There is a problem with a misguided asceticism that is common among Christians. The undergirding root of this asceticism is this: desire that leads to sin is idolatry, so the solution to desire is “Jesus.” The conclusion of this is to suggest that wrongly directed desire is somehow a malfunction of people’s worship and way of life. Right worship leads to the end of idolatries, which leads to right desires and the end of sin. However, I want to suggest a different relationship between desire and idolatry, because in the end, I think the asceticism described above is ultimately at risk of being emotionally insensitive, if not down right emotionally destructive.
Allow me to give an example of something we can all agree is called an idol: money. Imagine someone who is poor that has a family to feed, who struggles to provide food on the table, who can not pay the bills, and may soon evicted. What they desperate want is some money to provide a safe place for their family? Would we call this desire for idolatry money? To do so I would think is to be fundamentally insensitive to the very human condition and reality that God is trying to restore and redeem. The person is not replacing God with money because they have tangible circumstances and needs their desire is connected to. They aren’t believing that money will bring them everlasting happiness, but it will mend their anxieties. If God will give people what they need and money is something they do need to take care of some very real and immediate concerns, then to call this desire for money idolatry is fundamentally unjust.
Meanwhile, consider ae hypothetical billionaire that eats, drinks and breathes money. Every decision they make is determined by the bottom line: how much money they will obtain. They are seemingly in control of themselves emotionally, because people who are impulsive tend to waste wealth, and that have no glaring flaws. But yet, still, all their decisions ultimately come down to the financial bottom line: what brings in the most money and what costs the least amount of money. They may give charitably, but this charitable giving always seems to put them up the public spotlight, increasing their influence that can benefit their bottom line down the road. Is this person committing idolatry? Insofar as money is the thing that makes their decisions and that has pervasive, constant power to alter their thinking, behavior, and feelings despite the fact that the money does not make much demonstrably different in the quality of the rest of their life, then, you betcha, they are committing idolatry.
The problem of idolatry is not desire, but entrenched desire that is unswerving in the face of life situations and circumstances. Idolatry causes us to devalue all other concerns and all other considerations when it comes into conflict with the desire and values that the idol represents and enables. The poor parent described above desires money our of desperation to meet other needs, but it isn’t controlling their desires but a means to those other values; however, the billionaire describe above maximizes money out of a pervasive entrenchment of a desire for it.
Now, this doesn’t mean the poor person is a “more moral” person than the billionaire. Far from it. The poor person might be tempted to do some illegal or unethical things to obtain food to put on their table and keep a roof over their head. Meanwhile, the billionaire may do nothing that looks like a glaringly obvious sin, evil, or crime, but may even seem generous. But, there is a real difference between the two. The poor person is open to change and transformation that Jesus’ beatitudes could seem to them like an invitation, whereas the billionaire may seem self-satisfied in their position.
It isn’t that idolatry leads to sin, but rather it leaves us impervious to the sins we have and leads to sinful expressions of desire to have full reign over the idolater. When Paul describes the moral descent in Romans 1 of those who committed idolatry, Paul doesn’t intimate that idolatry directly leads to further sin. Rather, in idolatry, God let the idolaters go to live according to their desires. Idolatry is not the direct cause of others sin, but rather distances us and resists God’s grace and mercy in our lives that lead us into the good, righteous, holy life. Whatever harms and injustices that the self-satisfied billionaire is committing, they are immunized from any form of repentance, unless that “repentance” is maybe about their failure to use money property. Idolatry is what keeps us away from the redemption that is brought about through God’s love and presence. Idolatry doesn’t cause the problem of sin so much as it keeps us from the solution for sin.
The corollary to this is that right worship directed towards the Triune God is not about the tearing down of desires, as if they are idols, and being “satisfied only in Christ,” but rather about the redeeming of our desires from the harmful, destructive, and painful ways that they are expressed and realized. Christ is not the sole object of desire, but rather the object of our heart-felt worship that orders all the rest of our desires to be consistent with God’s will and purpose for creation. God created us to live in this world, to enjoy it, and to make use of it well. In other words, Jesus did not come to give us an asceticism that denies the place of desires, but rather, through the cross, He came to redefine and transform the desires so that those who have desperately little in the kingdoms of this world may come to live satisfied where the Kingdom of God has drawn near.
The end result is that people don’t need to judge themselves harshly for having desires, even if those desires might tempt them towards something they think to be sin. Rather, people are free to both recognize and own their desires and to be free for the holy transformation of that desire. We don’t risk bringing judgment upon desperate people, but rather our concerns about idolatry are directed towards who unquestionable alter their lives around someone or something other than the God revealed in Christ that they believe should have the power to define their lives.
When Jesus says you can not serve to masters in MAtthew 7.24, he isn’t talk about simply doing serving God in terms of not sinning, but rather the reocgnition of how services in instrumental in who one comes to love and who comes to disregard. Idolatry determines our desires towards the things we worship, as does the worship of the live God, but what idols symbolize ultimately takes life when they become entrenched in our hearts and lives, whereas what God gives is life that redefines our lives and hearts to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation, both old and new.