“I had my back to the light and my face towards the things which are illuminated. So my face, by which I was enabled to see the things lit up, was not itself illuminated.” – St. Augustine Confessions Book IV
Idolatry is a scary “church word.” Perhaps triggering thoughts of a golden calf or polytheistic leanings, it can seem irrelevant for today’s Christians. However, only evaluating the Bible’s admonitions against idolatry within the context of Israel’s original struggles can lead us to underestimate the gravity of this sin. It is hard to deny that in our society we also find so many other things to worship in place of God.
Perhaps what is most powerful in Augustine’s image is the notion that idolatry is a “turning away” from God. It is “[worshiping] and [serving] created things rather than the Creator” Rom. 1:25. From this view, I more easily see how idolatrous I am. How tempting it is to focus on mindless pleasures or daily worries. We are created to worship God; however, we so often mistake the right object of our affections.
Augustine himself struggled primarily with lust and intellectual vanity. Similarly, others may find desires for wealth, beauty, relationships, influence, and a host of other things taking the place of God in their lives. I certainly do, much more than I should. But whether I look to relationships, worldly success, or art for my fulfillment the initial passion all too quickly fades. Recognizing this in Confessions Augustine prays “let not my soul be riveted unto these things … they abide not.”
Looking honestly we see that these things cannot sustain our love. Created things were not made for our worship and, though “illuminated,” cannot in themselves illumine. Earthly pleasures simply reflect God’s love but cannot give us the satisfaction of knowing and worshiping Him. Augustine describes how his “face … was not itself illuminated.” The amazing thing is that in turning our faces to God we can more richly experience the created things we once preferred. Looking at the source of light, we see the things which reflect it more clearly.
Jesus proclaimed the “greatest commandment” was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” Mt 22:37. In turning away from God we disobey this command. Although truly putting God first is of course a daily struggle, we must remember that this is our goal. I hope to be able to join C.S. Lewis’s affirmation;
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”