Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Idolatry Then & Now Conclusion

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 15 (conclusion)

In Chapter 1, My Corporate Idolatry, I shared the story of the day I recognized that idolatry lives on in the 21st century.  The realization started with skepticism.  I initially though “isn’t idolatry statue worship, and didn’t that go away thousands of years ago?”  Idolatry is much more, and in this final installment of Chapter 2  how often Idolatry has periodicly come to dominate the very institutions that arose to combat it.

According to the book of Jeremiah, God ordered the destruction of the First Temple (aka Solomon’s Temple) because the Israelites had fallen into idolatry.  In the following passage, from Jeremiah Chapter 7, notice the behaviors associated with idolatry.

4 Don’t trust the lies that some people say. They say, “This is the Temple of the LORD.”  [The commentary explains that many people in Jerusalem thought the Lord would always protect the city no matter what, so it didn’t matter how evil they were.]   5 If you change your lives and do good things, I will let you live in this place. You must be fair to each other. 6 You must be fair to strangers. You must help widows and orphans. Don’t kill innocent people! And don’t follow other gods, because they will only ruin your lives8 “‘But you are trusting lies that are worthless. 9 Will you steal and murder? Will you commit adultery? Will you falsely accuse other people? Will you worship the false god Baal and follow other gods that you have not known? 10 If you commit these sins, do you think that you can stand before me in this house … and say, “We are safe,” just so you can do all these terrible things?”

The lesson for me is that any institution can fall into idolatry.  And Jeremiah 10:31 explains why. “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way.”  In other words, the priestly hierarchy and leaders are preaching a different set of values than what God teaches.  (Which we summarized by the Golden Rule earlier in the chapter.)  Chapter 5 further elaborates:

5:26 For wicked men are found in My people; they lie in wait as a trap bites; they station an ambush, they catch people.

5:27 As a cage is full, so are their houses full of deceit; therefore, they have become great and they have become rich.

This dynamic seems to happen over and over again throughout history.  In my opinion, the rise of Christianity ~500 years was in part a reaction against the corruption/idolatry of the Second Temple.  And 1,500 years after that, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against the corruption/idolatry of the Catholic Hierarchy.  And in his widely popular YouTube Video Why I Hate Religion and But Love Jesus, poet Jefferson Bethke advocates a direct connection to Jesus, bypassing religion because religions sometimes advocate views that he finds counter to Jesus’ central, people-first teachings.

What institutions influence your life?  Do they encourage people-first values?

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A Mistake You Can’t Afford To Make

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 14

There was a time when I thought my work in the genomics industry was going to revolutionize medicine.  The products I managed were going to help scientists find all the genetic predispositions for disease, and usher in an era of personalized medicine, where an individual would be prescribed the most appropriate medicine based on his or her genetic makeup.  My mistake, however, was thinking that anything the company asked me to do was in service of this laudable goal.  In other words, I had made an idol of my company, in that I let it be the mediator of my altruistic aims.

The Rambam, one of the great medieval Jewish philosophers, explained the origin of pagan idolatry as a similar error. “At first men believed in one God who governed the world through intermediary forces” like the stars and other heavenly bodies.  They worshipped the intermediaries as a way of bringing honor to the creator, and then made statues to give their worship a point of focus.  After a few generations, people forgot that the statues and heavenly bodies were only intermediates, and thus began to worship the idols outright. [i]  And the values associated with the statues began to drift and diverge from God’s values.

Intermediaries distort the original message.  This can be an innocuous process, like a child’s game of telephone, or may constitute deliberate manipulation by unscrupulous individuals.  Karen Armstrong, international expert on comparative religion and TED Prize winner gave the following example “Often when people talk about God, we attribute to Him the thoughts and feelings and opinions we have ourselves.  … It is often noticeable that the opinions of the deity coincide with those of the speaker.  This is a form of idolatry because what you are doing is worshipping a deity in your own image.”[ii]

Take a moment to reflect on your values, goals, and passions.  Now, reflect on how you are spending you time.  What is the biggest influence on how you spend you time?

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[i] Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest  by David Hartman the Jewish Publication Society (1976) p 54-56

[ii] NPR Talk Of The Nation: Interview with Karen Armstrong January 10, 2011 about her book Twelve Steps To a Compassionate Life. Listen here.

Do You Recognize These Ten Signs Of Corporate Idolatry?

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 13

Corporate idolatry is the adoption of a company-first value system instead of a people-first value system.  Here are ten warning signs that you may be practicing corporate idolatry.

  1. You find yourself doing “what is best for the company” instead of “what is best.” What is best for the company is not necessarily what is best for customers, employees or the public.  Further, what is best for the company is subjective, and need not adhere in any way to people-first values.
  2. You joke that you are “married to the company.”  Both Hosea and Ezekiel portray idolatry as the betrayal of a marriage relationship, where one partner (God) has supported and nurtured the other (the people of Israel) who betray the relationship by worshipping other gods.  And in Ezekiel, why does the spouse take on other lovers?  In Hosea, the wife betrays the relationship for money; in Ezekiel it is for the pleasure of having another lover. “For Ezekiel, the motifs of losing control and forgetting are central to the sin of idolatry.[i]
  3. Persistent feedback from your spouse or partner that you are working too many hours. There can only be one top priority.  It can’t be both work and family.
  4. You are experiencing mental health and stress-related illnesses. Taking a company-first attitude means that personal health comes second or later.
  5. You work more than 60 hours per week and make a six-figure salary.  Productivity significantly decreases above 40 hours per week.  In my opinion, working 60 hours is beyond what is needed for survival and has become a habit or a hobby.
  6. You don’t care how you treat people at work.
  7. You are considered “successful” in your career, but are often feel unfulfilled in a way that you cannot define.  To go new age for a moment, this is your spiritual side talking to you.  True happiness comes from connections to other people, and for some, a spiritual connection to something larger than themselves.
  8. Someone says that you are “drinking the cool aid.”  This phrase comes from the terrible events of the Jonestown massacre, when people committed ritual suicide at the behest of their cult leader.  This type of intermediary worship is forbidden by the Second Commandment.
  9. Your boss skips key political meetings, asking you can handle them on your own.  This dynamic is another form of blind obedience.  In some cases, the boss may be setting you up to take the fall.  See Chapter 4 for more.
  10. Feeling indispensible to the company and above politics.  From the interviews I conducted, people who were caught up in a company-first attitude often felt that the company depended on them, which served as a rationalization for working longer hours and the sacrifice of family and personal time.

When I was caught up in corporate idolatry, my life featured eight things on this list. Remember that idolatry is a lifestyle, not an isolated mistake. I found a way to quickly change my life, and as you continue to read, so will you.

[i] Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press.  (1992) p12-17.

How Do You Know What You Don’t See?

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 12

httpv://   We perceive the world as a movie, but the reality is millions of disparate data points that we weave together.  One unfortunate side effect of this skill is that we sometimes shoehorn facts into our preexisting perception of the world.  Ever seen this video?  It is a test of your power of observation. Watch and then read on. [Read more…]

Why Idolatry? For the Sex Of Course

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 11 

 In the previous post, I discussed idolatry by error.  Here is one of my favorite stories that illustrates idolatry by error.

“During the 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, a young Israelite solder went to the marketplace of a newly conquered tribe of idol worshipers. He regularly went to see a beautiful girl with dark eyes who sold cloth from a tent in the market center.  At first he went for the low price, but after a few days he was invited in to sit and drink wine.  Flush with wine and conquest, the soldier pulled her close and murmured in her ear.  She pulled out an image of the idol Pe’or from her bodice and said to him “If you want me to do your bidding, bow down to this.”

He flung her back, eyes burning. ‘I will never bow to your trinket!’

She answered ‘What do you care if you only expose yourself to it?’ Since he had to disrobe anyway, what harm? As it turns out, exposing oneself was a way to worship Pe’or.  His face burned with shame, but the sex was beyond fantastic.”  – adopted from Babylonian Talmud[i]  I like this story because it illustrates the allure of idolatry, the gradual way it can creep up on you, and the not uncommon discovery that one has already committed idolatry without even knowing it.  And while giving reverence to a statue may not seem like a big deal today, in biblical times it was punishable by death.  Seem harsh?  Yes, but those were harsh times.  But even then, the death penalty was reserved for the most serious crimes.  And I think idolatry carried such a harsh penalty because it is so alluring.

And what is the problem with idolatry today?  For the religious of course, idolatry remains a mortal sin.  For the non-religious, I think of it this way.  Modern psychology is clear that lasting happiness comes from connections to other people and not from possessions.  A lifestyle of idolatry puts people second, and elevates the importance of something else which results in weaker interpersonal relationships, which in turn means less happiness.  So, for a happier life, put people first.

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[i] adopted from the Babylonian Talmud Sifrei on Numbers, sec 131;  Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press p 24-25.