I just got back from Ecuador, where during my trip I re-read Jonah one morning. I was taken by the eighth verse of the second chapter, in which Jonah is praying in the belly of the fish which we are told the LORD appointed. (He also appointed a plant and a worm in this book as object lessons to Jonah–and to us–about His “steadfast love.”) In this verse, Jonah observes the following:
“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. ” (ESV)
Kind of ironic, don’t you think? The idolatrous people of Nineveh forsake their idolatry and violence to escape God’s wrath, and the prophet of Jehovah becomes suicidal over the phenomenal results of his preaching, makes an idol of a plant and becomes infuriated when God appoints a worm to destroy it, thus removing Jonah’s protection from the sun.
One of the things I saw in Ecuador was the shrine of La Virgen de El Cisne, near the southern city of Loja. The people in this region of Ecuador idolize this doll which is reputed to have miraculous powers of healing. It is paraded annually from its home at the quaint Andean village of El Cisne to a cathedral in Loja, and is passionately and sometimes fanatically venerated. One of the most bizarre elements of the worship of this idol is a museum filled with toy cars and trucks, many of them handmade and large in scale, that were given to the doll as gifts of thanks or pleas for miraculous intervention.
Jonah, despite the irony of his prayer, makes an important point. Paying regard to vain idols and serving the Living God are mutually exclusive–one cannot do both. To claim to be Christian and venerate a doll (who is dressed like a celestial Barbie in all kinds of obscenely opulent or occasion-appropriate costumes, depending on who’s seeking her services) is simply not possible. When one pays regard to vain idols, one necessarily forsakes the hope of God’s steadfast love–a conscious choice has been made to substitute the former for the latter.
But miracle-working dolls are not the only idols there are. We all have them, and although they may not be as blatantly pagan as some others, they all displace God in our hearts if we allow them to. Making that choice is tantamount to telling God that His “steadfast love” is really not all it’s cracked up to be.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.