Gazing itself isn’t necessarily wrong, as long as we evaluate the object of our gaze. When we see something we like—when we see something we love; something that resonates deep within us—we don’t just look, we fix it with our stare, observe and contemplate it. This is the thing that, if jeopardized, we will defend the most vigorously, what will reveal what’s profoundly true about who we are and what we value.
About a year ago, my wife and I watched the movie The Greatest Showman and loved it. Musicals aren’t usually my thing, but I thought this was really well done—it was subtle, meaningful, compelling, and entertaining all at once. One of the movie’s themes I chewed on for months following is idolatry, and one scene in particular stood out.
The Snare of the Adulteress
By the middle of the film, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) has established his empire through his circus. He has wealth, acclaim, and power, yet we see that even now, he’s not content. There’s something missing. He’s been gazing upon—and striving after—the desires of his heart; he’s achieved all of his success expecting that he would find satisfaction in his achievements, yet he hasn’t found the satisfaction and rest he was expecting his success and status to provide.
During the song Never Enough (performed by Loren Allred), that we see Barnum most enraptured by his idol. We watch him gaze upon everything he’s ever dreamed of—beauty, world-renown fame, ever-abounding wealth—and he’s transfixed by it. He’s captivated by the experience of his deepest wants on full display before him and his gaze is locked upon it, so much so that he can’t hear the irony of the lyrics declaring that the life he’s lusting after simply serves to mask the aroma of death that the life is producing.
As the camera focuses in on Barnum watching the performance, we hear the words he’s missing: “All the shine of a thousand spotlights/All the stars we steal from the nightsky/Will never be enough.” We understand that no matter how many eyes look to him in adoration, no matter how my times he does what his impoverished upbringing says he shouldn’t have been able to, it won’t be enough to fill the void he feels. He either doesn’t hear it, or doesn’t want to—his idol has overwhelmed him and he can see nothing other than his desire. He follows after his adulteress as complacently, “as an ox goes to the slaughter” (Pro. 7:22), having been persuaded by her seductive speech and succumbed to the lure of wealth, power, and desire.
His example of idolatry may seem extreme to many of us. It’s not likely that we will reach the heights that Barnum does in the film, but the question this scene poses remains applicable for all of us: What are you gazing at?
We’re All Gazing at Something
Gazing itself isn’t necessarily wrong, as long as we evaluate the object of our gaze. When we see something we like—when we see something we love; something that resonates deep within us—we don’t just look, we fix it with our stare, observe and contemplate it. This is the thing that, if jeopardized, we will defend the most vigorously, what will reveal what’s profoundly true about who we are and what we value. These things our eyes are locked upon are not always inherently bad, but if that thing isn’t God, then it’s an idol. As Tim Keller often states, “idols are anything other than God, even good things, which have become ultimate things.” If we allow anything to unseat God’s rightful place in our lives, then we aren’t being pragmatic, or thoughtful—or whatever other lie we tell ourselves—we’re being idolatrous.