How can we know if our worship is pleasing to God? One sure way is to carefully avoid what the Bible deems false worship. Scripture suggests at least four categories of deviant worship. Today, we will look at two of those categories.
Worshiping the Wrong God
One form of false worship is the worship of false gods. There is no other God but the God of the Bible, and He is a jealous God who will not tolerate the worship of another. In Isaiah 48:11, God says, “My glory will I not give to another.” Exodus 34:14 says, “You shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
Yet most of the world worships false gods. Romans 1:21 indicts all of mankind for this tendency: “Even though they knew God,” Paul wrote, speaking of the fallen human race, “they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.”
Paul then outlines the history of our race’s descent into deeper and more wicked forms of false worship. It’s significant that the very essence of human depravity as Paul describes it is bound up in false worship—beginning with a refusal to worship God as we ought. Those who turn away from the true God invariably make their own idols to worship—and that leads inexorably to more and more overtly wicked expressions of false religion. Paul sums it up in the fewest possible words: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (vv. 22–23).
Verse 24 then tells the bitter consequences of worshiping false gods: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” Verse 26 says, “God gave them over to degrading passions.” Verse 28 adds, “God gave them over to a depraved mind.”
So the result of improper worship is that God simply gives idolaters over to their sin and its consequences. Can you think of anything worse? Their sin increasingly becomes the dominating factor in their lives, and ultimately, in Romans 1:32–2:1, we learn that they face judgment without excuse.
We are spiritual creatures, and the drive to worship is one of the basic human needs God designed into our hearts. Everyone worships. When people reject God, they invariably worship false gods. That is true even of an atheist. He worships himself. That, of course, is what God forbade in the first commandment (Exodus 20:2–3).
False gods may be material objects or mythical beings, among other things. Material gods may be worshiped even without the conscious thought that they are deities. Job 31:24–28 says,
If I have put my confidence in gold,
And called fine gold my trust,
If I have gloated because my wealth was great,
And because my hand had secured so much;
If I have looked at the sun when it shone
Or the moon going in splendor,
And my heart became secretly enticed,
And my hand threw a kiss from my mouth,
That too would have been an iniquity calling for judgment,
For I would have denied God above.
Job refused the inclination to worship his material wealth. If you worship what you possess—if you center your life on yourself, your possessions, or even your needs—you have denied God. You have in effect made your possessions your God.
Habakkuk 1:15–16 describes the false worship of the Chaldeans: “The Chaldeans bring all of them [the righteous] up with a hook, drag them away with their net, and gather them together in their fishing net. Therefore they rejoice and are glad. Therefore they offer a sacrifice to their net and burn incense to their fishing net.” “Their net” was their military might, and the god they worshiped was armed power—a classic example of the kind of false worship that some nations frequently fall prey to.
Others formulate imaginary personal deities as their false gods. That, too, is unacceptable. First Corinthians 10:20 warns that things sacrificed to idols are in actuality offered to demons. Therefore, if men worship false beings, they may actually be worshiping the demons that impersonate those false gods.
Giving a False Form to the True God
A second kind of unacceptable worship is the worship of the true God in a wrong form. Exodus 32:7–9 records God’s response when the Israelites made a golden calf to worship:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”
Notice that they were paying homage with their lips to Yahweh, the One who had delivered them from Egyptian slavery. They believed they were worshiping the true God, but they had reduced Him to an image.
Years later, as recorded in Deuteronomy 4:14–19, Moses said to the assembled Israelites,
The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it. So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And beware, not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
In other words, when God revealed Himself to the Israelites, He was not embodied in any distinct form. There were manifestations of His glory and power—the pillars of fire and smoke, the miracles, and the glory reflected in the face of Moses—but there was no tangible or visible representation of God. That is true of God throughout the Scriptures. Why? Because God does not wish to be reduced to any image.
If you think of God as an old man with a beard sitting on a throne—that’s unacceptable. Idolatry does not begin with a sculptor’s hammer, it begins with the mind. When we think of God, what should we visualize? Absolutely nothing. That may be why God is described as light. It is not possible to make a statue of light. No visual conception of God could properly represent His eternal glory.