Icons and Idols

Salty Snacks

Imagine a man sitting on a couch, alone on a Saturday afternoon. He is watching a football game with a bowl of salty chips and a beer within arm’s reach. With this limited information, how would you describe the scene and the man within it?

It was in a recent interview with podcaster Matt Fradd that Christopher West painted this picture and asked the same question of the listeners. Reflecting on the scene as I was listening, I immediately judged the fictional man as lazy, unproductive, and lethargic. (It’s easy for me to judge because of course I have never been this man…)

The discussion that followed shifted my perspective as Matt and Christopher refrained from jumping to this conclusion. They first discussed the differences between icons and idols. My simple takeaway was that an icon represents something greater – it points to the real thing. An idol on the other hand does not direct our gaze elsewhere. It claims to be the end itself.  

Not forgetting our football fan, were the chips, beer, and football an icon or an idol? The answer, it turns out, is it depends. Whether icon or idol hinges on the posture of the man – not how straight he is sitting on the couch, but his intent in placing himself in the situation.

To illustrate, let’s imagine that it is late on a Saturday afternoon, and the man has been working all day on his house and yard. After catching up on some projects, he decides to take a rest and enjoy one of his favourite snacks and enjoy a drink while he rests after a long day. While he appreciates the food and drink and could consume more, he knows that doing so will result in him feeling like garbage the next morning and stops after his planned snack.

In a different scenario, the man, who is bored and tired from a long week and a day of doing chores, goes to his kitchen and finds a bag of chips and a few beers in the refrigerator. Not having any plans, the man consumes the whole bag of chips and finishes off the beer before falling asleep on the couch.

Most people would read these two descriptions and on a gut level could say which is the ‘better’ way. One could point to the physical health benefits/cost of each approach, but it goes deeper. Layering on the icon/idol filter, the man in the first situation is enjoying something that brings him joy at the end of a good day’s work. He gratefully enjoys a reward for his work but recognizes that there is more ahead and chooses not to keep eating and drinking.

The second man is lacking direction in his day and is seeking something, perhaps comfort or distraction. He uses the chips and beer to try and satisfy the longing of whatever he is looking for. While initially satisfied, the feeling fades and inevitably the man finds himself back seeking the same thing he was looking for in the cupboard.

A benign example, this illustration points to the fact that we can create an idol out of almost anything we encounter, be it food, money, or entertainment. The answer is not necessarily to say that these things are all bad and avoid them. An object cannot make itself an idol, only our approach can do that if we place the thing above all else and see it as an end. Icons can be the same physical objects as idols, but when we see them for what they are – signposts as opposed to destinations – we can enjoy them as they are intended for us.

Reflecting on this idea, I have thought about areas in my life where I am tempted to make idols and how these can be reframed as icons.

Work

I used to watch the show Suits. The show’s main character is a high-powered lawyer, named Harvey Specter, and Harvey does not lose. He is driven, successful, and very well dressed. I started watching Suits when I was working in a big public accounting firm and while I am very aware that accountants are nowhere near as cool as lawyers, the show inspired ambition. I could finish a good episode at 11pm and feel a desire to get dressed in a suit and go to the office – I’d often joke about this shared desire with colleagues the next day.

And while Harvey’s suits and corner office are cool, the thing that stands out is that without the suit, Harvey does not have a lot going on. His identity is completely intertwined with his work. Success at work is the goal, often at a cost to other relationships.

Along the way in my career, there have been times when work has been the end rather than the means. I would never consciously admit to placing work ahead of family in my priorities, but my actions might sometimes have suggested otherwise.

This is not to shame putting in longer hours or working on the weekend occasionally. What I am talking about is on a heart level. Where the heart leads, everything else will follow.

When I pursue work for the recognition, financial gain, or validation of my identity, it becomes an idol in my life. If the purpose in my career is centered on titles and money, then the career becomes the end.

But work is good. Ordered correctly, it points to something bigger. In the earliest Scriptures, God has shown a mysterious desire to partner with us in His work. He wants us to participate in the building of His Kingdom, starting within our own lives.

When I view my work and career as an opportunity to serve my family, colleagues, and community, it takes the focus away from me. Away from my goals and my successes and towards what I can offer to others. In this light, my work is an icon. When I approach each day with the intention of serving God and my family, the work that I do is a vehicle by which to serve, not the end itself.

Sports

After the last Super Bowl, I saw a clip online of a man screaming at his tv, not because he was mad that his team lost – he was an LA Rams fan, so his team had won. He appeared to be trash talking Joe Burrow, who was the quarterback from the losing Cincinnati Bengals. Apparently forgetting that Burrow couldn’t hear him through the tv, he continued to yell until the camera showed a closeup of the QB and the man stepped up and shoved the tv, breaking it in the process.

It’s easy for me to watch this and judge, but the truth is that this behaviour was an extreme end of a continuum I have found myself on at various times. When professional sports have become an idol in my life, it looks like excessive time reading articles and analysis on every detail of my favourite teams. It looks like me getting emotionally vested in the teams’ wins and losses to the point that the results of a game can impact my mood and demeanor towards others. It can also look like me getting into arguments with friends or taking glee in seeing their teams lose.

But sports can also bring out the best in us. By playing, we learn teamwork, friendship, how to overcome adversity, and the skill of winning with grace. I remember very little about wins and losses from the sports I played growing up, but I remember the good and tough times I went through with my teammates and friends and the fun we had doing it.

Professional sports can also serve as an icon. There is something sublime in watching a top athlete like Steph Curry at the top of his game in the NBA finals. Soccer is called the beautiful game, and for me there is no other sport that offers beauty the way that soccer does. Seeing a string of difficult passes executed at speed, a player dribble through several defenders, or a striker send a thunderbolt into the top corner can evoke a reaction unlike anything else.

For me, sports can offer a path to more life. When sports are a means to something greater, they serve as an icon.

When we become obsessed and subjugate other areas of our lives to the schedule of our favourite teams or become emotionally over-vested in outcomes that are beyond our control, sports are an idol.

As with most things, what this means for each of us lies within our hearts.

Look for Icons

Each day we encounter numerous things that can become either icons or idols in our lives. The two highlighted above are two of many within my life that I need be aware of and check myself at times to ensure they are not becoming idols.

At the end of the day, placing anything above my relationship with God is making an idol. Whether that is work, money, sports, food, or even relationships with family and friends, if we move God out of our lives and place one of these things or anything else in His place, we will never be satisfied.

In my experience, the search for purpose and meaning will always come up short until it is rooted in deep relationship with God the Father.

While the temptation to make idols is constantly with us, there is hope in the fact that the difference between most idols in our lives and the icons that point us back to the Source is merely our perspective.

Where are the idols in your life? Where are the icons? Can anything that is currently an idol become an icon in your life?

I challenge you to take time to reflect on these questions and seek out more icons in your life.

– Sean

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