The Surprising Depth of Idolatry

Today’s post is by Chris Thomson. Chris blogs at This Oughta Be Good

“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” – 1 John 5:20-21 (ESV)

“An idol is anything in my life that occupies a place that should be occupied by God alone. An idol is something that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves and rouses and attracts me so easily that I give my time, attention and money to it effortlessly.” – Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones

“You’ve distorted your deepest wish by trying to make it into your savior, and now that you finally have it, it’s turned on you.” – Tim Keller

I have always known I have idols. The First Commandment is hard to miss. But it wasn’t until the past couple of years that I have realized just how deeply embedded idolatry is in my life. As my faith has grown and matured the Holy Spirit has brought about new conviction and enlightenment when it comes to objects of my heart’s affection. All of us have readily identifiable idols. These are things that Tim Keller calls “visible surface idols”. They include things like money, career, relationships, health, sex and food. We know that in their originally intended form they are good things. But we also have a pretty good idea that when our sinful desires twist their purpose and their place they begin to control us and become a poison in our lives. As Matt Chandler says, “We have made good things into ultimate things.”

The deeper idols in our lives are not as simple to discern but they are the disease that produces the surface idols. They include things such as power, control, approval and comfort. This is where God has really been working on me. Two of the biggest deep idols in my life are my desire for approval and control.

The first one should have been obvious to me long ago but it wasn’t. I was the high school valedictorian and voted “Most Intelligent” and “Most Likely to Succeed”. Those were nice things but the price was being continually ridiculed by many of my classmates for a majority of my junior high and high school lives. My identity was being “the smart kid” so I consciously vowed to not let that define me in college and beyond. Although I removed the surface idol, I didn’t realize it remained deep inside. So, as I got into my career and began meeting more failures than successes despite hard work, I began to experience depression. My intelligence had turned into my own “little savior”. I still knew I was smart and that meant I could have power, and ultimately comfort, because I could make myself be successful. Even more than that, I felt I was entitled to some measure of success. My identity and self-worth had gotten tied up in what I could do for myself. Britt Merrick’s words ring so true at this moment:

Christian, define yourself exclusively and radically as one beloved of God. Every other identity is an illusion and is false.

The second deep idol really caught me by surprise. It’s really the idol of control. The Holy Spirit spoke to me through Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. In that book, he talks about why the elder brother was so upset at his father’s unbridled joy upon the return of his youngest son. The older brother felt that his father owed him for his loyalty, hard work and devotion. What he felt he was owed was being freely given to a child who, in his brother’s eyes, deserved nothing but scorn and disdain. I realized there was a deep part of me that felt like God owed me when I was doing good things. Of course, the flip side of the coin was also true. I felt like bad things should happen when I sinned. Yes, I thought I understood the concept of grace but my relationship with God was actually works-based under the surface. I wasn’t loving God simply for who He was but rather what He could do for me, and at the same time, basing God’s love for me on what I could do for Him. So when things in my life went poorly despite my best efforts to please my Lord, it left me with confusion and despair.

Both of these idols have one thing in common. They are about me. Even though we were made to worship One who is infinitely greater than us, it seems that our ultimate idol is ultimately us. That leads to some disturbing questions. Why do I place more faith in myself than I do in God? Why do I trust my heart more than God’s heart? Why do I think I know better than God regarding what is best for me?

I can only draw one conclusion. I simply don’t trust that God has my best interests at heart. The world teaches us to look out for ourselves first because we can be assured that we have our best interests at heart but we can’t be certain that anyone else really does. We have all been let down in our earthly relationships. I think I have extrapolated those messages and disappointments into the implicit belief that God will let me down as well. Yes, a ridiculous conclusion given the cross and all the blessings in my life, but we can so easily and subtly make agreements with ourselves that have no basis in reality.

So when the Bible says God is love my initial response is “Yes…but”. I don’t live in a world of absolutes so my knee jerk reaction is to say, “OK, I believe that is true but there has to be more to the story. What am I not being told?” Yet, the more we study the Bible and the more we mature in our faith, the more God shows Himself to be a loving and gracious Father again and again. This eventually changes my response to the Bible’s declarations of God’s goodness to, “Yes…and”. There is more to the story (holiness, for example) but whatever is next will not offset or detract from God’s heart toward me.

If we want to displace these deep idols in our heart, if God is gracious, He might rip them out of our hands. He may do that if He’s merciful. If He’s not merciful like we read in Romans 1, He just lets you continue to chase them. The other way we can displace these idols is if we come to see Jesus Christ as infinitely more beautiful, infinitely more valuable, infinitely more hope giving and worthy of our affections than whatever it is right now for you that’s your savior that you’re looking for it to give you only what Jesus Christ could do. So it’s only when Jesus Christ becomes the predominant affection of your heart that the other things that your heart is giving affection and attention to will be uprooted and replaced. Whatever you’ve been looking to for significance, whatever you’ve been trusting in to make you somebody, whoever you’ve been depending on to make life worth living, look away from that and look to Jesus Christ.(1)

If we aren’t willing to sacrifice relationships, careers, finances, or possessions to do God’s will, they will become idols. Our pursuit should be joy rather than happiness. The former endures while the latter comes and goes in an instant. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that can’t be taken from us while earthly happiness can be snatched in a heartbeat. Let us pursue treasures beyond this world and keep our eyes fixed on the Author and Perfector of our faith.

“If you want to get warm you move near the fire. If you want joy, peace, eternal life, you must get close to what has them.” – C.S. Lewis

“Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.” – Saint Augustine

And when the day is closing in like the stars in the night
I am falling into the pull of the earth and its affections
In me, O Lord, can You create a pure heart
Because I’m afraid that I just might run back
To the things I hate

Satisfy me, Lord, oh
Satisfy me, Lord, oh
Yeah I’m begging You, to help me see
You’re all I want, You’re what I need
Oh satisfy me, Lord
– Tenth Avenue North, “Satisfy”

(1)- Paragraph taken from “Deep Idols” sermon by Beau Hughes at The Village Church, 3/6/11

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