“You Shall Not Make for Yourself an Idol” (Exodus 20:4)
In hen we harden our hearts and fall into a spirit of complaint about our work and our family and our life, we cannot enter into God’s rest. But when we approach the high calling of our work with gratitude and thanksgiving, we understand that God in our work is the meaning and purpose, and the rest of God becomes ours in abundance.
The second commandment raises the issue of idolatry. Idols are gods of our own creation, gods that have nothing to them that did not originate with us, gods that we feel we control. In ancient times, idolatry often took the form of worshiping physical objects. But the issue is really one of trust and devotion. On what do we ultimately pin our hope of well-being and success? Anything that is not capable of fulfilling our hope—that is, anything other than God—is an idol, whether or not it is a physical object. The story of a family forging an idol with the intent to manipulate God, and the disastrous personal, social, and economic consequences that follow, are memorably told in Judges 17-21.
In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idolatrous, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Yet when we imagine that we have ultimate control over them, or that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. The same may occur with virtually every other element of success, including preparation, hard work, creativity, risk, wealth and other resources, and favorable circumstances. As workers, we have to recognize how important these are. As God’s people, we must recognize when we begin to idolize them. By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship these good things in their own right. The development of genuinely godly wisdom and skill for any task is “so that your trust may be in the Lord” (Prov. 22:19; emphasis added).
The distinctive element of idolatry is the human-made nature of the idol. At work, a danger of idolatry arises when we mistake our power, knowledge, and opinions for reality. When we stop holding ourselves accountable to the standards we set for others, cease listening to others’ ideas, or seek to crush those who disagree with us, are we not beginning to make idols of ourselves?