“You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-4; cf. 4:15-20)
“The human heart is a perpetual factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11.8)
A few months ago over the Christmas break, a number of us read through Tim Keller’s new book Counterfeit Gods together. In striking fashion, Keller examines the central biblical category of idolatry as “the sin beneath all other sins” in our lives (cf. Romans 1:18-32). In correspondence on an email discussion list, one Harvard student posed this penetrating question:
“I have been thinking especially a lot about what [Keller] says on page 156, “God is not one more resource to use to help us achieve our agenda. He is a whole new agenda.” I know everyone struggles with this in life. It is what we have to always remember as Christians, but after reading this book, I realized that I have several of these idols that I had never thought of as “idols.” I think one of the hardest for me is the idol of success. So, this is my question: As young college students, on our way to establishing our lives, how do we know that we are not following the idol of success? How do we know that we are following what God wants us to do in life? Is it ok to set goals about working hard to get a certain job or do something in our lives? Or is that following an idol? How do we find this balance?”
That is exactly the question we ought to be asking as followers of Jesus. To respond rightly, we first need to understand two things clearly. First, what is idolatry? And second, how do we identify the functional idols in our lives? Only then can we intelligently repent of these idols as we give them over the Lord, asking Him to “smash” them to the ground in pieces and unite our hearts to fear and love His name once again (Psalm 86:11).
Biblically speaking, idolatry means–simply put–relating to anything that God has made in ways that we were designed to only relate to Him. As G. K. Chesterton once quipped, when human beings made in the image of God cease to worship their Creator, they do not worship nothing—they worship anything. Thus, “religious” language is often employed in the Bible to describe the connection between people (even atheists!) and their preferred idols: we “worship,” “trust,” “love,” “obey,” “fear,” and “hope” in our idols to give us what only God can give us. Therefore, Keller is on target when he claims that “anything can be an idol, and everything has been an idol” (xvi). Idolatry is rarely self-consciously “religious” (even for Christians). More often than not, it centers upon “secular” realities such as money, relationships, power, pleasure, family, careers, and politics (the list is literally endless). Keller goes on to define idolatry in this way:
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought…An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’…If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.” (xvii-xix)
Another way to put it is that in every act of idolatry we ascribe ultimate value and significance to something (anything!) which is not ultimately valuable and significant (see this book for more on this angle). A crucial inference follows from this: idols consist, inevitably, of the good things that God has made. They are never sinful in and of themselves. To settle for such a reductionistic explanation is to fall prey to a profoundly unbiblical ontological dualism. On the Christian view of things, good and evil are not eternally co-existent or equal. Evil is, finally, nothing but a parasite, disgustingly derivative of God’s primordial goodness.
Nonetheless, the good things that God has created become corrupting, degrading influences in our lives when we substitute them for God. When we receive God’s gracious blessings by faith and with thankfulness, they come to us as enormously good gifts. But when we delight in them more than in God Himself, His good gifts suddenly turn on us to become tyrannical gods, systematically dehumanizing us and turning us into their willing slaves. Idolatry is the sinful disposition that prizes the gift above the Giver.
In Dick Keyes’ perceptive illustration, idols operate spiritually much like our own personal Trojan horses. As they enter the gates of the city (our hearts), we shake with joyful anticipation at the fulfillment they promise to our lonely souls. Unaware to the naive inhabitants of the city, however, hidden enemies crouch silently inside the incoming gift. And these enemies have come to destroy us, without mercy or reprieve, once they get inside. If the approaching gift is granted entrance to where only God should reside, we will be “given over” into the ruthless hands of the very object we once yearned for so desperately. In the end, one way or another, our idols will break us down and dehumanize us. We will reflect God’s image a little less (or perhaps a lot less) after the affair. This is the end game of every good gift that masquerades as a false god.
However, our pursuit is only half complete at this point. As Keller repeatedly points out, one of the recurring consequences of idolatry is self-deception. Rarely do sinful human beings admit or gain realistic awareness of that which has captured them. De facto, our idols are generally quite hidden from us. Rarely do we feel that they are a problem in our walk with God. How, then, can we identify them?
A wonderful starting point is to read David Powlison’s remarkably practical essay, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair.” Looking at 1 John 5:21, Powlison provides us with an insightful means of self-examination:
“Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures…The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry…John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?”
To press in a bit further, I think three “d” words can helpfully function as specific litmus tests of our idolatry. First, the idols in our hearts lead to disproportion in our daily lives. Desire for money or relationship or success (or whatever) is not the problem—the problem is that these desires become inordinate, that they exceed their proper boundaries and limitations. We set our hope more on these things than we do on God—and we fear losing them more than we fear displeasing our Lord. Everything becomes “out of order” in our hearts. We can ask some concrete, specific questions (in God’s presence) of ourselves here. What do we daydream about most frequently? What occupies our attention and passion most regularly and intensely? To what extraordinary ends will I go to attain my worldly ambitions and goals, and how does my seeking of God compare with these?
Second, idolatry always (always!) leads to disobedience. As Keller writes, “a good thing has become a counterfeit god when its demands on you exceed proper boundaries…An idolatrous attachment can lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold onto it” (pp. 23-24). Are we willfully breaking any of God’s commandments in our pursuit of some other end? If so, then we are being wooed by false lovers and need to return to our true Husband. When we love Him, His commands are not burdensome. As Augustine was wont to say—delight yourself wholly in the Lord, and then do whatever you want! Of course, what we now crave will be found along the path of self-crucifying obedience (Psalm 37:4).
Lastly, idolatry tends toward disengagement from mission in the kingdom of God. Perhaps we do not explicitly violate any biblical laws. Perhaps outwardly we seem “balanced” to other Christians. But what pursuits take up the majority of our resources, our time, our energy and our enthusiasm in life? Are we “seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness,” knowing that as we do “all these other things” [the necessities of life] are provided for us by our King and Father (Matthew 6)? Or are we complacent and of not much use to the advancement and spread of the gospel in our particular life context, because we have been seduced and fascinated by something in the world, something (good in itself!) that distracts us from that which is of first importance in the universe?
Much more, of course, could and should be said on this crucial theme. To that end I commend Keller’s wonderful book and Powlison’s sterling essay to you. But the end of the matter, as always, must be repentance and faith. We must seek the Lord and ask Him to forgive us of our adulterous love affairs with “stuff” and trust Him to incline our hearts once more to His beauty, glory and goodness (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). As John Piper contends, the answer to every moral failure and every problem in our lives is a renewed spiritual perception of the beauty of Jesus:
“I have a picture in my mind of the majesty of Christ like the sun at the center of the solar system of your life. The massive sun, 333,000 times the mass of the earth, holds all the planets in orbit…So it is with the supremacy of Christ in your life. All the planets of your life—your sexuality and desires, your commitments and beliefs, your aspirations and your dreams, your attitudes and convictions, your habits and disciplines, your solitude and relationships, your labor and leisure, your thinking and feeling—all the planets of your life are held in orbit by the greatness and gravity and blazing brightness of the supremacy of Jesus Christ at the center of your life. If he ceases to be the bright, blazing, satisfying beauty at the center of your life, the planets will fly into confusion, a hundred things will be out of control, and sooner or later they will crash into destruction.” (Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, pp. 37-38)