GETTING DOWN TO EARTH: PART III
Preaching and Pastoring on Idols – BY DR. TIM KELLER
‘Idolatry’ is a major theme for ‘what ails’ us. It is there all through the Bible as a or the unifying way to describe what is wrong with us—psychologically, intellectually, sociologically, and culturally. But again, the word itself is fairly rare in the NT, but once we get a beat on some key texts and some key words, we will see how pervasive concept is. And if it is the main way to understand what is wrong with us—a pastor, a physician of souls, can’t possibly ignore it.
A. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY – OLD TESTAMENT
The whole story of the Bible—at least in the OT, can be seen as a struggle between true faith and idolatry.
1. In the beginning—idolatry
In the beginning, human beings were made to 1) worship and serve God, and then 2) to rule over all created things in God’s name (Genesis 1:26-28). Instead, we “fell into sin”. But when Paul sums up the “fall” of humanity into sin, he does so by describing it in terms of idolatry. He says we refused to give God glory (i.e. to make him the most important thing) and instead chose certain parts of creation to glorify in his stead. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God…and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator” (Romans 1:21-25). In short, we reversed the original intended order. Human beings came to 1) worship and serve created things, and therefore 2) the created things came to rule over them. Death itself is the ultimate emblem of this, since we toil in the dust until finally the dust rules us (Gen. 3:17-19).
2. The Law—against Idols
The great sin of the Mosaic period is the making of a golden calf (Exodus 32). The 10 commandments’ first two and most basic laws (one-fifth of all God’s law to humankind) against idolatry. 1st command is a prohibition against worshipping other gods; the 2nd command is prohibition against worshipping God idolatrously, as we want him to be. And after God’s entire code of covenant behavior is given in Exodus 2—23, it ended with a summary warning not to make “a covenant with…their gods” (v. 32) lest they “snare you” (v. 33). So “idolatry” sums up all that God’s law is against. Just like Romans 1, Exodus does not envision any “third” option. We will either worship the uncreated God, or we will worship some created thing (an idol). There is no possibility of our worshipping nothing. We will “worship and serve” (Romans 1:25) something, and whatever we worship we will serve, for worship and service are always, inextricably bound together. Whatever most drives us is rooted in worship and whatever we worship drives us. Why? We are “covenantal” beings. We enter into covenant service with whatever most captures our imagination and heart. It “snares” us. Therefore every human personality, every human community, and every human thought-form will be based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance to something.
3. The Psalms—Praying against idols
In the Psalms, the adoration of the people is not only toward God, but also against idols. Psalm 24:3-4—“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol”…The “kabod” or glory of God is, quite literally, his weightiness, his supreme importance. But idols are good things which get more glory in our eyes than God. Therefore we cannot give God worship unless we identify and remove the idols of our heart. This theme is so crucial to John Calvin in his effort to renew worship biblically that his whole theology of worship has been called “the war against idols’.
4. The Prophets—Polemic against idols
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, leveled an enormous polemic against the worship of idols. a) First, an idol is empty, nothing, powerless. The idol is nothing but what we ourselves have made, the work of our own hands (Is. 2:8; Jer. 1:16). Thus an idol is something we make in our image. It is only, in a sense, worshipping ourselves, or a reflection of our own sensibility (Is. 44:10-13). It has no ability or power of its own (Is. 41:6,7); it will eventually rot (Is. 40:20); b) But second, (paradoxically) an idol is a spiritually dangerous power which saps you of all power. This is a triple paradox. Idols are powerless things that are all about getting power. But the more you seek power through them, the more they drain you of strength.
(1) First, the idol brings about terrible spiritual blindness of heart and mind (Is. 44:9, 18). The idolater is self-deluded through a web of lies (Isaiah 44:20). When we set our ‘worship apparatus’ in our hearts upon something smaller than the true God, it produces a ‘delusional field’ which causes us to live in deep denial of the truth and reality. We deny how important the idol really is to us, yet we deny how impotent the idol really is. Also, we deny the bad effects it is having on us.
(2) Second, the idol brings about slavery. Jeremiah likens our relationship to idols as a love addicted person to his or her lover (Jer. 2:25). Once we have come to believe that something will really make us happy, then we cannot help ourselves—we must follow our God. Idols poison the heart into complete dependence on it (Isaiah 44:17); they completely capture our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-5).
Sum: So the OT is understood as a grid of idolatry. God is king, but we tried to keep control and power worshipping and serving created things. They in turn, set up a kingdom of darkness that blinds and enslaves. The prophets say that someday, the King will return and free us. But we can’t read the NT through the grid of idolatry, can we? If is seldom mentioned. And moreover, idolatry is not relevant at all for us today, is it?
B. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY – NEW TESTAMENT
It is typical to think that “idolatry” is mainly an OT phenomenon, but closer examination shows that it is not. A couple of texts provide clues to the fact that pervasive human idolatry was assumed by the New Testament writers.
1 John 5:21
The last verse of 1 John is: “Beloved, keep yourself from idols”. Now idolatry has not been mentioned by John by name once in the entire treatise. So we have to conclude one of two things, Either 1) he is now, in the very last sentence, changing the whole subject (perhaps as an afterthought, but then he does nothing to elaborate or explain his meaning at all)! Or 2) he is summarizing all he has been saying in the epistle about living in the light of (holiness), love, and truth. I think the latter is more reasonable—but the implications are significant. John, in one brief statement, is putting in the negative what he had spent the whole letter putting in the positive. This must mean that the only way to walk in holiness, love, and truth is to keep free from idols. They are mutually exclusive. Under any failure to walk in holiness is some form of idolatry.
In these two verses Paul reminds the Galatians that they had once been enslaved “to those who by nature are not gods. But…how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?” I know that “stoichea” referred to here are much debated, and I won’t go into them here. But it seems safe to assume that Paul is saying: don’t go back to idolatry. But wait! The Galatians may have once been idolaters in the sense of worshiping figures of metal and wood. But the danger in Galatians is following those who are telling them to be circumcised and who are trying to lure them into a biblical moralism, and clouding their understanding of justification by faith alone. So how can he talk of this as a return to idolatry? The implications are again significant. If anything but Christ is your justification—you are falling into idolatry. If you sacrifice to a statue, or seek to merit heaven through conscientious biblical morality—you are setting up something besides God as your ultimate hope and it will enslave you.
1. Idolatry is at the root of all sin—in fact, it is the only way to understand sin.
Galatians 4:8-9 sheds light on the classic text of Romans 1:18-25. This extensive passage on idolatry is often seen as only referring to the pagan Gentiles, but instead we should recognize it as analysis of what sin is and how it works.
v. 21 tells us that the reason we make idols is because we want to control our lives, though we know that we owe God everything. “Though they knew God, they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him.”
v. 25 tells us the strategy for control—taking created things and setting our hearts on them by building our lives around them. Since we need to worship something, because of how we are created, we cannot eliminate God without creating God-substitutes.
vv. 21 and 25 tells us the two results of idolatry: (1) deception—“their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened” and (2) slavery—“they worshipped and served” created things. Whatever you worship you will serve.
No one grasped this better than Martin Luther, who ties the OT and NT together remarkably in his exposition of the 10 commandments. Luther saw how the OT law against idols and the NT emphasis on justification by faith alone are essentially the same. He said that the Ten Commandments begin with two commandments against idolatry. Then comes commandments three to ten. Why this order? It is because the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. In other words, we never break commandments 3-10 without first breaking 1-2. But why would this be? Luther understood that the first commandment is really all about justification by faith, and to fail to believe in justification by faith is idolatry, which is the root of all that displeases God.
“All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, obedience, patience, and chastity of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them…If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…(Part X. XI) Excerpts from Martin Luther, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).
Here Luther says that failure to believe God accepts us fully in Christ—and to look to something else for our salvation—is a failure to keep the first commandment, namely, having no other gods before him. To try to earn your own salvation through works-righteousness is breaking the first commandment. Then he says that we cannot truly keep any of the other laws unless we keep the first law—against idolatry and works-righteousness. Thus beneath any particular sin is this sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.
Sum: The Bible does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and thus not a very rare sin only among primitive people). Rather, the only alternative to true, full faith in the living God is idolatry. All our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are due at root to idolatry—something we make more important than God. There is always a reason for a sin. Under our sins are idolatrous desires.
2. Idolatry is at the root of every heart—it is the only way to understand motivation
There is another word that is very common in the NT which has a strong link to the idea of idolatry. Once we make this connection, we can see an even deeper link between the NT concept of the heart and idolatry.
“If ‘idolatry’ is the characteristic and summary OT word for our drift from God, then ‘lust’ [inordinate desires], epithumiai is the characteristic and summary NT word for that same drift. (See summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Gal. 5:16ff; Eph. 2:3, 4:22; 1 Pet. 2:11, 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14ff, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.) The tenth commandment [against ‘coveting’, which is idolatrous, inordinate desire for something]…also…makes sin ‘psychodynamic’. It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes in Romans 7…the NT merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires…for lust, demandingness, craving and yearning are specifically termed ‘idolatry’ (Eph. 5:5 and Col. 3:5).” – David Powlison in Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair
The author explains here how idolatry moves us to disobedience and sin. He says that unless we believe the gospel and look to the Lord for our salvation, we will look to some idol, and idolatry always leads to ‘overdesires’. For example, if we believe we will only be significant if we make a lot of money, we will be in the grip of an over-desire, “drivenness”, to succeed in our work.
This is why we can say that beneath the breaking of any commandment is the breaking of the first. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in an idol rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. Therefore, in sin we are always ‘forgetting’ what God has done for us in Christ and instead are being moved by some idol.
This is also why the word “epithumia” (for idolatrous, inordinate desires) shows up in all the NT places that treat Christian character, such as the “fruit of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22ff.). It is possible to have a Pharisaical or superficial compliance with God’s law, but out of works-righteousness. This is obedience to the rules, but out of false motives and bad heart-character.
“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” – Belgic Confession 24
The Belgic Confession here states that unless we believe the gospel, we will be driven in all we do—whether obeying or disobeying—by pride (“self-love”) or fear (“of damnation”). We may be obeying God, but we will be only seeking to manipulate him—get blessing from him—through our good works. We will not be obeying him out of delight in who he is in himself. So, apart from ‘grateful remembering’ of the gospel, all good works are done then for sinful motives. Mere moral effort, may restrain the heart, but does not truly change the heart into Christ-like character. Moral effort ‘jury rigs’ the evil of the heart to produce moral behavior, out of self-interest. It is only a matter of time before such a thin tissue collapses.
Sum: This means then, that idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. Why do we ever lie, or fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is “because we are weak and sinful”, but the specific answer is always that there is something besides Jesus Christ that you feel must have to be happy, something that is more important to your heart than God, something that is spinning out a delusional field and enslaving the heart through inordinate desires. So the secret to change (and even to self-understanding) is always to identify the idols of the heart.
3. Idolatry is at the root of all unbelief and, to some degree, every culture.
It is not only that idols are the basis for all personal sins and problems, but they are also the basis for all social and cultural sins and problems. When an individual makes and serves an idol, it creates psychological distortion and troubles; when a family, a group, or country makes and serves an idol, it creates social and cultural trouble.
When we read Paul in Ephesians and Colossians carefully, we see him talking about ‘powers’ that sometimes seem to be demons, but sometimes appear to be forces that we can convert and persuade. I think that what we see is an example of good things—government, business/capital, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge—made idols and thus suffused with destructive (‘demonic’) power. The book of Revelation in particular shows how the state—something quite good in Romans 13—can become evil.
Intellectual and cultural idols stem not just from a disbelief in God but from a basic rejection of the basic gospel. if we reject the truth that all our problems come from a depraved heart, we will have to account for it by ‘demonizing’ some created thing as well as idealizing (ideologizing) of some other created thing. So romanticism demonized culture and idealized nature. Marxism demonized the rich and idealized economic and social factors. It believed that if we manipulated them properly, social problems would evaporate.
The following are a list of some of the more obvious social-cultural idols. (Please remember that what is written below are major generalizations. There are many different forms of socialism and capitalism, for example, which moderate and improve on the fundamental theme I mention. The idea is to show that most ‘ideologies’ are ‘idolatries’. These overlap. The first three are economic-political ideologies; the last two are intellectual-philosophical ideologies).
a. Fascism makes an idol out of one particular race or nationality of culture. It occurs when a culture teaches individuals to say “I am acceptable because I am of the ____race which is far better than ____race(s).” Closely associated with this is the idol of militarism and physical might for coercion. Christianity is neither culturally relativistic nor imperialistic. It knows that not all cultures are equally healthy, but that all cultures are deeply stained by sin and must be judged by the Lord.
b. Socialism makes an idol of the state. It occurs when a culture teaches that our main problems are at root only social, not spiritual and moral. This view relies overly or exclusively on government solutions to re-engineer society. Christianity understands that our problems are rooted in sin which effects both social systems and individual hearts and will make an idol neither out of government nor of private, individual initiative.
c. Capitalism makes an idol of the ‘market’. When a society comes to believe that most or all our problems will be solved by free market competition, it leads people to “worship” success, personal freedom, and the ‘almighty individual’. Today, even advocates of the free market recognize the ‘cultural contradictions of capitalism’, namely, that capitalism and consumerism undermine the very virtues of self-control and responsibility that gave it rise.
d. Relativism makes an idol out of one’s own individual conscience and inner feelings. When a society teaches people “you alone can determine what is right or wrong for you, as long as you don’t steal others’ freedom to have the same choice”, then it has made “choice” an absolute value, and the feelings of the heart a god.
e. Empiricism makes an idol out of nature and scientific investigation. It insists absolutely everything has a natural, scientific cause. Thus it believes science has an answer for everything and will open all doors.
f. Pluralism can make an idol out of the government, too. The government is apparently “neutral” toward religion and holds that truth is ‘relative’. But that means that no religion or faith has the right to call into question government practices.
“[When does the pursuit of a legitimate goal become idolatry, or ‘ideology’?] An ideology arises the moment the end indiscriminately justifies every means…Thus a nation’s goal of material prosperity becomes an idol [the ideology of materialism] when we use it to justify the destruction of the natural environment or allow the abuse of individuals or classes of people. A nation’s goal of military security [becomes an idol [the ideology of militarism] when we use it to justify the removal of rights to free speech and judicial process, or the abuse of an ethnic minority.] – Bob Goodzwaard—Idols of Our Time
But while idols are all about getting power through power and performance, the biblical God can only be approached through repentance—a loss of power. While idolatry is the attempt to manipulate God to obtain power and security/salvation for oneself or one’s group, the gospel is that we are saved by sheer grace, and thus we surrender ourselves in grateful love and become willing, sacrificial servants of everyone. We now become agents in God’s kingdom which comes full of justice and mercy to all who are suffering. The gospel is the end of ideologies.
Sum: At the root of all problems (personal or social), and of all non-Christian philosophies and ideologies is the elevation of some created thing to the place of ultimate worship and ultimate arbiter of truth and meaning.
“The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For although each individual sin retains its proper feature, although it is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet they all fall under the general heading of idolatry…[All murder and adultery, for example are idolatry, for they arise because something is loved more than God—yet in turn, all idolatry is murder for it assaults God, and all idolatry is also adultery for it is unfaithfulness to God.] Thus it comes to pass, that in idolatry all crimes are detected, and in all crimes idolatry.” – Tertullian, On Idolatry Chapter 1
“A careful reading of the OT and NT’s shows that idolatry is nothing like the crude, simplistic picture that springs to mind of an idol sculpture in some distant country. As the main category to describe unbelief, the idea is highly sophisticated, drawing together the complexities of motivation in individual psychology, the social environment, and also the unseen world. Idols are not just on pagan altars, but in well-educated human hearts and minds (Ezekiel 14). The apostle associates the dynamics of human greed, lust, craving, and coveting with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). The Bible does not allow us to marginalize idolatry to the fringes of life…it is found on center stage.” – R. Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God
C. THE CONSTITUTION OF IDOLS
1. THE CONSTRUCTION OF IDOLS
a. Idols form into a system.
How do the particular idol-systems come to be formed in us? How do we come to have our specific idols?
The world, the flesh, and the devil (1 John 2:16,17) are inextricably linked in their influences to produce idols in us. First, our “flesh”, our sinful heart is by nature an “idol factory” (as Calvin put it). Second, the “world”, our social environment, coaxes us into various idols by model and example and sometimes direct appeal. Our family’s idols, our culture’s idols, our classes idols shape us either when we embrace them or reject them for the idol-opposite. Third, the “devil” works in us to stir up and enflame desires into idolatrous bondages. If we leave out any of the three aspects, we will reduce behavior to either “Johnny is bad” or “Johnny is abused” or “Johnny is sick”. But all these approaches are simplistic compared to the Bible. None of our behavior is simply the result of only: a) our inherent nature, b) our environment, or c) our free choice. The Bible is not essentialist (“he was born that way, it is hopeless”), behaviorist (“he is a victim of what they did to him, it’s hopeless”), or existentialist (“it’s all a matter of his choice; he can be whatever he wants to be!”).
“How do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins…Second, people with problems come from families or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. We suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other think, want, fear, value, feel, and do…My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems…Third, behavior is motivated by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. How are we…responsible for our behavior [#1], socially conditioned [#2], and creatures whose hearts are twisted and complex all at the same time without any factor canceling out the others?
The social and behavioral sciences miss this…Human motivation is never strictly psychological [controlled primarily by my feelings] or psycho-social [controlled primarily by my environment] or psycho-social-somatic [controlled primarily by my biological genetic code]. Human motivation is always is always God-relational [we are controlled primarily by what we worship]. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.” – D. Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”
Idolatry can therefore be a useful way to understand very complex, pathological personal and relational patterns of life.
“The things frequently labeled ‘co-dependency’ are more precisely instances of ‘co-idolatry’. People’s typical idol patterns often reinforce each other and fit an uncanny way into a [single, large] idol system, creating massively destructive feedback loops. The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well:
 The idol pattern in the husband…might be a use of alcohol (a) to serve an idol of escape from the pains and frustrations in life, or (b) to serve an idol of self-crucifixion to deal with his periodic guilt and remorse… The idol pattern in the wife…might be a use of rescuing behavior (a) to serve an idol of personal worth by being a martyred savior of her family, or (b) to serve an idol of security by having a male’s love and dependence on her.
Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is ‘logical’ within the idol system…Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character…judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust…Each idol in the system ‘makes promises’ and ‘gives warnings’. Service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accusedness, because idols lie and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who as a liar and murderer from the beginning.”
“Co-dependency literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols which curse and enslave people (e.g. the rescuer or compulsive drinker). But the solution [in this same literature] is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than Bible’s Christ…Self-esteem…acceptance and love from new significant others, [better jobs and careers] create successful versions of the idols ‘fear of man’ and ‘trust of man’. Eufunctional idols do ‘work’ and ‘bless’ with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73)…but the idol system is intact…” – D. Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”
“The idol begins as a means of power, enabling us to control, but then overpowers, controlling us.” – Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God.
b. Idols have a “near” and “far” dimension.
“Far idols” such as power, approval, comfort, and control are more subtle and basic. They are at the roots of your life—“farther” from the surface of things. They are motivational drives. They can work through many ‘near idols’. They are dealt with mainly by a process of repenting and rejoicing (See assignment below and next week’s “Dismantling Idols” Project)
“Near idols” are more concrete and specific objects such as your spouse or your carer. Now these things—your business, your ministry, your music—are extremely good things that you need to detach from the far idols, which are using them. That means they often (even ordinarily) may remain in your life, if they are ‘put in their place’. This is what Augustine meant when he spoke of the “right ordering of our loves”.
How do we do this? Basically, you don’t want to love a near idol less, but rather come to love and rejoice in God more than you do in it—so you don’t try to ‘earn your salvation’ through it. It is important, therefore, to work on your far idols the most, or you’ll feel that your near idol is somehow dirty in itself.
Question your motives, especially when your emotions surrounding your ‘near idol’ makes you bitter, scared, or discouraged. Ask “Why am I so upset?” For idols give a franticness to our work with near idols. Often, after we become Christians (or after we get serious about our Christianity) we will have a period of ‘disorientation’, even a lapse in intensity, as we lose our old idolatrous motivations and learn gradually to pursue our ministry, marriage, and work, for Christ’s sake. But that is an extremely important transition. Jonathan Edwards’ insisted that only when we detach our work from far idols do we actually do the work for it’s own sake. “True” virtue, is to love your music for its own sake, or your spouse for his/her own sake. And you are free to do in the gospel because now you love God for his own sake, not just to get heaven and reward from him. This is what the fullness of grace does. Without the gospel, you will do your work “to get a name” or “to prove yourself”—not for the sake of the work itself.
Sum: Sin cannot simply be resisted at the volitional level through mere will power, but on the other hand, we are not helpless victims. Sin must primarily be rooted out at the motivational level through the application of gospel-truth. We must find what we worship as our functional savior through works-righteousness, in rejection of the gospel of free grace and salvation through Christ. Then we must repent and replace the idol with love and joy in Christ at the same time we are trying to change our behavior.
c. Idols create a ‘delusional field’.
As we have seen, idols spin out a whole set of assumptions and false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness and worth and valuelessness.
“Your idols define good and evil ways contrary to God’s definitions. They spin out a whole false belief system. False gods create false laws, false definitions of honor and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail. ‘If I can ______then my life will be valid.”
This is critical to understand. There is legitimate sorrow, and then there is idolatrous, inconsolable sorrow, that is really the ‘curse’ of the idol. It is saying, “if you don’t have me there IS nothing else that can satisfy you!” There is legitimate guilt, and then there is un-redeemidible guilt. When people say: “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself”—they mean they have failed an idol, whose standards are different than God’s and whose approval is more important to them than God’s.
d. Idols can thrive in a religious environment.
Often it is possible to jettison ‘near idols’ of sex or money and enter the church, but the ‘far idols’ may continue to be served and looked to as our functional righteousness and ‘covering’ rather than Jesus Christ. It is quite possible to serve the idol of approval, power, or control in religious forms. The elder brother in Luke 15 was seeking power and control through obeying the father, while the younger brother was attempting it through disobedience. The lack of a clear ‘near idol’ (like prostitutes) in the elder brother’s life masked what he was really about.
2. THE DE-CONSTRUCTION OF IDOLS
a. The “Moralyzing” Approach.
A very typical approach to personal change among orthodox and conservative Christians can best be called the “moralizing” approach. Basic analysis: Your problem is that you are doing wrong. Repent! This focuses on behavior—but doesn’t go deep enough. We must find out the why of our behavior. Why do I find I want to do the wrong things? What inordinate desires are drawing me to do so? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) to ‘repent and change behavior’ is insufficient, because the lack of self-control is coming from a belief that says, ‘even if you live up to moral standards, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.’ You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all—your particular idolatry.
b. The “Psychologizing” Approach.
A very typical approach to personal change among more liberal religious groups can best be called the “psychologizing” approach. Basic analysis: Your problem is that you don’t see that God loves you as you are. Rejoice! This focuses on feelings, which seems to be “deeper” than behavior—but it also fails to go deep enough. We must also find out the why of our feelings. Why do I have such strong feelings of despair (or fear, or anger) when this or that happens? What are the inordinate desires that are being frustrated? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) ‘God loves you—rejoice!” is insufficient, because the unhappiness is coming from a belief that says, ‘even if God loves you, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.’ You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all—your particular idolatry.
c. The “Gospel” Approach.
Basic Analysis: Your problem is that you are looking to something besides Christ for your happiness. Repent and rejoice! This confronts a person with the real sin under the sins behind the bad feelings. Our problem is that we have given ourselves over to idols. Every idol system is a way of our-works-salvation, and this it keeps us “under the law”. Paul tells us that the bondage of sin is broken when we come out from under the law—when we begin to believe the gospel of Christ’s-work-salvation. Only when we realize in a new way that we are righteous in Christ is the idol’s power over us broken. Sin shall not be your master for you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14). You will only be “under grace” and free from the controlling effects of idols to the degree that you have both: (1) repented for your idols, and (2) rested and rejoiced in the saving work and love of Christ instead.
“If we accurately comprehend the interweaving of…behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then…what was once ‘dry doctrine’ becomes filled with appeal, hope, delight and life. People see the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins…[1. A Psychologizing approach says] ‘you feel horribly and act badly because your needs aren’t being met—because your family did not meet them’…then it says, God accepts you just as you are’…This is not the biblical gospel, however…This approach just soothes the unhappy soul without getting to the source of the pain]. [2. In a Moralyzing approach] Christ’s forgiveness is applied simply to behavioral sins. The solution is typically…an attempt to deal with the motive problems with a single act of housecleaning. There is little sense of patient process of inner renewal…daily dying to the false gods we fabricate.” – David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”
“The faith that…is able to warn itself at the fire of God’s love, instead of having to steal love and self-acceptance from other sources, is actually the root of holiness…It is often said today, in circles which blend popular psychology with Christianity, that we must love ourselves before we can be set free to love others…But no realistic human beings find it easy to love or forgive themselves, and hence their self-acceptance must be grounded in their awareness that God accepts them in Christ. There is a sense in which the strongest self-love that we can have…is merely the mirror image of the lively conviction we have that God loves us. Moralism, whether it takes the form of either deunuciation or “pep talks”, can ultimately only create an awareness of sin and guilt or manufactured virtues built on will power…We all automatically gravitate toward the assumption that we are justified by our level of sanctification, and when this posture is adopted, it inevitably focuses our attention not on Christ but on the adequacy of our own obedience. We start each day with our personal security not resting on the accepting love of God and the sacrifice of Christ but on our present feelings or recent achievements in the Christians life. Since these arguments will not quiet the human conscience we, are inevitably moved either to discouragement and apathy or to a self-righteousness [some form of idolatry] which falsifies the record to achieve a sense of peace…” – Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life
D. A PASTORAL PROCESS WITH IDOLS
1. IDENTIFYING YOUR IDOLS
a. Using ‘Problem Emotions’ to identify idols.
“1. Every self exists in relation to values perceived as making life worth living. A value is anything good in the created order—any idea, relation, object or person in which one has an interest, form which one derives significance…
2. These values compete…In time, one is prone to choose a center of value by which other values are judged…[which] comes to exercise power or preeminence over other values.
3. When a finite value has been elevated to centrality and imagined as a final source of meaning, then one has chosen…a god…One has a god when a finite value is…viewed as that without which one cannot receive life joyfully. (To be worshipped as a god, something must be sufficiently good…Were my daughter not a source of exceptional affection and delight, she would not be a potential idolatry for me, but I am tempted to adore her in a way…disproportional.)
Anxiety [Idolatry and the future]
 Anxiety becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…Suppose my god is sex or my physical health or the Democratic Party. If I experience any of these under genuine threat, then I feel myself shaken to the depths.
Guilt/Bitterness [Idolatry and the past]
 Guilt bcomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…Suppose I value my ability to teach and communicate clearly…If clear communication has become an absolute value for me, a center of value that makes all my other values valuable…then if I [fail in teaching well] I am stricken with neurotic guilt.
 Bitterness becomes neurotically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value]
Boredom/Emptiness [Idolatry and the present]
[8. To be bored is to feel empty, [meaningless] Boredom is an anticipatory form of being dead. To the extent to which limited values are exalted to idolatries…[when any of those values are lost], boredom becomes pathological and compulsive…My subjectively experienced boredom may then become infinitely projected toward the whole cosmos…This picture of the self is called despair [The milder forms are disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism]” – T.C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia – Chapter 6
TESTING FOR THEM:
If you are angry. Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am angry—because I am being blocked from having something I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:
If you are fearful or badly worried. Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am so scared—because something is being threatened which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:
If you are despondent or hating yourself: Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am so ‘down’ – because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:
b. Using ‘motivational drives’ to identify idols.
“An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. All sorts of things are potential idols…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero…If this is so, how do we determine when something is…an idol?
As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol…
–Work, a commandment of God can become an idol if it is pursued so exclusively that responsibilities to one’s family are ignored.
–Family, an institution of God himself, can become an idol if one is so preoccupied with the family that no one outside one’s family can be cared for.
–Being well-liked, a perfect legitimate hope, becomes an idol if the attachment to it means one never risks disapproval.
[Idols] are inflated…suggesting that the idol will fulfill the promises for the good life…Idols tend to come in pairs—[for example] a nearby idol may be a rising standard of living, but the faraway idol is a semi-conscious belief that material success will wipe away every tear…” — Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God.
“…that most basic question which God poses to each human heart: “has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s functional trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?
Questions…bring some of people’s idol systems to the surface. “To who or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security and acceptance?…What do you really want and expect [out of life]? What would [really] make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success?’ These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors.
[This bears] on the immediate motivation of my 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 an idol?” – David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”
We often don’t go deep enough to analyze our idol-structures. For example, “money” is of course an idol, yet in another sense, money can be sought in order to satisfy very different, more foundational or “far” idols. For example, some people want lots of money, but save it) while others want lots of money for access to social circles and for making themselves beautiful and attractive (such people do spend their money on themselves!) The same goes for sex. Some people use sex in order to get power over others, others in order to feel approved and loved, and others just for pleasure/comfort. The following outline can be helpful in letting people consider different foundational “idol-structures”. Dick Keyes calls them “far-idols” as opposed to “near idols”. Remember, these are all alternative ways to make ourselves “righteous/worthy”:
What We Seek Price Willing to Pay Greatest Nightmare Others Feel Prob/Emotion
COMFORT Reduced Stress, demands Hurt Boredom
(Privacy, lack of stress, freedom)
APPROVAL Less independence Rejection Smothered Cowardice
(Affirmation, love, relationship)
CONTROL Loneliness, spontaneity Uncertainty Condemned Worry
(Self-discipline, certainity, standards)
POWER Burdened; responsibility Humiliation Used Anger
(Success, winning, influence)
TESTING FOR THEM:
Circle the thoughts that are lodged in your heart:
Power idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have power and influence over others.
Approval Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am loved and respected by ___________________.
Comfort idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.”
Control idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____________________.”
Other related idols:
Helping idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—people are dependent on me and need me.”
Dependence idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.”
Independence idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.”
Work idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am highly productive getting a lot done.”
Achievement idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am being recognized for my accomplishments, if I am excelling in my career.”
Religion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.”
Individual person idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—this one person is in my life and happy there and/or happy with me.”
Materialism idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.”
Irreligion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and with a self-made morality.”
Racial/cultural idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.”
Inner ring idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.”
Family idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my children and/OR my parents are happy and happy with me.”
Family idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—Mr. or Ms. ‘Right’ is in love with me.”
Suffering idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am hurting, in a problem—only then do I feel noble or worthy of love or am able to deal with guilt.”
Ideology idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my political or social cause or party is making progress and ascending in influence or power.”
Image idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have a particular kind of look or body image.”
Answer these diagnostic questions:
a. What is my greatest nightmare? What do I worry about most?
b. What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live? What keeps me going?
c. What do I rely on or comfort self with when things go bad or get difficult?
d. What do I think most easily about? What does my mind go to when I am free? What preoccupies me?
e. What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?
f. What makes me feel the most self-worth? What am I the proudest of?
g. What do I really want and expect out of life? What really makes me happy?
Summarize: Now that you’ve answered the questions above, look for common themes. Write below what you think are the “functional” masters? What things tend to be too important to you?
2. DISMANTLING YOUR IDOLS
a. First Step – Repent: Taking Down The Idols (Judges 10:10-16; Romans 8:13)
On the one hand, (contra the Psychologizing Approach) you are called to repent. You have been worshipping an idol and rejected the true God. Every idol is the center of some system of works-righteousness by which we are seeking to “earn” our salvation, so you are also trying to be your own Savior. So you must repent. But this actually gives much hope—it means there is something you can do. The Psychologizing Approach, though sympathetic, is not truly empowering, because it leaves us feeling like helpless victims. How do we repent?
(1) NAME THE IDOLS (getting specific)
In prayer, name these things to God. Sample prayer language: “Lord, these are the things I have built my life and heart around…”
Name some “Near” idol or idols:
Name some “Far” idol or idols: