Nothing hurts us quite like worshiping the wrong thing.
Recall Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings, who starts off as a pleasant Hobbit, but one day finds the ring of power. Immediately he feels an obsessive attachment to it, and must have it and keep it at any cost. As his obsession distorts into worshipful devotion, he begins referring to it as “My precious.” The ring gives him immediate sensory satisfaction and long life, but it also siphons away his dignity until he becomes the loathsome creature, Gollem.
This process captures the human dilemma. Whenever something gives us a little pleasure or satisfaction, or makes us feel important, it’s hard to keep that thing from growing unchecked in our hearts to the point of becoming another god. Idolatry is the sin most commonly spoken against in the Bible, because it’s so easy to fall into. The apostle John had to tell even New Testament believers, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:19).
You read your Bible, pray, and go to church, and you are still vulnerable to this sin. In fact, at any given moment in your life, there’s something either out-of-control, or getting there.
How do we break through the allure of false gods, or simple legitimate things that are gaining too much power over us?
First, let’s identify the real nature of the problem: Many things compete with God for space in our heart.
Matthew 13:3-4, 7 says, “and he [Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed…other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”
Jesus interprets this part of the parable in verse 22: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
This parable then, is about a person who hears the word of God, giving heart-level attention to it. But then the cares of the world within that person choke it–the anxieties of getting and keeping things. The deceitfulness of riches come along, with their false promises of ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment: This is your dream! When it comes true you will finally be happy!
And so the world captures our attention, our energy, and our life plans. It behaves like another God, choking the word of the real God just like a weed competes with crops for light and water and root space.
Ironically, many of these competitors are good.
Classic examples abound of people in the Bible who allowed good things to eclipse God:
- Money. A rich young ruler wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus told the man to leave it all and follow Him, and he would have riches in heaven. But when the guy thought of the name brands and awesome vacations he’d be missing, He simply walked away. God had called him, but a bigger God had said no.
- Ministry. Members of the church in Ephesus became so passionate for Christian work, and its “feel goods,” that they forgot their love for the person of Christ. The events, plans, structure, and strategies allegedly for Jesus crowded out Jesus.
- Children. Eli the high priest had two wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas. He would not discipline them for fear of offending them. His “love” ruined them even further, and damaged the nation of Israel, because he honored them above the Lord. Even Abraham’s greatest trial was the test of his attachment to his son, Isaac. Since children are a gift from God, we should care for them, not worship them.
- Parents. A man in the gospels wouldn’t follow Jesus until he first went and buried his father. No doubt he wanted to honor his parents, but he sought to honor them above Christ. The man’s father was entitled to a place of high respect; the heavenly Father, even more.
- Self-esteem. Ahithophel was reputed to have golden wisdom, but along with the adulation came a king-sized ego and ambition. Finally the situation arrived when his advice was ignored, so he went home and hung himself. Self-appreciation and dreams of the future had become an idol of hot air, and when it met the pin-prick of reality, all was lost.
- Food. Paul said in Philippians chapter 2 that the god of some people was their belly. We can take even the legitimate physiology of life itself—eating, sleeping, and sex—and warp them into false gods.
Tim Keller writes, “We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.”¹
Sometimes we react to these thoughts by assuring ourselves we can have both seed and weed. I know what I’m doing. I’ll give fifty percent of my attention here and fifty there. We can certainly manage to do so for a little while, but you eventually end with either a patch of weeds, or a fruitful field. Never both. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Because he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24).
What are we to do? In ourselves, not much. Only the glory of God can give us victory over idols.
Consider the way God reasons with Israel when He calls them to repent and put away their gods: “I am the Lord, that is my name, my glory I give to no other nor my praise to carved idols” (Isa. 42:8). Glory refers to the expression of all that God is–His love, His kindness, His mercy, His compassion, His righteousness, and His Holiness. He will not allow the reality of these things to be attached to anything less than himself. In Isaiah 46:5 He continues, “to whom will you liken me and make me equal and compare me, that we may be alike?”
His question invites them to be reasonable, to take a hard look at Him, and then at what they were tempted to worship instead of Him. Naturally, the real God would appear incomparable, unless spiritual retardation was obscuring the onlooker.
Watch the effects He has on heavenly beings who are far beyond us in terms of intelligence and position, and, of course, without our earthly blinders. John writes of heaven opened in Revelation chapter 4:
“Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever they cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” (vv. 9-11).
Theologians debate whether those twenty-four elders are angels of authority, or raptured leaders of the church. Regardless, as they see the Lord afresh, they take their crowns (their authority and personal glory), and throw them before the throne as if to say, There is nothing other than this singular glory—I am nothing, and I have nothing, and nothing matters, because I am caught up in the glory of this marvelous person and happy for it to be so!
In the very next chapter, John writes,
“Then I looked and I heard around the throne and the living creatures in the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying what the loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on Earth and under the Earth and in the sea and all that is in them, saying, to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! And the four living creatures said ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (5:11-14).
In chapter 4 it was a song of praise and worship to God the Creator. Here it is a praise and worship to the Son of God the Redeemer, who has poured out His blood for His sin-stained creation.
The themes of glory, beauty, and incomparability come through these passages. No competition can be found anywhere in this scene, nor could any survive the brilliance radiating there. The way to deal with false Gods is to get a glimpse of the real one.
Back when I was a tender lad, I worked a casual position at the U.S. Post office. One day I might be delivering the mail, on another I might be buffing a floor. Some afternoons I was in charge of yard work. My branch had a lawn that was so full of dandelions, you could hardly see a blade of grass anywhere. I told my supervisor, “Look, there are thousands of these things, couldn’t we get some weed killer?” He said, “We put in a request in for a bag of it, but it never showed up. Let let me see what I can do for you.” So he came back and gave me a pair of gloves. To him the solution was easy: pull the weeds.
Your heart is like that lawn, growing things that ought not to be there. The solution, at least on paper, is simple. Pull them. I don’t need to tell you, though, that some of these have become precious to us, and pulling them would be like ripping out a bundle of nerve endings. It would leave an empty cater in your heart, and probably resentment–I had to give that up and I didn’t want to.
But God’s solution isn’t to come along and say, “There’s too much ESPN watching in this house. Get rid of it.” As He leads you to dispose of some things and reduce others to reasonable size, He simultaneously offers you something better—Himself.
First Peter 1:8 says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with Glory.” In the very act of worshiping, though your eyes can’t yet see the glory of God in heaven like in Revelation chapters 4 and 5, you can still somehow sense it.
That’s when idols wither.
It is critical for the entire Christian experience to be an immersion in glory. On the personal level, your prayer, your confession of sins, Bible reading, are not so you can be a “good Christian,” but for the sake of experiencing the glory Peter spoke about. At the intermediate level of involvement with companions and small groups, where we hear the faith and testimonies of people around us, you stand a greater chance of seeing the glory of God than when you’re alone. And then at the level of involvement in the public congregation, when the whole church comes together, the worship and teaching unveils the glory of Christ to us in a way that surpasses that of the small group.
All of it is an idol-crushing experience that never felt so good.
¹ Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), kindle bk, Introduction.