“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
- Exodus 20:4-6
“I am not asking if you have rival gods. I assume that we all do; they are hidden in every one of us. The question is: What do we do about them? How can we become increasingly clear-sighted rather than remaining in their power? How can we be freed from our idols so we can make sound decisions and wise choices that are best for us and for those around us? How can we discern our idols?
”One way requires that we look at our imagination. Archbishop William Temple once said, ‘Your religion is what you do with your solitude.’ …
“Another way to discern your heart’s true love is to look at how you spend your money. Jesus said, ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.’ (Matthew 6:21) …
“A third way to discern idols works best for those who have professed a faith in God. You may regularly go to a place of worship. You may have a full set of doctrinal beliefs. You may be trying hard to believe and obey God. However, what is your real, daily functional salvation? What are you really living for, what is your real – not your professed – god? A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. …
“A final test works for everyone. Look at your most uncontrollable emotions. Just as a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is roiling, look for you idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and to drive you to do things you know are wrong. If you are angry, ask, ‘Is there something here too important to me, something I must have at all costs?’ Do the same thing with strong fear or despair and guilt. …”
- Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods
I have mentioned a couple of counterfeit gods that I have lately. I mentioned that if I were told that ice cream was poison to me, I’d tell the doctor that I would die happy. Hmmm. I sometimes eat ice cream in my solitude. It is my comfort food when I get angry, fearful, in despair, etc. It’s what I go to if I have unanswered prayer. … I have also mentioned that since I never heard my mother say, “job well done,” I was motivated to hear those words from each boss that I ever had. It’s just that 90%, or more, of my bosses were constitutionally deprived of the ability to praise. That led to frustrated hopes, big time.
But are those bad things? I was driven to do my best and not cheat my employer out of my billed time. I know we all get into trouble when we compare, but I do not know any other employee, many of whom received praise, who didn’t play solitaire on their computer during working hours or spend hours upon hours watching the stock ticker.
And will I drop a bowl of ice cream to run toward Heaven when the gates are open? Absolutely, and for two reasons. One is that what God has to offer in Heaven is better than ice cream, and two, I will no longer have the need for comfort food. I will be in the arms of my Savior.
When Johnny Unitas could not bring the Baltimore Colts back after coming into Super Bowl III late, I cried. Johnny U. was my hero, and he had failed. My Dad yelled at me for crying, which produced even more tears. Frustrated hopes and strong emotions, maybe, just a little? (or maybe, a lot!)
And, never mind where my imagination has gone when in solitude… At times, it might be unprintable, even in today’s world of printing just about everything. Not going there… (But in not going there, does it remind you of what you think about?)
But needing comfort here on earth, like with my ice cream, probably means there are more idols that I need to uproot.
When Rev. Keller mentioned that we all have idols, he referred to the Notes section of the book. He categorizes idols that we have all encountered. Whether we’ve worshipped them is a different story. Here I have my own thoughts on each category of “counterfeit gods.”
Theological idols: Why are there so many denominations? Do you believe all the tenets of the denomination or the church (if non-denominational) where you attend? Being a part of a major denomination that rules on such things every year or so, with the liberal factions wanting to throw out the Bible altogether, I have no idea what the latest rules are. I know that I disagree with the standing confessions of faith that the church uses as its guidance, to some degree. But each of us may be guilty of interpreting Scripture a little off. We are not perfect. Thomas Jefferson did not believe in miracles and carefully cut them out of his Bible, but do we skim over the pages that make us uncomfortable, maybe the pages that expose an idol in our lives that we do not wish to get rid of? Does any of this variation from Scripture change the God we should be worshipping to a god that we have made through our personal interpretation of Scripture?
Sexual idols: Not everyone does it, but porn is easily accessible these days. When our now-eleven-year-old was in fourth grade, other boys on the school bus were showing him how to find porn on his school-provided tablet. Fetishism is another brand of sexual idolatry, but the simple fact that many of us cannot make it through the day unless we become intimate with our spouse (not saying I’m like that), is that not placing a sexual idol before our worship of God?
Magic / Ritual idols: I know people who have practiced witchcraft. I enjoy reading mystery novels, especially the masters of 50+ years ago. The occult and seances were quite common in the writings of the Golden Age Queens of Crime (or the Lethal Ladies of Crime Fiction), especially Allingham and Christie. But George C. Chesbro’s modern sleuth, Mongo Frederickson, has a brother who is married to a witch and most of the novels start with something related to the occult, but the story is usually, but not always, solved in the physical realm. But we don’t have to go that far. Do you read your horoscope for giggles? If you said yes, and your horoscope said to not venture out for evil awaits you, do you make an excuse to stay home? Have you ever had a palm reading or a reading of tealeaves? Have you ever consulted tarot cards or the ‘innocent’ Ouija board? Are there some superstitions that control one behavior of your life or another? (Not talking about walking under a ladder. That’s good safety-minded behavior, but maybe tossing salt over your shoulder. Is it an idol just to know these superstitions?)
Political / Economic idols: How many of you are voting to ‘save’ the USA in the primaries and then in November? How well has that worked out in the past? God wants us to rely on Him. We should pray that we have God-fearing people in charge. We should vote out those who want to remove God from the government proceedings. But our salvation is not found here on earth, especially by the acts of mankind.
Racial / National idols: I used to have a 3x5ft Rebel flag. It was stolen from my ‘secure’ storage when I was sent overseas by the US military. In that storage, I also lost a handmade sketch board that my grandmother took into the woods to do charcoal sketches. I made a claim against the secure US military storage facility and I never even got an apology. The flag could be replaced. The sketch board was my grandmother’s, thus irreplaceable, and I have not found anything like it since. But I digress. My alma mater used to wave rebel flags until forced to change, due to those offended by a piece of cloth. After all, the team mascot was the ‘Rebel.’ It represented school pride, not racism, but others have attached the racist label to it. In this world of being offended (another counterfeit god), we have jettisoned many things that do not relate to racism (or the supposed reason for offense), but national pride, regional pride, state pride… These can become problems. I have heard so many people say that they live in God’s country, and they would never live anywhere else. When I ask them how many states that they have visited other than their home state, most say “None,” but none have said a number more than 10. (You might find a rare exception.) They worship what they know. Have they found the true God within what they know, or are they worshipping only the God that created their neighborhood, since the rest of the world is not fit to live in?
Relational idols: Do you have a close set of friends that are always dreaming up things to do? If so, you are blessed, but that blessing can be a curse when their activity schedule interferes with a daily walk with your Savior.
Religious idols: Have you noticed how the word “ethical” has been commandeered by the global warming alarmists and the ecological alarmists? Moralism and legalism are substitutes for the worship of God. The most moralistic people that I have known were atheists. Legalists can be found among believers, and it’s a trap that I have fallen into on occasion. In being a legalist, you think you are walking along your journey of faith on your steam instead of relying upon God’s strength.
Philosophical idols: I mentioned global warming alarmists and ecological alarmists in the last paragraph. What they are trying to accomplish is admirable to a point. But they have turned their philosophy into a religion to save the planet by human endeavor (even having thinly veiled worship ceremonies), ignoring that our sin caused the problem and that only God can fix it. This being said, we should be reasonable in our efforts to not make things worse. As a scout, I was taught to always leave the campsite in better condition than when we got there, in other words, picking up the previous person’s trash that they left behind.
Cultural idols: Our freedom in Western culture has become such an idol to us that we have given it away, in small chunks, so that we can be ‘free’ to be ‘free’ in a ‘free society’ that is no longer ‘free.’ (I shouldn’t have said that. “THEY“ will be after me.) Yet, cultural idols can extend to families. Have you ever heard someone say, “The ground that I am standing on will remain in my family for [some number of] years?” Did it survive a single generation once they were gone? Hitler’s thousand-year Reich did not last long either. And what of sports loyalties? In the area where I live, church attendance is poor on game days. The sports teams have a cult status, but that may be true in any city. What of church loyalties (based on the building, traditions, social engagements, and not on Theology or Religion as specified above)? I have said it many times. “Being a ‘member’ does not save you. Knowing and trusting the Savior does.”
Deep idols: Here Rev. Keller lists the common things that we all may struggle with: Power idolatry, Approval idolatry, Control idolatry, and Comfort idolatry. Even if you do not have power, approval, control, or comfort, the desire to have them is even stronger. Coveting those things in others becomes a strong sin and clouds our eyes so that we cannot see Jesus clearly.
I tried to identify many sources of idolatry in this post that you may have experienced or may still be struggling with. We do not have the strength to overcome these problems, but God has the strength. We can focus on God. We can read the Bible. We can find strong Christian friends and worship God with them. And when we realize a small root of one of our problems, we can repent.
It is amazing how the fog lifts and we can see Jesus more clearly when we come to grips with an idol and repent of our sin.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.