In his stirring message, The False Gods We Worship, President Spencer W. Kimball suggested that many of us Latter-day Saints are guilty of idolatry. Idolatry! That seems like a harsh indictment for such an earnest people who do so many good things. Yet he challenged us:
In spite of our delight in defining ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had—in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people—a condition most repugnant to the Lord.
Idolatry is the worship of someone or something other than God as though it were God.
Satan is clever. He knows that we are unlikely to place a golden calf in our living room and convene the family for prayer around it. We know better than that. So, he uses a more cunning method to push us toward idolatry. What if he could take popular ideas from our culture and entice us to accept them in our lives in place of God’s truths? That is a path towards making us an idolatrous people.
1. The first time I read Hugh Nibley’s Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free, I realized that I had begun to equate success with money. Culture had filled my mind and heart and crowded out Jesus’ teachings.
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30)
Yes, God expects us to work diligently and intelligently. Absolutely! But He is the one who provides the lunch, the increase, the beauties of the world, the opportunities, the purpose, the advancement. I recommend that everyone read Hugh Nibley’s challenge. If money, fame, or popularity are crowding out our devotion to God, we are guilty of idolatry.
2. President Kimball focused much of his message on our readiness to go to war.
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Some months ago, I read Proclaim Peace by Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher. I found it disconcerting to realize how ready I was to solve international problems with rifles and bombs. And then the Ukrainian war began. What are we to do? The scriptures and the First Presidency do provide a path to appropriate use of force. Yet we often are too ready to use military power when spiritual power would be better. I found myself wanting to emulate Enoch who
spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him. (Moses 7:13).
When we turn to military might before we turn to God’s might, we are guilty of idolatry.
3. I was raised in a great LDS family, yet somehow as I grew up, the web of rules began to govern my life. I judged myself by impossible standards. And often I applied those same standards in judging others. I made myself and others miserable.
Then my friend and mentor Tom Lee recommended a book he loved, Believing Christ by Stephen Robinson. Robinson does a terrific job of teaching us the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, we are to be earnest, but it is Jesus Christ who saves us. His book continued to change me even through dozens of readings.
There are other good books that have added to Robinson’s message, but I believe that his book is one of the most important ever written in the Church. We must make Jesus our partner in our life journeys. To depend on anyone or anything to save us besides Jesus is idolatry.
Every principle of the gospel can be applied in unbalanced ways. We might be so in favor of the principle of self-reliance that we excuse ourselves from God’s call to help others in need. Or we might become so engrossed in programs and policies that we neglect Jesus’ prime directive to show love one to another. We must not honor any one principle more than we honor Jesus and His teachings.
4. American culture has encouraged “righteous indignation.” We imagine that our anger is holy and somehow sanctifying to those who are its target. Jesus taught otherwise.
But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (3 Nephi 12:22)
Most people do not realize that anger kills. It kills compassion. It damages creativity. And it destroys relationships. That is the clear message of both Jesus and psychology (See, for example, Anger Kills by Redford and Virginia Williams).
The Lord does provide an option for reproving (D&C 121:43-33). But it is an exceedingly narrow one. The reproof must be inspired by the Holy Ghost and we must be willing to offer our whole souls to establish our faithfulness.
God does not endorse anger. Idolizing our own dignity or rightness and using it as an excuse to direct anger at others is a form of idolatry.
5. In the 1960’s, America was seduced by the self-esteem movement. Today self-love is encouraged. “I am enough” is the American mantra.
The first-listed sign of latter-day apostasy was that “men shall be lovers of their own selves” (2 Timothy 3:2). This is pure idolatry. It is contrary to the teachings and example of Jesus and it is contradicted by good research on human functioning.
Jesus recommended forgetting ourselves and honoring God. We then discover our great value as His beloved daughters and sons. His simple and timeless formula has real power. It is everywhere in the scriptures. Ammon is one great model:
I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever. (Alma 26:12)
To elevate ourselves is dangerously close to self-worship. “For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14, cf Luke 14:11).
6. In recent years, I have been surprised at the ways we talk about freedom as if it were a solitary virtue and must not be limited. In dealing with a wide array of personal and political issues, we imagine that freedom stands supreme.
A pastor in another faith recently made this wise observation: “As humans, we define freedom as the ability to do whatever we choose. As disciples, we should define freedom as the ability to become what God means us to be, through Christ.”
As Americans we rightfully value and cherish the freedoms that are a foundation of our country. Yet, as followers of Christ, we cannot imagine freedom to be a solitary virtue apart from all other virtues God instructs us to embrace.
Regardless of how we feel about the issues of our times, Jesus would not endorse us screaming at or attacking others or refusing to show any compassion towards those who view issues differently than we do. This is not an appropriate expression of freedom. That is not how He lived. That is not how God intends us to live. It is worth noting that Jesus was able to complete his earthly mission with relatively little political freedom. It is agency that matters most—the responsibility and commitment to use our opportunities to bless others.
These are only a few examples to consider. I invite myself and all of you to identify and cast out any stray idolatrous philosophies that may have infiltrated our minds and hearts. It is God and His truths that we should honor first and foremost.
President Kimball challenged us: “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.”
If we are to have the power of God in our lives, we should identify false beliefs and devotions—any hint of idolatry—and remove them from our hearts and minds.
Spencer W. Kimball, The False Gods We Worship, Ensign, June 1976.
Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher Proclaim Peace
Hugh Nibley, Work We Must But the Lunch is Free, in Approaching Zion.
Stephen Robinson, Believing Christ.
Redford & Virginia Williams, Anger Kills.