Icons, Idols, and the Christian Life

Icon: an image or representation that stands for something else by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.

 Idol: an image or material representing a deity, or to which worship is addressed.

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Typically, when a pastor posts about idols and icons he will be writing about the appropriate use of art in church.  However, in a pastors’ gathering recently one of the older and wiser pastors present made a comment in passing.  It resonated in my ears and in my mind.  “Are you using your body as an icon or as an idol?”  Are you using the God-given gift of your body and life as an icon to point people to Christ?  Or is it your idol? Icons and idols.

The sinful flesh does not want to be an icon; it would set itself up as god.  The sinful flesh wants you to use your body as an idol, to make the pleasures of the flesh your highest good.  The sinful flesh wants you to give in to your desire for rebellion, hatred, lust, greed, dishonesty, and envy.  But pleasure is not god, so we should not use our bodies as idols to worship the god of self-gratification.  Instead, we ought to recognize them for what they are intended to be: icons that point others to God.  We are icons, not idols.

Paul encourages use to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” [Col. 3:10].  Because we are the baptized, the Spirit of God is daily at work in us with the result that God’s Law is seen at work among us.  This shows itself, among other things, in how we use our bodies.  No longer are physical desires the dominating force in our decision making, but we live so that people may see through us to the reality of Christ and his design for this creation.  Our lives become icons that direct people to the truth of God’s Word by virtue of resemblance to that Word.  We show people what creation and relationships were intended to be.  No longer do we succumb to our desire for rebellion, but we humbly respect those in authority over us, and we do not abuse the authority over others that we may have been given.  No longer do we revel in our desire to hate and cling to grudges as if our life depended on it, but we look upon our neighbors in love.  No longer do we splash blithely in the pools of lust, but we let the world see godly sexuality in our relationships.  Greed and envy follow suit so that our entire life is one that reflects who we were created to be.  Icons, not idols.

Above all, we show the world what it is to be humble, to turn in repentance to a God of mercy.  For wherever the Law of God and his design for creation is present among us, even in the best sense, it is still showing us our failures and accusing us in our sin.  But rather than parroting the world incessant rationalizing away sin, we show the world genuine repentance.  For by daily that daily contrition and repentance, the old sinful flesh is drowned and dies, and a new creation is brought forth to live before God in righteousness and purity.  Through us the world sees what it is to live in a right relationship with God and with the people in our lives.  We are the masks of God.  Icons, not idols.

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