The design of life is shot through with extraordinary ironies. ‘Poetic justice’ is one tried and true expression that attempts to define this.
One of the odd symmetries of reality is that we become what we chase after. It is the logic in the deep structure of creation that generates what theologians eventually come to call ‘sanctification’ and ‘depravity’. A thousand saintly techniques crumble before one truth: when we pursue what is holy, we become more holy. The encyclopedia of sin and idolatry is equally predictable from this angle of view: we become tragically like the idols that we waste our lives pursuing.
It is an arrangement of twinned promise and threat. Yet none of it is theatrical or false. This is simply how things are.
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel.Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? (Jeremiah 2:4–5 ESV)
The Hebrew prophet plays here upon one of the Hebrew Bible’s most potent negatives: הבל, ‘worthless’, ‘vanity’, utter moral weightlessness. It is a commonplace—though a pungent one—for the prophets to label all manner of glorious idols with this pejorative claim. But it is a deep insight into the dynamics of being human to recognize that we become what we treasure.
If an idol is inert, so do we lose the efficacy of will, the gigantic capacity to decide who we will become. If an idol is glitzy, so do we become flecked with cheap reflections that conceal the emptiness within. If an idol is elevated above its peers, so do we fall prey to the hubris of the unique and the special.
But if, the prophet would have us know—since despair is not his end game—, if we pursue the Ineffable, the Most High, the Holy One of Israel, we become better than we were. By grace and imitation, not by technique or exertion.
Things become simple.