When do our possessions become teraphim?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: I was thinking about teraphim. Could we have them today in the form of pictures, clothes or mementos? I’ve kept some of my dad’s old machinery (which I don’t use), but I’m wondering if these “family heirlooms” could be teraphim? Jesus told us not to look back in Luke 9:62 … but I’m stuck… I’m sort of looking back… but I don’t think that I’ve turned these things into idols. I just don’t want to give them up because they remind me of my dad. Can you help a brother out? 

Answer: Hello friend. Thank you for asking such a tender question. Since we who live in developed nations tend to increase our physical possessions over time, we should check periodically to see if we have given them untoward power…and that’s what you are doing — you are checking! This alone tells me that you do not have an unreasonable affection for your belongings. Besides, the Bible does not prohibit us from owning things and enjoying life. What it does, however, is encourage us to be reasonable people of moderate appetites… and frankly, that sounds like you.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, NIV)

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23, NIV)

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;” (Philippians 4:5, ESV)

I, therefore, recommend that you keep your father’s things — and that you do so with a clear conscience. In fact, one could make the argument that this would be an aspect of honoring your father (Exodus 20:12) whereas disposing of his things (for disposal’s sake) could be taken as dishonoring him under the right circumstances… and I think that’s the key: all things being equal, your possessions mean nothing, but your attitude towards your possessions means everything. As such, the heart of this answer can fit on a bumper sticker: “Nothing enslaves without permission.”

“But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”” (Joshua 24:15, NIV, emphasis mine)

When talking about items that might look or feel like teraphim, it is important to remember that no physical items have within themselves the power to affect human beings. So, if we have one of those creepy-skin moments when it feels like an object has power over us (and this happens), that is us supplying the juju — and we should just shake that off.  The Scripture is clear: idols are worthless and that they have no power — and this applies to all physical items; they too are powerless… except when we give them the power. For this reason, I am confident that you can keep watch over your father’s artifacts without turning them into idols.

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.” (Isaiah 44:9, NIV)

“So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” (1 Corinthians 8:4, NIV)

That being said, the Old Testament is the record of a very enlightened people who chased after idols all day long (2 Chronicles 21:11) — and we contemporary people are no different… even in this scientific age! We assign power — not just to idols of wood and stone — but to godless ideologies which are powerless without belief; people of every age have been quick to energize the idle… the empty… the evil… the popular… but your family heirlooms are not in those categories.

“He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59–62, NIV)

The above passage (which you referenced) is about putting Jesus first — but the Lord does this by using a person’s family as the foil (if you will), and it works like this: if you put Jesus first, then, logically speaking, your family can no longer be first. But this does not mean that you honor your family any less! Your esteem for them is as high as it always was. What this means, though, is that you can still say that you have left your family behind — because you have… but you’ve left it behind as life’s first priority — that’s all. This is nothing more than the natural outfall of having a Lord that you treat like a Lord… because, by definition, a Lord is first.

I can see where you might feel that looking affectionately at your father’s artifacts could be this “looking back” that Jesus was talking about… but it’s not. Once a disciple has put Jesus first, he is — and categorically speaking — no longer looking back; he is looking forward, and he is free to engage in a normal life with his family.

Your father’s artifacts have intrinsic qualities beyond their physical forms; they tell your family’s history, for one, and they foster an enjoyment of those familial memories for another. Neither is problematic; these are temperate and legitimate activities. As such, it is not a problem to keep these possessions as mementos, and it is not a problem when they evoke affectionate memories of your father… in fact… I am of the opinion that God, himself the Father, rather likes this type of thing — and if this is the case, this is an “okay” kind of looking back.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20160718 When do our possessions become teraphim?).

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