Who, or what is your God?
What do you need to give you a sense of self-worth? Money? Prestige? A career? Family? Relationships?
What are the trappings that enhance your image? A toned body? An expensive car?
Looks can be deceptive. The lady in the designer outfit might have a credit card that is filled to its maximum. The man in the SUV might be working so many hours in the week that his marriage is falling apart and his children have forgotten what he looks like. Things may not be what they seem, yet that still does not stop many people from buying into the deception that they have to be wealthy, successful and sexually active to be satisfied and happy.
For the past few weeks I've been involved in a church wide study based on a series by Tim Keller called "Counterfeit Gods". We've looked at the things which often replace God in our lives, requiring the commitment of our time, effort and resources to achieve them - love and sex, money, power and success, and the acquisition of things which is so prevalent in our modern western culture. Spiritual values, if they are considered at all are often firmly on the back burner.
"Whatever you make an idol of will break your heart." says Tim Keller. Idols create slaves - people riddled with jealousy over what others have; or with anxiety that what they have will be lost, or superseded or taken away. Stock markets crash. Companies fail. Relationships break down. Beauty fades and wrinkles appear. New kids move into the block.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to demonstrate how frail and fallible our idols really are. I recently read the story of a father whose life was completely changed when his young son was diagnosed with autism. All the hopes and expectations he had for his family life and for his son disappeared, as he came to terms with a life that would be profoundly different to what he expected. He wrote of how much the social norms changed for him and how he learned to live in the moment rather than make longer term plans.
"I guess we're all one phone call from our knees." writes Matt Kearney in the song lyrics for "Closer to Love". How true. In the hospital emergency room or oncology clinic, is anyone really worried about what car they'll drive this year? Or what label is on your handbag?
Every Christian struggles with idols and they can be some of the most devious and subtle imaginable. Pride can creep in where humility in the face of God's enormous grace should be. Christians can be judgemental towards those who don't yet know God. Leadership can seem so much more attractive than servanthood. We can be so preoccupied with the medium that we neglect the message. We can transfer all the world's standards to the church community - power, success, finances, individual stardom.
Tim Keller is at pains to point out that many things which can become idols are not necessarily bad or wrong in themselves. It's good to have a healthy marriage and relationships. It's good to work honourably and with effort. Money can be used for beneficial purposes. It's good to study and learn. Godly leaders are needed in many walks of life. It's when aspects of these lose their balance that problems begin.
It's not good to rely on any of these things in place of a relationship with God. We all have a soul that needs nourishing and exercising, as much as our bodies need food and exercise to function. As Plumb sings:
" There's a god-shaped hole in all of us
And the restless soul is searching
There's a god-shaped hole in all of us
And it's a void only He can fill"
We try to fill this hole with all sorts of other things that don't satisfy. Only when we know the triune God of the Bible - God our Father, Jesus Christ His Son and His Holy Spirit, can we know the true joy and relationship that we were created to experience.
In the concluding part of the series, Tim Keller discusses ways to discern and replace idols. Discerning may just involve asking yourself a few pertinent questions. What do you daydream about? What do you spend your money on? What do you want? What happens when things go wrong or you don't get what you want? What's your most uncontrollable emotion?
Replacing idols with God, naturally involves knowing the gospel and committing your life to Christ if you have not already done so and learning to practice spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation and Bible study . Idols can be replaced by repentance and rejoicing. We repent when we realise that we've put someone or something ahead of God. We rejoice when we realise that nothing can compare to the greatness of knowing Jesus as Lord. There's no greater love on this earth. No mansion can compare to what He has awaiting us. No power can stand against Him. He supplies our needs and often blesses us with so much more than we need or want. Yet even beyond this, when we truly know God, we just love Him for who He is and what He's already done and given for us.
"Counterfeit Gods : When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power Let You Down" Timothy Keller Hodder and Stoughton 2009