implies that they were worshiping the God who brought them out of Egypt. But all they knew about deities was in terms of material objects, so in order to honor God's power, they crafted a bull, or a calf.


What's so wrong with that? Why can't we have little picture or statue to help us remember what God is like? Because shrinking Him a little bit in order to worship Him more concretely is going to fall short. It will always devalue Him. The Israelites' bull may have represented God's power, but it missed His holiness and purity, as evidenced by the immoral revelry that characterized their worship. The reason God tells us not to make idols is because they reduce Him. It's kind of like making a model of the redwoods with toothpicks and glue.


No matter how sincere we are, any idol, image, or representation of God is going to fall short and miss something of His character. Because God is infinite and incomprehensibly majestic, our images are always automatically reductionist. They don't measure up.


We may not have a problem with carved and molten statues like ancient people did, but we do have our images. Some of them might surprise us.


For example, we take the most central room of our homes, arrange all the couches and chairs, build a pedestal, and put our idol in the center and turn it on. Then we ask it to tell us how to think, what values to have, what to buy, how to look, and what to drive. We swallow any image of how to live life to the fullest. We'll find lots of keys to fulfillment: sex, money, power — it's all there. The priesthood of the media serves us well. We get sucked into our idolatry. Then we're surprised why our ethics and behavior are about the same between evangelicals and the rest of American society. It's obvious, isn't it? We're being fed by the same idols.


Making God in Our Image
But it's really subtle when we analyze our worship of God. We have mental images, false characterizations of who Jesus is. It's not that we are hateful or insincere, but we say, "I need a bull." Our pictures of Jesus over the years have ranged from social revolutionary to body builder to young urban professional to whatever else fits our culture. And God says way back in Exodus 20, "Don't do it! I'm God, not a snapshot." Our pictures, however sincere, devalue Him.


Do you know how else we limit God? By our denominations. By our legalism. By saying God can only work inside this box, which also happens to be our box. I've got no problem with the orthodox creeds of history or the biblical parameters of God's character and work. But we often reduce Him to a set of man-made rules or a narrow cultural context of a particular church. That's called reductionism just as much as making a metal idol is, and it's an abomination to God. His Spirit won't be defined by our images.


I grew up picturing God as a judge, a military general, or a cosmic policeman waiting for me to mess up. That's reductionism; it's idolatry. I remember saying, "I like Jesus, but I don't know if I could like God." That's because there was an idol in my mind. Some people have the opposite idol — a white-haired fatherly image who has children in his lap all the time but would never require a standard for behavior. He's always "the God who understands" — God lite. His holiness is left out of the picture.


We don't need a snapshot of God; we need a lifelong project of putting together a photo album, a full picture of all His attributes as He has revealed Himself.


Why? Because He loves us. Exodus 20:5 says He is a jealous God — not with a petty kind of jealousy, but the kind of zealous passion that desires real love from His people. He says, "I love you too much to let you play and pander with images that reduce me. That kind of God would never truly fulfill you. I will."


Forsake every idol, forsake every image, forsake anything that makes Him less than He really is. Then worship Him in spirit and in truth.


To help you build an accurate and complete picture of God, Chip has developed a resource series called God As He Longs for You to See Him.  To learn more about this series, please click here.