John ends his first letter abruptly. Almost as an afterthought, he adds a post script warning his readers about idols. The NIV encourages us to read this verse out of place by strangely choosing to isolate the last verse of the letter in its own very short paragraph. It gives the verse the appearance of a non sequitur. But if you read the verse in its context, it isn’t a non sequitur at all.
Simply look at the verse that immediate precedes verse 21: “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”
This verse contains all sorts of themes common to the whole letter: know (35 times), Son (22 times), true/truth (13 times), and life (13 times) are some of John’s most commonly used words. The context makes the meaning of verse 21 clear. God alone is true. We are in God by being in his Son. In fact, Jesus is the true God and eternal life!
John could have dropped the proverbial mic after verse 20, but he understood human nature. Calvin said famously that the human heart is a factory for making idols. We too often settle for cheap, imitation gods in the place of the one who is true God and eternal life. John, writing as an old man at this point, has a pressing pastoral concern that the next generation of Jesus-followers guard themselves (this is one of just eleven imperative verbs in this letter) from the influence of idols.
This is a command that is no less pressing today. According to John, idolatry leads us away from the Truth. Only God is the Truth. The best an idol can offer is an approximate truth. And the thing about approximate truths is that they very easily turn into disappointing and deadly lies. (Think about receiving two reports on the amount of fuel left in an airplane. One report says the gas tank is less than full. The other says the tank is almost empty. Both are true reports, but one is only approximately true and, if believed, a deadly lie.) A people who struggle with God will quickly become a people who struggle with Truth and it is no profound observation to point out that we are a people who is struggling mightily with Truth. A people who struggle with God may in fact start to wonder if there even is something that can be called “Truth.”
But idolatry has another effect that goes beyond a struggle with Truth. It also has a destructive effect on what is Good. In Mark 10:18, Jesus reminds a man who is wanting to inherit eternal life that God alone is Good. God is the definition of goodness. Outside of God, we will always have difficulty identifying consistently what is Good. The idols that we create can only offer us an approximate goodness – a convenient goodness, an imitation goodness. You know that you have grown susceptible to an idol when you start to define goodness in terms of whether or not another person has shown fidelity to the particular idol you have set up.
There are so many examples that I could give. Nationalists might judge that a person is good (or bad) based only on their nation of origin. Consumerists might judge that a person is good (or bad) based only on what they choose to consume. Environmentalists might judge that a person is good (or bad) based only on what they believe about human-caused climate change. Campus activists might judge that a person is good (or bad) based only on whether they are an “ally.” A materialist might judge that a person is good (or bad) based on how much money they have. A fanatic of a certain team might judge that a person is good based only on whether they cheer for the same team. You get the point. The definition of goodness has shifted to whatever my particular idol might be.
To give just one more, very recent example. Roseanne and Samantha Bee have a lot in common. They are both below average comedians who have nevertheless experienced some success on television. They are both vulgar. They are both a particular kind of feminist. They are both political to a fault. They are both obsessed with Donald Trump and have wildly profited from his presidency. They both recently made insulting and inflammatory comments about an individual in the political class. Roseanne made a stupid racist joke about Valerie Jarrett in a tweet. Samantha Bee went on national television and called the daughter of the President an awful and vulgar term because she posted a picture of herself with her daughter on Instagram. Both comments were stupid. Both comments were an assault on decency. Neither comment was particularly surprising and if both shows were pulled off the air today (as Roseanne’s already was), civilization (and comedy) will have been done a great favor.
What is interesting (at least to me) is how people have felt compelled to come to the defense of either one of these statements even though neither statement is defensible. But when you have not kept yourself free from idolatry, what happens is that you start to defend the actions of people like Roseanne and Samantha Bee as “good” simply because they might happen to agree with your politics. “Sure, racism is bad and Roseanne has a long history of offense, but she said some nice things about Trump, so…” “Sure, calling another human being a feckless —- is never acceptable, but Bee is a part of the #resistance, so…”
It’s all so disgusting. But it is also a logical consequence of idolatry. Lose sight of a Good God and before long you’ll lose sight of the Good altogether.