Category Archives: Idols

Why Personal Idols Destroy Community

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, 182:

One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.

Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem — idolatry is what we project onto others. Idolatry de-values others and becomes a relational cancer in our families, our communities, and our churches. In other words, personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community.

Lord, Teach Us To Live

J. H. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life (Eerdmans, 1958), 80–81:

The man who finds insufficient pleasure simply in service, simply in self-giving, simply in doing the will of Father in heaven, needs three idols.

He needs money in order to bring his life to a higher level. He needs the powerful spice of honor in order to season the food of life. He needs pleasure in order to quench his thirst after happiness. The three, when brought together in this manner and as it were placed in contrast to the great ideal itself, are idols. They are the trinity of sin. They leer at and lure human life, they pump it dry and then drive it off, and each of the three is an illusion. They are themselves far too poor to be able to satisfy for any length of time the hunger of the human heart.

They are powerful gulfs which tug at the little ship of one’s life, which draw it to the bottom, and there is no human being who can struggle himself free from their attraction. Nobody is above this, with only a single exception.

A consideration of all of the questions of life brings one to the ever more profound acknowledgment that there has been only one man who has known what life was, who has really lived, who has placed Himself beyond these three illusions, who has not bowed down before the trinity of sin — the man Jesus Christ. That is why all the questions of life converge on Him. “Lord, teach us to live!”

He offers the solution: Struggling one, you can live only if you begin with a quiet trust that you are living in a meaningful universe which was conceived and made by the eternal Father. It is possible only if you repose yourself on the confidence that He has given you your existence, your talents and your abilities, and that you have nothing more to do in the place where He has put you than quietly to shine and to serve. If you thus believe that the Father is behind everything and in everything, then you no longer need these three — money, honor, pleasure. Then you can go on your way like a child. Then you have the only true and high ideal of life that is worth the trouble to live for, namely the purpose which the Father has granted you the capabilities to complete.

If you can do this, if you can believe so firmly in Him, believe that everything in the world has its place and purpose to which it has been conceived and assigned by Him . . . but human soul, you are living then, aren’t you? To live is to serve in the confidence that one is placed in a meaningful world, by the hand of the wise Father.

Nobody Does Not Worship

Tim Keller shares this illustration in his new book, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton; 2013), 28–30:

Everybody has got to live for something, but Jesus is arguing that, if he is not that thing, it will fail you.

First, it will enslave you. Whatever that thing is, you will tell yourself that you have to have it or there is no tomorrow. That means that if anything threatens it, you will become inordinately scared; if anyone blocks it, you will become inordinately angry; and if you fail to achieve it, you will never be able to forgive yourself.

But second, if you do achieve it, it will fail to deliver the fulfillment you expected.

Let me give you an eloquent contemporary expression of what Jesus is saying. Nobody put this better than the American writer and intellectual David Foster Wallace. He got to the top of his profession. He was an award-winning, best-selling postmodern novelist known around the world for his fierce and boundary-pushing storytelling. He once wrote a sentence that was more than a thousand words long. And, tragically, he committed suicide. But a few years before that, he gave a now-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. He said to the graduating class,

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god . . . to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before [your loved ones] finally plant you. . . . Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

Wallace was by no means a religious person, but he understood that everyone worships, everyone trusts in something for their salvation, everyone bases their lives on something that requires faith. A couple of years after giving that speech, Wallace killed himself. And this non-religious man’s parting words to us are pretty terrifying: “Something will eat you alive.”

Because even though you might never call it worship, you can be absolutely sure you are worshiping and you are seeking. And Jesus says, unless you’re worshiping me, unless I’m the center of your life, unless you’re trying to get your spiritual thirst quenched through me and not through these other things, unless you see that the solution must come inside rather than just pass by outside, then whatever you worship will abandon you in the end.

Idols Beneath It All

Acts 17:16:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.

In his sermon, “A World Full of Idols” (March 29, 1998), Tim Keller said this:

What did he see? He saw idols under everything.

You say, “Of course he saw idols.” He was distressed because he saw idols. Go to Athens today, you’ll see idols everywhere. There’s Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. There’s Ares, the god of power and war. There’s Apollo, the god of music and art. There’s Bacchus, the god of fraternities. You can go to all of these and say, “Of course, they were out there. They were statues. Everybody can see them.”

But that’s not what the word “see” means. The text could easily have used a simple Greek word for “see,” blepo [βλέπω] or something for “just take a look.” But the word Luke uses to describe what Paul was doing there is the word theoreo [θεωρέω], the word “to theorize” or “to get underneath.” This is the key to working out how to be a Christian in the public world.

Paul saw that underneath all the art, underneath all the business, underneath all the government, underneath all the philosophy, were idols. The real problem with the world is not the bad things, but the good things that have become the best things. He saw what we should see, and this is how it changes the way we do things, that under every personality are idols, under all psychological problems are idols, under every culture are idols, under all moral problems are idols, under all social problems are idols, under all intellectual problems are idols. …

Rather, you have to say, “Jesus Christ is my glory, is my beauty, is my goodness, is my righteousness, is my love, is my meaning.” Then what happens? You’re going to do things differently than other artists. You’re going to dance differently than other dancers. You’re going to do business differently than other businessmen and women.

Naming False Securities

Today on the DG blog I posted some thoughts on the link between faith and joy. Joy in God evaporates when our trust in God grows cold, was my main point. Emails and Tweets are coming in from readers wanting to know more about how to identify false securities (idols) in their own hearts. And perhaps the best list of categories comes from Timothy Keller’s book The Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything, Study Guide (Zondervan, 2010), and especially what he writes on page 40:

Why do we lie, or fail to love, or break our promises, or live selfishly? Of course, the general answer is “Because we are weak and sinful,” but the specific answer is that there is something besides Jesus Christ that we feel we must have to be happy, something that is more important to our heart than God, something that is enslaving our heart through inordinate desires. The key to change (and even to self-understanding) is therefore to identify the idols of the heart.”

After explaining the idolatry theme more closely from Romans 1:18–25, Galatians 4:8–9, and 1 John 5:21, Keller lists particular categories for personal reflection. The idol categories include the following:

“Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…

  • I have power and influence over others.” (Power Idolatry)
  • I am loved and respected by _____.” (Approval Idolatry)
  • I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort idolatry)
  • I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” (Control idolatry)
  • people are dependent on me and need me.” (Helping Idolatry)
  • someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” (Dependence idolatry)
  • I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence idolatry)
  • I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work idolatry)
  • I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement idolatry)
  • I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism idolatry)
  • I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion idolatry)
  • this one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person idolatry)
  • I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion idolatry)
  • my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” (Racial/cultural idolatry)
  • a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring idolatry)
  • my children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” (Family idolatry)
  • Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship Idolatry)
  • I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering idolatry)
  • my political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology idolatry)
  • I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image idolatry)

Then he looks more closely at the first four categories:

If you seek POWER (success, winning, influence)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Humiliation
  • People around you often feel: Used
  • Your problem emotion: Anger

If you seek APPROVAL (affirmation, love, relationships)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Rejection
  • People around you often feel: Smothered
  • Your problem emotion: Cowardice

If you seek COMFORT (privacy, lack of stress, freedom)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Stress, demands
  • People around you often feel: Neglected
  • Your problem emotion: Boredom

If you seek CONTROL (self-discipline, certainty, standards)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Uncertainty
  • People around you often feel: Condemned
  • Your problem emotion: Worry

Wow, that is quite convicting. All of these false securities erode our trust in God, and when our trust in God is gone our joy evaporates and we are left with dehydrated souls. The response is to turn to Christ, and there to find all the security we need eternally and for our daily bread today.

And for more information on Keller’s material here, see his workbook and DVD.

Idolatry

Timothy Keller writes the following in his book The Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything, Study Guide (Zondervan, 2010), page 40:

Why do we lie, or fail to love, or break our promises, or live selfishly? Of course, the general answer is “Because we are weak and sinful,” but the specific answer is that there is something besides Jesus Christ that we feel we must have to be happy, something that is more important to our heart than God, something that is enslaving our heart through inordinate desires. The key to change (and even to self-understanding) is therefore to identify the idols of the heart.”

After explaining the idolatry theme more closely from Romans 1:18–25, Galatians 4:8–9, and 1 John 5:21, Keller lists particular categories for personal reflection. The idol categories include the following:

“Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…

  • I have power and influence over others.” (Power Idolatry)
  • I am loved and respected by _____.” (Approval Idolatry)
  • I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort idolatry)
  • I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” (Control idolatry)
  • people are dependent on me and need me.” (Helping Idolatry)
  • someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” (Dependence idolatry)
  • I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence idolatry)
  • I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work idolatry)
  • I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement idolatry)
  • I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism idolatry)
  • I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion idolatry)
  • this one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person idolatry)
  • I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion idolatry)
  • my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” (Racial/cultural idolatry)
  • a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring idolatry)
  • my children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” (Family idolatry)
  • Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship Idolatry)
  • I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering idolatry)
  • my political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology idolatry)
  • I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image idolatry)

Then he looks more closely at the first four categories:

If you seek POWER (success, winning, influence)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Humiliation
  • People around you often feel: Used
  • Your problem emotion: Anger

If you seek APPROVAL (affirmation, love, relationships)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Rejection
  • People around you often feel: Smothered
  • Your problem emotion: Cowardice

If you seek COMFORT (privacy, lack of stress, freedom)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Stress, demands
  • People around you often feel: Neglected
  • Your problem emotion: Boredom

If you seek CONTROL (self-discipline, certainty, standards)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Uncertainty
  • People around you often feel: Condemned
  • Your problem emotion: Worry

Wow, that is quite convicting.

For more information check out his workbook and DVD.

The Priority of Divine Words

Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 6:50-51:

“The Bible at the very beginning emphasizes that God is not merely an acting God of deed-revelation, but a speaking deity also who shapes language as a medium of intelligible communication with man made in his image. Words are the means of transmitting ideas from person to person: it is not centrally in symbols and visions, but especially in words, that the Old Testament focuses its account of divine-human relationships. Moses the lawgiver reports the Word of God; the prophets impart the revealed Word of Yahweh. The Gospels record three occasions on which the invisible God spoke from heaven to acknowledge Jesus as his unique Son: at his baptism (Mark 1:10; cf. Matt. 3:16 f.; Luke 3:21 f; John 1:32 f.); at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; cf. Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; cf. 2 Pet. 1:17); and shortly before the crucifixion (John 12:27–39). Jesus Christ, moreover, commissioned disciples to “preach the word” (Matt. 10:7, 20, 27:20; John 6:63). The secret of Christianity’s expansion was growth of the apostolic word (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). The orally proclaimed biblical truth, together with the subsequently published Gospel of Christ or teaching of the Bible, was the message of the early Christian church (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2 ff.); the authoritative source of that message was, is and forever remains the transcendent God (1 Thess. 2:2, 13; Gal. 1:11 f.).”

How Personal Idols Destroy Community

Readers of this blog know where I stand on N. T. Wright so I’m not going to take the time to qualify this post and I’ll just jump in by saying that last summer I read Wright’s Surprised By Hope (HarperOne, 2008). The book was okay and while I cannot recommend it I can say that at one point Wright makes very important point about how idolatry undermines community.

Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem—idolatry is something each of us project onto others. Idolatry shapes our value (or de-valuation) of others and carries consequences into our families, our communities, and our churches. He writes,

One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch. (p. 182)

That’s a great point. In other words, idolatry—while at root a heart issue—not only affects the sinner but also the community. Idols dehumanize the heart and cause us to act inhumanely towards others.

This idol-projecting point is also made Mark Driscoll’s latest book Doctrine (Crossway, 2010):

If we idolize our gender, we must demonize the other gender. If we idolize our nation, we must demonize other nations. If we idolize our political party, we must demonize other political parties. If we idolize our socioeconomic class, we must demonize other classes. If we idolize our family, we must demonize other families. If we idolize our theological system, we must demonize other theological systems. If we idolize our church, we must demonize other churches. This explains the great polarities and acrimonies that plague every society. If something other than God’s loving grace is the source of our identity and value, we must invariably defend our idol by treating everyone and everything who may call our idol into question as an enemy to be demonized so that we can feel superior to other people and safe with our idol. (350-351)

Wright and Driscoll provide a sobering warning. Personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community. Personal idols are not isolated in their consequences. We all have something at stake.

Loving with Constancy [marriage]

“After Lucas, the artist, had taken a wife and the wedding was over, he always desired to be next to his bride. He had a good friend who said to him, ‘Friend, don’t do that. Before a half-year is gone you will have had enough of that. There won’t be a maid in your house whom you won’t prefer to your wife.’ And so it is. We hate the things that are present and we love those that are absent. As Ovid wrote, ‘What we may have [does not please us]; it’s what we may not have that excites our passion.’ This is the weakness of our nature. Then the devil comes and introduces hatred, suspicion, and concupiscence on both sides, and these cause desertion. It’s easy enough to get a wife, but to love her with constancy is difficult. A man who can do this has reason to thank our Lord for it. Accordingly, if a man intends to take a wife, let him be serious about it and pray to God, ‘Dear Lord God, if it be thy divine will that I continue to live without a wife, help me to do so. If not, bestow upon me a good, pious girl with whom I may spend all my life, whom I hold dear, and who loves me.’”

Martin Luther, Table Talk [WA TR V no. 5524] p. 214.

HT: T-Bomb

Soul Idolatry Excludes Men Out of Heaven

clarkson-idolatry-3

Timothy Keller, during his recent 2009 Gospel Coalition message on idolatry (The Grand Demythologizer: The Gospel and Idolatry), said the following,

If you want a far better version of the message your getting from me right now, you might want to look up an old worthy Puritan named David Clarkson whose three volume set of works was published by the Banner of Truth a long time ago. In the second volume Clarkson has an unbelievably thorough, typically Puritan, sermon called “Soul Idolatry Excludes Men out of Heaven.”…He says, honestly, physical idolatry, bowing down with your body to a physical image, is not really all that different, and a lot less prevalent, than the real sin which is what he calls “soul idolatry”—bowing down to some thing that probably doesn’t have a physical image, in your heart. In other words you can make anything into an idol—anything at all. Doesn’t have to be a statue. It almost never is.

When I returned home from the conference I pulled Clarkson’s sermon from his works (which are still in print and available for a paltry $42). Here is the full sermon for download:

Soul Idolatry Excludes Men Out of Heaven (37 pages, PDF, 11.4 MB).

Summary

In the detailed sermon, Clarkson labels 13 manifestations of “soul idolatry.” He argues that secret and inner idolatry is equally sinful as physical and open idolatry. Clarkson writes, “He that serves his [inner] lusts is as incapable of heaven as he that serves and worships idols of wood or stone” and later writes, “there are thirteen acts of soul worship; and to give any one of them to anything besides the God of heaven is plain idolatry, and those idolaters that so give it.”

But Clarkson is quick to remind believers of the soul idolatry that remains in us. “Those natures that are most sanctified on earth are still a seminary of sin; there is in them the roots, the seeds of atheism, blasphemy, murder, adultery, apostasy, and idolatry.”

He then presents a list of 13 “soul idols”:

1. Esteem. That which we most highly value we make our God. For estimation is an act of soul worship.

2. Mindfulness. That which we are most mindful of we make our God. To be most remembered, to be most minded, is an act of worship which is proper to God, and which he requires as due to himself alone.

3. Intention. That which we most intend we make our god; for to be most intended is an act of worship due only to the true God; for he being the chief good must be the last end.

4. Resolution. What we are most resolved for we worship as God.

5. Love. That which we must love we worship as our God; for love is an act of soul-worship.

6. Trust. That which we most trust we make our god; for confidence and dependence is an act of worship which the Lord calls for as due only to himself.

7. Fear. That which we most fear we worship as our god; for fear is an act of worship.

8. Hope. That which we make our hope we worship as God; for hope is an act of worship.

9. Desire. That which we most desire we worship as our god; for that which is chiefly desired, is the chief good in his account who so desires it; and what he counts his chief good, that he makes his god.

10. Delight. That which we most delight and rejoice in, that we worship as God; for transcendent delight is an act of worship due only to God; and this affection, in its height and elevation, is called glorying.

11. Zeal. That for which we are more zealous we worship as god; for such a zeal is an act of worship due only to God ; therefore it is idolatrous to be more zealous for our own things than for the things of God; to be eager in our own cause, and careless in the cause of God; to be more vehement for our own credit, interests, advantages, than for the truths, ways, honour of God; to be fervent in spirit, in following our own business, promoting our designs, but lukewarm and indifferent in the service of God; to count it intolerable for ourselves to be reproached, slandered, reviled, but manifest no indignation when God is dishonoured, his name, worship, profaned; his truths, ways, people, reviled.

12. Gratitude. That to which we are most grateful, that we worship as God; for gratitude is an act of worship.

13. When our care and industry is more for other things than for God. We cannot serve God and mammon, God and our lusts too, because this service of ourselves, of the world, takes up that care, that industry, those endeavours, which the Lord must have of necessity, if we will serve him as God; and when these are laid out upon the world and our lusts, we serve them as the Lord ought to be served, and so make them our gods.

But this is only a brief summary of about a quarter of Clarkson’s message. I entrust to you the entire sermon.

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