The Moment Your Gift Becomes More Important Than Your God

Joseph Serwach

The meaning of idolatry, false idols: God doesn’t want anything from you — He wants you Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine loving your gift more than the giver.

Imagine loving someone unconditionally, showering them with everything — but you’re invisible to them.

They’re instead fixated on becoming a slave to someone, something, or some habit totally unworthy of being №1 on their life’s priority list.

That is how God feels when we reject Him, feelings best explained in the first three of the Ten Commandments (they’re ranked in priority). Commandments 1–3 center on our relationship with God, while Commandments 4–10 focus on human relationships.

The First Commandment (the most important) centers on idolatry: “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me… you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

Our covenant with God, Father Joe Campbell reminds us, is renewed at every Mass, a far more personal and exclusive relationship than mere contracts or promises: “Each person gives themselves completely, a total gift of self from one to the other. We give ourselves to God. He gives Himself to us.”

One life is fully alive in another. Through the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Catholic Church, the Body, and Blood of Christ enter into us. Through digestion, Campbell adds, “all the elements are broken down and absorbed into us as God becomes one with us.”

Who or what is your №1? The four most common false idols

Who do you idolize? Who or what is “your drug,” your “go-to” destination? The pleasure of food, a drink, television, or something on that phone you can’t free yourself from? Which habits enslave you?

Even if you are certain you’re a non-believer, someone or something rises to the top of your priority list. Whoever or whatever you put №1 most frequently becomes “your god” — the person or thing you unconsciously make sacred.

The word idolatry comes from the Greek words for image and worship. Our hearts are born restless and incomplete, always knowing we need more, something we don’t yet have. As infants, we cry for food, for love — for more.

As teenage boys, we stared at posters of Hollywood idols like Farrah Fawcett, or we dream of making it big ourselves, becoming the next “American Idol.” We long for love, forgetting that God is love and truth itself.

Our hearts are restless until they rest with God, the only one who can truly satisfy us, St. Augustine taught. Bishop Robert Barron calls this the way “we are wired for God,” knowing we need something, even when we can’t name it.

Typically, this ongoing search for more is distracted by what Thomas Aquinas called the four false idols, four “big things” we think will be enough (but they never are): money, power, pleasure, and honor.

Nearly every ultimately unsatisfying “pursuit for more” is somewhere within one of those four false idols. They’re at the heart of the First Commandment teaching on false idols.

The world — and our own stubbornness — makes us slaves to one or more of those false idols. But God doesn’t want us to be slaves to anyone (including Him), so He gives us the gift of freedom to choose: Him or one of those lesser things. The Way or “my way.”

He gives us the gift of life and every other gift. And then He lets us go, giving us the gift of freedom, inviting us to choose. We see both sides of that choice in the prodigal son’s story: the prodigal takes everything and leaves. But, when everything else falls apart, he finally comes home, totally surrendering to his father, finding more love awaiting than he ever imagined.

In The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, philosopher Daniel J. Mahoney argues we’ve made our love of our own humanity into a new secularized religion that “draws on Christianity but radically distorts it in the process. It tends to see man as the ‘measure of everything,’ and to forget the transcendental dimensions of authentic religion.”

In that new “false idol religion,” Mahoney warns, we focus on “building a perfectly just social order (a rank impossibility), as the effectual truth of the Christian religion.

“It has little sense of sin or limits,” Mahoney told The Catholic World Report. “Humanitarians tend to blame evil and criminality on ‘unjust’ social structures (‘social sin’) and believe in principle in the perfectibility of human beings and society. They dismiss the West as an essentially ‘culpable’ civilization, racist, exploitative, and unjust, and are blind towards the totalitarian enemies of civilized order.”

The three most important things to remember about idolatry

Everything Jesus does, he does out of love, Father Mathias Thelen tells us. And everything we have (except our own sin) is a gift from God, but what do we do with our gifts? And are we grateful for them?

“The Church and every Christian is a temple of God, and He dwells within us — but we drive Him out,” Thelen said, describing how we put “other gods” and false idols before the one true God. “Everything we do is in response to His saving love for us. Jesus wants to come to drive evil out of your life.”

No time to pray? No time to go to Church because something else is a more urgent priority right now? That other person or thing that seems more urgent is likely your false idol.

If you didn’t go to church today, what did you worship instead? Sports? A vacation? Sleeping in? All are good, but Thelen asks whether hockey loves you back, whether that vacation will save you from death. He stresses:

  1. Even good things in our lives can become idols. The moment you place one gift above God, that gift becomes an idol, and “that drives Him out.”
  2. We alone choose who to make most important in our lives and what God we will worship. Perhaps it’s your work, an addiction, or someone you love dearly. When we make anyone more important than God, it’s easy to expect that “false idol” to solve our problems when they can’t.
  3. The key to freedom from idolatry is submitting everything to Jesus. When you offer all your gifts and loves up to God, you become grateful for them as gifts from God (rather than expecting them to meet needs only God can satisfy). Allowing a loved one to be seen as “a gift from God” rather than a false idol re-orders all your life’s priorities.

That is why Thelen always stresses we must follow the JOY method (Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third). But we live in a world that regularly tells us to reverse the order: putting yourself first, others second, and God last.

“God is a part of everything if we allow Him to be,” Thelen says. “God doesn’t want anything from you. He wants you.”

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