Sometimes I wonder if the apostle Paul would say if were to arrive in my city. I suspect it would be pretty similar to what he told the men of Athens, “I see that you are extremely religious in every respect” (Acts 17:22). But unlike the men of Athens, most hearers in London, Toronto, New York, or any number of North American cities would be shocked by these words. After all, we borderline pride ourselves on our irreligion.
Which may reveal just how religious we truly are.
The second commandment forbids God’s people from making idols for ourselves, “whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Many of us read this command, and think, “Don’t worship angels. Don’t make statues or carvings of animals, bugs, birds, fish or anything like that.” Then we look around our houses, smile a bit and say, “Nailed it.”
Which may reveal just how self-deceived we truly are.
What we fail to realize—both in our culture in general and as Christians in particular—is that true and false worship surround us. Idols are everywhere. We are always worshipping something, but it’s rarely the right thing.
Maybe that seems grim, or a bit too broad brush, but hear me out: in our culture as a whole, what are our idols? Celebrity. Sports. Money. Sex. Success… We give ourselves to the pursuit of these things. We work ourselves to death in pursuit of money and power. We devote ourselves to keeping track of the most minute details of the lives of movie stars. We whore ourselves out before the world on “reality” TV.
Before we too quickly give a hearty “amen,” or “Boo to The Bachelor,” let’s also consider the more subtle idols we’ve created in the church. We spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about attendance numbers. And so when lots of people show up, we feel pretty great. When there’s a dip, we feel like something’s wrong in the church. We elevate marriage and children to a place where those who are single feel like they’re second-class Christians, or guilty of some secret sin that not even they’re aware of. And then, there’s the idol that nearly destroyed me and my family: home ownership.
Before our oldest daughter was born, my wife and I worked at decent paying jobs that allowed us to comfortably pay for all our basic needs, our mortgage, plus have a little left over for some fun. When my wife went on maternity leave, money became tighter, but life was pretty manageable. And then we made the decision that Emily should stay home full time. And our income dropped again, down to about $36,000 per year.
And it hurt.
While we learned to stretch a dollar pretty far, as our family grew money only got tighter. And, finally, we hit a wall: either we sacrifice our values and Emily goes back to work in order to keep the house, or we sell the house.
We sold the house.
That might sound like it was pretty easy, but it was anything but. During the years between being super-broke and putting up the sold sign, God was at work powerfully, especially through our reading of Scripture. We read Jesus’ words to “be ready for service” in Luke 12:35, and realized we weren’t. Where He was calling us to, we weren’t prepared to follow. And so He continued to work on us, convicting us of our unhealthy attachment to the idea that being a responsible adult meant owning a house. And in the end, we obeyed. Not because we were so great or wise or anything like that. We obeyed because, over the course of several years, the gospel wore us down.
That tends to be how God works on our idols.
The Holy Spirit continually challenges us to apply this command to our hearts. He brings conviction about the things that demand too much of our attention, when we turn good things into ultimate things. But as He brings conviction, He reminds us of the One who is better than any idol, even the really good things we enjoy.
He points us self-deceived, weak and weary people to Jesus. Jesus, the perfect worshipper, the One who never once made something more important than the Father. Who was always prepared to serve, and always obeyed, even to the point of death. This is who we need to run to when we run from our idols, because He’s the only One worth running to.