What is the one thing in your life that you can’t imagine living without? Pause for a moment and really think about it. What, if lost or removed from your life, would cause you great pain, despair and depression, removing your passion, drive and sense of self-worth? Perhaps it’s your job, or the money you earn from that job that provides you with a sense of significance and security. Maybe it’s a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, that you are addicted to and literally unable to live without. It could be a relationship, such as that with your boyfriend, wife, parents or children. Perhaps your physical beauty or athletic ability is what defines you; if you were to become injured, disabled or disfigured you would consider your life to be over. It could be a hobby that you have religiously devoted years to, or a possession that you have spent an inordinate amount of time and money obtaining and maintaining. That thing that you are holding onto so dearly could even be something “spiritual,” such as your church or your pastor. Or, particularly in this election year, maybe your current obsession and driving force of your life is loyalty to a particular political candidate or party. Each of us has that thing that gets us out of bed in the morning; the one thing that we truly live for.
Many people hear the word “idol” and immediately conjure up images of ancient statues carved out of wood and archaic rituals of primitive worship. Indeed, even in some modern cultures, the religious pray to, burn incense to and worship actual physical idols. In the Old Testament of the Bible we read story after story of God’s people turning away from Him to worship false gods and idols. However, we are wise to realize that, although most in the modern day do not bow down to inordinate objects in the name of spiritual piety, the human heart’s affinity for false gods is the same now as it was in the beginning of time. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” While you probably won’t find the average American male carving an Ashtaroth pole in his backyard over the weekend, there are millions who bow down and worship the National Football League every Sunday, sacrificing the health of their closest family relationships on the altar of sports. And women are far from exempt; allowing our image-obsessed culture to cause them to worship the idol of beauty; sacrificing their health, time, money and sanity in order to be deemed beautiful by others and ultimately feel good about themselves.
Worshipping the Created
The Apostle Paul identified this problem clearly in Romans 1:22,25, which reads, “And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols(…)they traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself.” The default mode of the human heart is to worship the created rather than the creator. Now, as for the examples given above, there is nothing wrong with a man enjoying sports, nor is there any problem whatsoever with a woman taking care of her physical appearance. The problem comes when we make good things in our lives into ultimate things; when we put anything in our lives in the place of Jesus. In this context, the problem has much deeper implications than the NFL Network or Cosmopolitan magazine. This means that we are capable of taking even the best things in our lives – things that are helpful, necessary and God-ordained – and turning them into gods that we worship. The very moment that our spouse becomes our primary source of meaning and value is the very moment we have made them an idol. When our entire sense of worth rides on raising children who are well-behaved, successful and accomplished, we are elevating them to the place of God in our lives. When work goes beyond fulfilling God’s calling and providing for our families and becomes an endeavor from which we draw our ultimate meaning and purpose, it has become our functional savior. The possibilities are endless. For many, it is not just one thing, but multiple “gods” in which we place our hope, trust, worth, value, time and effort in place of the one true and living God.
The Problem Lies Within
Famed theologian John Calvin once said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” Or, as Pastor Tim Keller paraphrases Calvin’s observation, “The human heart is an idol factory.” Every minute of every day, our sinful human hearts are naturally bent to disbelieve the gospel truth that Jesus is all that we need. In the first chapter of the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul lays out, in painstaking detail, the list of benefits that every Christian has in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. He goes on for about 20 verses and, in the original language, there is not one single break or punctuation mark. Paul is so excited to tell of all that we already have secured for us in the work and person of Jesus Christ that he does not stop to even take a breath! He uses terms like “blessed,” “holy,” “adopted,” “united with Christ,” “rich and glorious inheritance,” “chosen,” “promised,” “guaranteed,” and “made full and complete.” Throughout the writings of the New Testament, and woven throughout the recorded words of Jesus himself, we are told that, through Jesus’ birth, life, death, burial and resurrection, those who trust Him for salvation are made fully complete in Him and given all that we need in this life and the next.
So what’s our problem? Why do we continually settle for less than Jesus himself to be the focus and center of our lives? In Jeremiah 17:9, God tells us, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” God himself tells us that our hearts are not naturally bent towards Him, but away from Him. As such, we are constantly looking for things apart from and outside of what God has given us in order to feel worthy, valuable, powerful, excited and accepted; and the list goes on. Instead of taking God at his word and really believing what the Bible says, we find things that we can tangibly touch and feel in the here and now and turn them into things that we worship with our attitudes, actions, time, resources and hearts. As we read in Romans 6:16, “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey?” Before we know it, things that start out as good, healthy and necessary can quickly become false gods, ripping our attention and affection away from Jesus and wreaking all sorts of havoc in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Jesus is the Answer
So what is the solution to our idolatry problem? As Pastor Tim Keller says in his book Counterfeit Gods, “Idols cannot just be removed, they need to be replaced by God himself.”Intellectual knowledge of God, no matter how extensive, will never be sufficient to satisfy the deep longings of our hearts. A “fire insurance” version of Christianity certainly won’t do, and may not truly be genuine Christianity at all. It is only when we are captivated by the complete acceptance, unchanging approval, endless love and amazing grace that we have in Jesus Himself that our souls will finally find rest in Him. When we understand Christ’s acceptance of us, we no longer have to strive for the acceptance of our spouse, children, co-workers, parents, peers, or anyone else for that matter. Only when we, by faith, believe that our Father truly owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10) and that He will provide for each and every one of our needs (Philippians 4:19), will we find true contentment and end our selfish pursuits for wealth, affluence and materialistic excess. And only when we fall in love with the God who laid His very life down so that we could be made right with Him will our hearts respond in love; finally empowered to lay down the destructive compulsions of drugs, pornography, alcohol and illicit sex. The answer is found not in a change of behavior but in a change of belief. Rest in Jesus. Enjoy His grace. Bask in His freedom. Boast about your weaknesses. Laugh at your shortcomings. Be honest about your struggles. Be a giver, not a taker. Go to the back, not the front. Allow your life to point to Jesus and not to you. Let God pry your idols out of your hands and open them to receive all that is already yours in Christ. Jesus died to give you everything; don’t settle for anything less.