Fighting Idolatry

January 10th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Now that I’ve started to identify my idols, what next? How do I fight idolatry in my life? How do I learn to treasure Christ more, to value supremely only that which is supremely valuable?

 

On a handful of occasions I’ve tried to learn some form of artwork or other—drawing, painting—usually with 5229725173_493ea39a9f_zspectacular ineptitude. The most enjoyable part of the process, though, is reading the manuals that purport to teach you in four easy steps. Steps one to three usually involve drawing some very basic shapes, starting to get a sense of proportion, etc. Then step four shows the completed picture, colored and shaded, with detail and nuance throughout. I always feel like they’re missing a few steps in there.

 

So, in sketching out these four steps, I’m well aware that I’m missing a few steps in here too. The broad outlines are easy, but the nuances of working them out in your own heart are difficult and time-consuming. They will take a lifetime of gospel contemplation. Nevertheless, here they are, just to get us started.

 

  1. Confess and repent. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often we skip this part. If you’ve done the hard work of identifying idols, make sure you then recognize the idolatry as sin, and repent of it. For example, if you’re in a dating relationship with a non-Christian because you’re worshiping the idol of human love, confess your idolatry—which will mean getting out of a sinful relationship. If your life of luxury and self-indulgence betrays an idol of comfort, repent of it—which will mean sacrificial giving and a simpler lifestyle. Listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” These sins, he says, are expressions of idolatry—and the wrath of God is coming because of them. That means we need to act; we need to rid ourselves of all the sinful manifestations of our idolatry. Confess and repent.
  2. Work out the end game. Really, where will your idolatry lead? Will anything in this world ever be enough to satisfy the deep longing within you? If you get everything your idolatrous heart desires—which is unlikely anyway—will that be enough? One way to think this through is to look at people who have what you want: are they satisfied? From what I can tell by looking at the wealthy, money doesn’t bring any real satisfaction, so why would I devote my life to it? I’ve watched many climb the career ladder without ever achieving the feeling of significance they’d hoped for. Addicts are addicts precisely because their “drug”—sex, shopping, heroin—is never enough. C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head: “Most people, if they really learn how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips and so on; I am speaking of the best possible ones. There is always something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it has turned out to be a good job, but ‘It’ has evaded us.” I suspect this is why people move so quickly from one fascination to the next: first a job, then marriage, then a new home, then a child; when the excitement wears off, we have to begin again—a new job, another child, a bigger house, a better spouse—only to find “It” still evading us. This is very much the point of Ecclesiastes, and its truth is felt intuitively by the great mass of humanity. Work out the end game. Your idolatry will leave you unsatisfied at the last.
  3. Treasure Christ. If your idolatry will lead you unsatisfied in the end, turn to that which alone can satisfy—God himself. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “Creature are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Some of our longings are met in this world—hunger and thirst, for example—but the deepest longings are not, so we must look beyond this world, to the invisible yet more substantial spiritual world. Asaph expresses it nicely: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). St. Augustine taught that what shapes us most fundamentally is not our beliefs or thoughts, but out loves. We are what we love—and we are most what we love I may say I love truth, but if I tell lies to protect my reputation, I prove I love my status more than I love honesty. Our deepest longings will be met only when we love most what is most deserving of our love, Jesus. As Augustine famously said in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You stimulate [us] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” In other words, this is the positive side of working out the end game: look at what will actually satisfy in the end, and then order your loves so that you can experience the fullness of joy found in him.
  4. Apply the gospel. You’ve begun to treasure Christ, you understand your need to seek ultimate joy in him alone, but how do you go about it? Turn to the gospel again and again. God does not love us in the abstract, but in the true story of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to live the life we should have lived, then to die the death we deserved to die, before being raised to the newness of life which we can experience through faith in him. Paul describes it thus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the beautiful exchange wrought at Calvary: he takes my sin, which God punishes in him at the cross, so that I may take his perfection as my own—welcomed, then, as a dearly loved child of the Almighty Father. What will contemplation of a love like that do to me? First, it will soften my heart. It will humble me, because I recognize in this story the price of my rebellion against my good and gracious Creator. I am more sinful, more wretched, than I would ever have dared admit. But second, it will enflame my heart. It will captivate and enthrall me, because I apprehend, at last, the overwhelming, relentless, costly love of my Father. I am more loved, more cherished, than I would ever have dared dream. To the extent that I can grasp this truth, allow this love to seize and transform me, I will be freed of my idolatry, freed to order my loves rightly. Money is good because with it I can purchase what I need to survive, but it is as nothing before a love like this. Human love is excellent and often praiseworthy because we were made for fellowship and intimacy, but a finite being cannot offer me the infinite love for which I thirst. Achievement is fine because I am using my gifts to glorify God and serve my neighbors, but my significance is already given in God’s acceptance of me. Apply the wonder of the greatest, truest story ever told to your heart, and your idols will soon dim in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

What other strategies have you found effective in overcoming idolatry through the gospel?



American Idols

May 28th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some time ago I noted the importance of “cultural discernment,” the willingness to judge the culture in which we reside and minister lovingly and incisively. Paul did so with Crete especially (cf. Titus 1:12-13). This is simply a tangible acknowledgment of the doctrine of total depravity, that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that there is no one righteous, not even one. If this is true—and it seems to be empirically verifiable—then there are no righteous cultures either. This means that, if we are to be effective ministers in this present cultural darkness, we need to recognize the sinful tendencies of the culture and address them graciously by the gospel of Christ.

 

As I am living now in the United States, and as the bulk of my very limited readership is likewise, I propose to consider some of our peculiar, pervasive sins. For the sake of levity in the midst of much gravity, we’ll call them our “American Idols.” I will mention four, though I suspect this is not an exhaustive list.

 

Egalitarianism:

One would not normally think of equality as a sin or idol, but so it has become in most of the Western world, springing from our uncritical acceptance of democracy. At its root, this is the belief that every opinion has equal value and should therefore be given equal weight. It is at its worst when we applaud and accept every reading of a passage of Scripture in our small groups and education classes, no matter how ill-informed, anachronistic, or inane. Not only is this an unfortunate capitulation to the excesses of postmodernism, but it carries with it an implicit denial of the hierarchy God himself established.

 

God has made it clear that he has given some to be leaders in the local assembly of universal church (cf. Ephesians 4:11), and that they are responsible for the doctrinal purity of the congregation (as even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles would show). I have already written on the damaging effects of this “flip principle” on the church, especially the office of preaching, so I won’t belabor the point.

 

It is worth noting that some of the democratic egalitarianism of the church comes from a faulty application of the priesthood of all believers. While no one would wish to deny the importance of the whole body of Christ in ministering the gospel to each other and the world (cf. Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Peter 2:9), it is an unwarranted leap then to the abolition of the leader-congregant distinction. What the Bible maintains, as in Ephesians 4, I would not wish to deny.

 

Individualism:

America has long prided herself for her doctrine of “rugged individualism.” We have developed asinine proverbs like “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our self-reliance (to use Emerson’s description of this vice he regarded as virtue). We worship the self-made person and seek to emulate those who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” The fact that this is a physical impossibility should have been our first clue that something is amiss.

 

The church has not been immune to this cancer. We have imported this mentality and so diminished the importance of regular fellowship—as well as radically distorting the nature of that fellowship. Consider the habits of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

At one time, the church gathered daily, sharing regular meals together and holding everything in common (including their schedules, it would seem). In marked contrast, many Christians today have a hard time attending church regularly, comfortably skipping if another event conflicts with their regular time of worship. Beyond that, many more find it difficult to fellowship regularly outside of scheduled church activities. Given our current culture of loneliness and isolation in the suburbs especially, it seems people simply cannot make time for Christian community, friendships, and engagement.

 

Unfortunately, this affects more than church attendance statistics. The trouble with this unholy brand of Christian individualism is that sanctification is a community project. Quite simply, we do not normally grow in isolation from other Christians; we need the ministry of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:1-2 and a host of other similar passages). Without the ministry of fellow pilgrims, we will delude ourselves into thinking we have achieved greater holiness than is true; we need loving reminders—living mirrors—of how far short we fall of the standard of God’s Word (James 1:22-24).

 

Remember, God is calling a people for his name, and a people is more than a collection of individuals (1 Peter 2:9). And that people will grow to become the mature body of Christ as a people, not as individuals (Ephesians 4:15-16). John Stott sums it up nicely, with all the necessary holy boldness: “We are not only Christian people; we are also church people.  We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ.  At least I hope so.  I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian.  The New Testament knows nothing of such a person.”[1]

 

Consumerism:

Americans are driven by a consumer mindset. Inundated by an unceasing deluge of advertising—on the road, on the web, on TV, in the paper—really, anywhere they can put it—we have believed the lie. We do deserve it. We should have the latest and greatest. Our lives would be incomplete without those. And the adversary snickers. For we have exchanged shadows for substance, trinkets for the Trinity, things for the King of kings. We have “amused ourselves to death,” to use Neil Postman’s phrase—and the death has been spiritual, not physical.

 

Worse still, we have allowed consumerism to vitiate our experience of worship. At one time, not that long ago, people came to church expecting to meet the living God, to hear a heart-piercing truth from his Word, and to glorify him corporately in song and service. Now, should we even make it to church (see above: indvidualism)—that is, if it is the best program available in that timeslot—we expect to be pleased, appeased, to have our burdens eased. In short, we expect the church to provide for us what we think they should provide for us (see above: egalitarianism)—after all, every other segment of society functions in this way—and if they do not, we will find someone who will. We will vote with our checkbook, so to speak, by taking our tithes and offerings to the competitor, by which we mean another local congregation, where we will restart the cycle.[2]

 

And, even more sadly, many churches have accepted this as the ineluctable status quo, and so reward the fickle and disregard the faithful. It seems more and more churches today are willing to enter into the advertising business, to woo and coddle customers to a spurious gospel of self. To our shame.

 

Litigationism:

Sometimes a neologism is needed. Litigationism is a specific form of egotism in which we consider our rights more important than our duties. When we feel someone has trampled on our rights, we take to the courts with alacrity. I would be hard pressed to think of a more fitting epithet for our culture than “litigious.”

 

The notion of human rights springs from a Christian worldview. God has made us—all of us—in his image, and he has thus endowed us with worth and dignity. No less ardent an anti-Christian than Thomas Jefferson could acknowledge this much.[3] However, the Christian view of rights is actually framed in terms of duties. God does not command us to be loved by others, even our enemies, but to love them; he prohibits murder, for example, not so that we can preserve our lives, but so that we will not take another’s. Our focus, if we are truly Christian, will always be outward (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Such was the example Christ provided for us—an example he expected us to follow (cf. John 13:15, 34-35).

 

It was instructive to me that, next to our dietary habits, this was the aspect of American culture most amusing to my friends from other cultures. When large swaths of humanity find our approach to rights inscrutable, it may be because we are wrong. I have written on the subject already, so, again, I will not belabor the point.

 

It should come as no surprise that pride—the love of self—undergirds all of these sins. C.S. Lewis famously referred to pride as the chief sin, endemic to humanity, the “complete anti-God state of mind” that leads to every other vice.[4] Above all else, Americans love themselves. We are all, in the most painful sense of a familiar phrase, “proud to be an American.”

 

Our pride leads us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, so we expect to have a vote in every proceeding (egalitarianism). Our pride demands we pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, so we neglect the community God provides for us (individualism). Our pride whispers that we have a right to whatever we want, so we expect to be coddled and comforted even in our churches (consumerism). And our pride insists on our rights, so that we will fight anyone who doesn’t do as we please (litigationism).

 

When a single disease produces such pernicious symptoms, we would do well to seek a cure. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

 



[1] The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007): 19.

[2] How do you know if you are a church consumer? Have you ever said something like, “I couldn’t worship today because . . . ,” as though our worship depended on the church’s programming abilities? Do you listen to the sermon critically, to see if the pastor was worth your time, or as if this were God’s Word for you today? What sorts of complaints are you likely to make about the church?

[3] An atheist, however, could not: there is no philosophical sleight of hand convincing enough to rescue dignity for the product of time, chance, and matter, despite the impressive efforts of “charitable” atheists like Luc Ferry.

[4] Mere Christianity, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1996): 110.