Catholics are sometimes accused of "worshiping statues." They have statues of saints, and they talk to those saints, so certainly they are worshiping statues, the highest form of idolatry. Except for that it is clearly untrue. Even as a Presbyterian, I knew Catholics didn’t worship the statues in their church. I didn’t really get the whole saints deal, but I thought it was obvious that the Catholics’ statues were just statues, the same as family photos hanging in someone’s home.
But thinking about this more, I’ve decided that nobody has ever worshiped statues. It’s a meaningless straw man of a phrase. Protestants that don't have icons or statues like to accuse churches that do as idol worshipers, implying of course that they don't worship idols because they don't have those objects. But idolatry is much more insidious than that.
The pagans had statues of their gods. They would go to the temple and pray before the statue. But the statue was a representation of the god they couldn’t see. At most, there might be a belief that the god would come down and inhabit the statue in order to communicate to the worshipers. The statue was a reminder, a vessel, but never something worthy of worship on its own. People simply don’t worship inanimate objects. (Nature worshipers worship nature purely because they believe nature to be animate.)
Yet, people do mistakenly worship inanimate, intangible constructs. Name brands, jobs, TV shows, foods, electronics. In the fall in the South, the clearest idol is football. An idol is simply what we focus our devotion on instead of God. We build unhealthy attachments to things that on their own are harmless, but become idols as we attach our self-worth, our happiness, our identity to them. Idols are narcissistic. They are us trying to make God whatever we want Him to be and trying to make salvation whatever makes us comfortable or happy.
When the Hebrews built the golden calf, God was not angry that they made a statue. He was angry about what the statue represented: rejection of Him, creating new gods. He had just delivered them from slavery, but instead of being grateful, they turned away from Him. The gods of the idol were not able to deliver them, or lead them to the Promised Land, or make them feel complete. The Hebrews wanted to create a custom-made god. All they got was a false idol and an angry Lord.
At most, an idol offers us a moment of gratification. We feel good and don’t have to worry about sin or charity or salvation and all that other tricky stuff. But like any dangerous drug, we begin needing more and more to keep that good feeling going, and we get depressed and feel empty without it, because it’s not healing anything, just masking the problem. The problem is that our priorities are all messed up. We’re looking for easy, feel-good solutions instead of the Truth.