I am not the first to make the point that idolatry can entail taking good things and making them into ultimate things. Or to put it another way, we should not confuse means and ends.
I was thinking about this with reference to physical pleasures. Too often, the response of the church to the danger of making pleasure a god in our life is to put rules in place to deny those pleasures. Churches have spoken out against many things to keep us from the danger of having pleasure as our goal in life.
One danger of a focus on restricting pleasure is that by doing so, we may feed our inner Pharisee and cause us to look down on others who are less disciplined.
The problem is that pleasures are so . . . pleasurable. We like the comforts in life and they make life interesting. While I assume that you could survive with only eating meatloaf, green beans and potatoes every day, limiting the diet to these would surely reduce anticipation of delight from the meal.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that God delights to give us what we need, pleasures included. But a warning is needed: there are illegitimate pleasures that are forbidden to us by Scripture. For example, while consuming alcohol is not condemned in Scripture, drunkenness is. There are other “pleasures” that we are to avoid. The good news is that the legitimate pleasures are more numerous than those that are forbidden.
How then can we keep the pleasures from being a cause for idolatry?
The answer lies in how we enjoy the pleasure. I can enjoy the legitimate pleasures without idolatry when I enjoy them as an act of worship. When I accept the pleasures as a gift from God and enjoy them as such then I am less prone to idolatry.
I like to eat. I like to eat good food and I very much enjoy having a variety in my diet. Using food as an example, It would be possible to arrange my whole existence around food. I could spend a majority of my time planning my eating and focus my existence on finding new and interesting foods.
Or, I can accept any opportunity to eat as a gift from God. I can enjoy the really great food when it is available or I can enjoy more pedestrian fare if that is what is in front of me.
The difference is not in what is eaten but the motivation for eating it. The fundamental question is this: “Who gets the glory?” Am I so focused on the food that I do not give glory to the God who made the food possible?
The same question applies to any legitimate pleasure we could pursue.