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?

Identifying Idols

January 5th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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bell_idol_louvre_ca_573_%e2%88%9aGod takes idolatry very seriously. The first of the Ten Commandments—and they are given in order of priority—is about idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Nothing else should get pride of place in our lives. He alone deserves our highest devotion, he alone is of infinite worth, and he alone can provide us with the ultimate meaning we seek.


But our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin wisely noted. You see, we are sinners—every one of us—and the root cause of sin is always idolatry. That is, we sin because we value some object more highly than God himself, even though he is the infinitely valuable One. We make something an idol when we attach ultimate value or meaning to something other than him, which is why even good things—marriage, family, achievement, ministry—can become idols if we are not vigilant.


If this is true, we need to pay exceedingly careful attention to our own patterns of idolatry. I will experience no victory over sin unless I see I am treasuring something above the love of Christ. What is it that I treasure more? Or, to put it another way, how can I identify my heart’s idols?


Here are six ways I have found helpful in pinpointing the root idols in our hearts.


  1. You are devastated if you lose it (or never get it). We all experience disappointment and grief when we lose something we treasure, and that is true even if we have not made an idol of it. I am speaking of something else though: an utter devastation—the feeling of being unmade or undone—at the loss of your greatest treasure. We would all feel fear, anger, disappointment at losing our job, for example, but if your self-regard is tied to your career (“I achieve, therefore I am”), then the loss of a job becomes something else entirely. You will soon plunge into despair, desperate because you’ve lost, not just a job, but your very self. (And you can experience this same devastation if you never get the idol you’ve been worshiping—never made partner, never have children, etc.)
  2. You are always dissatisfied in this area. No matter how much you get, you always want more—more money, more fame, more power, more pleasure. Your heart is like the leech’s two daughters crying, “Give! Give!” (Proverbs 30:15). Where do you see that you lack contentment? Dig deep enough, and you will undoubtedly find an idol at the core. Do you always want newer, nicer things? Look for idols of comfort, status, or security. Do you struggle with an addiction? Check for idols of pleasure and self-indulgence. Do you need another degree, another accolade, another promotion? Search for idols of success, approval, or achievement.
  3. You spend your time and/or money on it. Worship demands sacrifice, and we will gladly count that cost to get what we treasure most. Watch your spending habits—time and money—and see what patterns you discern. If you’re spending more time exercising than connecting with your family, I’d be concerned about the idol of health or appearance (and likely the deeper idols of security/control or love/acceptance). If you’re not giving sacrificially to support the work of God’s kingdom because you’re always on five-star vacations, I’d worry about the idols of comfort and self-indulgence.
  4. You are willing to sin to get it. This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s worth teasing out a bit. What sin habits have you formed in your life—and why? Do you find yourself gossiping time and again? You’re probably looking for status or acceptance, and the best way to get yourself in the inner ring is to get someone else out! Do you sit in self-righteous judgment of others? You’ve probably made an idol of your religious performance. Are you in a sexually illicit relationship, or willing to date someone who doesn’t share your religious convictions? There’s a good bet you’re worshiping the idol of human love—marriage, sex, a sense of belonging. Are you a bully, trampling on people in meeting after meeting? I’d check for the idol of power.
  5. Your emotions spike in this area. You don’t just feel happy; you feel elated when that person compliments or affirms you (acceptance, approval). You don’t have a good time; you have a great time when you’re chasing that hobby (comfort, pleasure). You don’t feel hurt; you feel crushed when you receive criticism at work (achievement, success). This is a bit more subjective—some of us feel more deeply than others, many factors contribute to our emotional state, and so forth—but if you see patterns of extreme emotional highs and lows, I’d start asking the hard questions.
  6. You can’t help but mention it—right away. Pay attention to what information you want to make sure people know about you early on. When you first meet someone, how do you introduce yourself? If you’ve listed all your degrees, titles, and credentials by the sixth sentence, for example, I’d check for the idol of status or achievement. This can be subtle, by the way. I knew an older woman who always shared about her singleness when introducing herself, usually right after giving her name. It may have been her approach to her biography, but it may have inadvertently revealed a hidden idol of love (marriage, family, romance, belonging).


Those are some of the ways I have identified the root idols in my own desperately sinful heart.


What are some other ways you’ve used to help you identify idols in your life?