John Calvin (the least entertaining of the Reformers) famously said, “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.” – Institutes, 1.11.8
Man’s heart is an idol factory. The evidence of this statement is easy to find in ready examples all around us. Our pride and arrogance do not need outside influences to create a god for ourselves. Perhaps he learned this from Martin Luther, who in his Large Catechism wrote,
“It is trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, is really your God.” – LC, The First Commandment
I believe this spiritual reality is severely understated. We are consumed by the idols lurking around “out there” on social medial and in our consumerist society in general, but we have no need of being swindled into buying them, for we readily make our own. We make them all the time.
So, we become our own enemy in this regard. Which, of course, is why we cannot save ourselves. It takes another, an outsider, to stifle our factories and clear the smoke-filled air.
My main concern these days is how these old dilapidated factories of ours have found a new cause for life and a revived joy in their own production. Their increased productivity is rooted in the age in which we live. Not simply an age of coronavirus and violent protests, but an age of extreme isolation. The separation of the people of God from His gifts, from the fellowship of believers, and from the Word and Sacraments is a terrifying reality.
A Christian in isolation is under the constant temptation to go seeking after whatever narrative is most useful to chart their path forward. With all the wonders of our modern technology we stay connected in unprecedented ways to others. But we usually stay connected to those who will lead us to where we want to go, will encourage us that we are on the right path, and support us when we abandon what seems to be confusing or difficult roads. In isolation we can simply turn off whatever fails to fit or meet our felt needs. And so, the factory chugs-on giving us what our hearts desire.
What we need is something to break through our echo chamber of self-affirming, carefully selected voices. What we need is the Body of Christ, the fellowship of the faithful. We need those who not only laugh with us and cheer us on, but we need those who challenge us and hold us accountable, those who rebuke and forgive us when we fail. We need to go to church, or if we cannot go to church, we need the Church to come to us. Do not assume everything is okay, that we will all be fine in a month or two. We will not, for the factory never rests, not completely.
What we need more, perhaps more than ever, is a friend, a true friend who will not allow our idol factory to burn out of control.