Any time we worship anything other than God we dance around the altars of Baal, a false god. The more we do the more frantic we become and the more we begin to hurt ourselves. Sounds like addictive or compulsive behavior to me. That is exactly what happens when we substitute a material thing for God. We will dance around it more and more frenetically until we start to harm ourselves. Witness an addiction to a drug: the thing we convinced ourselves would help us turns around and begins to harm us.
This First Sunday of Lent gives us the prescription for curing what ails us spiritually. When we worship God rightly, we find peace. Whenever we adore God, we are face to face with him, whenever we adore anything less than God our soul disintegrates into a spiritual cacophony. How often have you tried to substitute material things for spiritual things but always came up unsatisfied, always wanting more and with a very restless heart? Those substitutions can take a lot of different and subtle forms. The four classical things that we substitute for God are usually wealth, power, pleasure, and honor. We make these and not God our ultimate concern. They become our center of gravity. And think how often we are prompted by the false prophets to seek these, just watch any marketing campaign, TV commercial: it all suggests that happiness is found in power or pleasure, wealth or honor or any combo of these four. When we pursue these, we are like the false prophets, worshiping around the altars of a false god.
And when we do get any of these, even just a little taste of say wealth we get a buzz but it eventually wears off, then you seek more, and that buzz lasts even less, and you frantically hop around the altar of a false god wanting it to produce that which it can’t.
Likewise, pleasure is good but it is not God yet we hop around the altars of pleasure too. Power too can be used for good purposes. But most people who get power don’t know how to use it but once had it becomes addictive. Some finally make honor their god. But honor is for others not the self. And the gratification from being appreciated, recognized, affirmed is a short-lived buzz when we do get it. Every one of these is an altar that I have danced around at times in my life. The false prophets, you know are very seductive and can convince you that this is the way to true happiness. Who doesn’t want more prestige, it’s a platform we tell ourselves to do great things, or having sufficient wealth and power can help me do even better things, for God of course! And then having done all the hard work w e talk ourselves into pleasure as ever so rightly deserved.
What I have learned is that the only way to keep them at bay, to keep them from corrupting your soul and making you dance around their altars, is to like Jesus in the desert to simply rebuke them, call them out publicly for what they are: false gods that don’t deserve our worship and only offer a cheap substitute for human happiness. That’s why Jesus asks His disciples for absolute allegiance. Love Him more than father, mother, sister, brother, anything. As the song says, you can have all this world but give me Jesus. If you put Jesus first then you will not be worshiping at any other altar. But failure to keep first things first can have lethal consequences.
We live in a culture where freedom and self-determination are the highest concerns. Jesus is telling us otherwise. True freedom, to really become who you are, is found by subverting your will to that of God’s will. It is not what I desire that matters, not the course that I am plotting for myself but what God desires, what God’s plan is for me. When we put God off to the side and go it alone, we find only the illusion of freedom. We too easily get the order wrong, me, my desire, my self-determination matter.
The Bible tends to scorn such behavior but praises those who listen to the Lord and allow God to define them and allow God’s will to determine them and not their own will. No, the scriptures tell us God first always and you will find freedom. Allegiance to Jesus or the false prophets? What’s it to be? Lent is the season to sort it all out.
Fr. John B.