For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God…but they became futile in their thinking…Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for stuff (me)…they exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Romans 1:21-25
I used to think this was the progression that idol worshipers in places like Papua New Guinea followed–some remote island. But not me. I’m not an idol worshiper! I don’t have carved images in my backyard or on my mantel. And I’m not like the pagans in my community who go golfing on Sunday mornings while I’m up early for prayer meeting, Sunday school and church. They have idols, but not me.
Think again. I’ve been slowly working through Brad Bigney’s book, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols with a great group of women. We’re just in the second chapter, so the best is yet to come in this archaeological dig of the heart. I’m just in the first layer of unearthing my own heart. I’m seeing that, though I might cloak my idols in a different veneer, they are there.
Anything I exchange for the one true God is an idol. I can exchange the glory of God for stuff, materialistic things that I can hold on to. And I can exchange the truth of God for any lie that I cling to that I think is easier to hold on to than to really believe what He has promised. That’s my great exchange.
Back in Exodus when the Israelites were waiting for Moses to come back down from the mountain they had Aaron make a golden calf. That seemed so silly to me. They had just seen God part the Red Sea and drown the Egyptian army and all. Now they have to wait 40 days and it’s too long? But God has given us front row seats to His glory too and when He’s not on our timetable we go running off to something or someone else all too easily. We turn to something we can control because we lose the faith or patience or the toughness that it takes to wait it out just a little longer until God delivers.
I remember working at an all girls’ camp and being over a dozen counselors and about 50 teenage girls. The tricky part was that there was a boys camp across the lake and around the bend. So my sleep was disrupted regularly by trying to catch the occasional interlopers. The one that sticks in my mind was a twenty something counselor that was busted hooking up with a guy counselor at chapel point, (of all places) to have sex. Her justification was, “in case she never gets a chance again.” Really? So like the golden calf crowd.
We get jumpy and stay in the drivers seat and exchange the truth of God for a lie. The lie might be that trusting in money is better than trusting in God. Isn’t it funny that we have “In God we trust” on our money (when we really trust in money)? A friend from college stopped in about ten years after and I asked him how he was doing spiritually. He was an engineer in a glass company and was doing quite well. He was shockingly honest and said that he wasn’t doing well spiritually. He said he had the same attitude he used to have when he smoked pot, but now it was money that he was smoking. I looked at him funny, and he said that he was embedded in materialism. No one at church bothered him about it. He said it wasn’t like when he smoked pot, but it was the same rebellion. The good news was when I saw him about five years later and asked him if he was still smoking money, he said he wasn’t. I could tell he was much healthier spiritually.
God isn’t always on our timetable so we get take matters into our own hands, just like the golden calf crowd and we turn to something we can control, says Bigney–even though idols serve us so poorly, and hurt us and cost us. But we think they’re more predictable than God is, and they keep us in the driver’s seat.
2 Corinthians 5:7 says that “We walk by faith, not by sight,” but I think at core we wrestle with that most of the time. The first thing Martha said to Jesus in John 11 was “You’re late,” when she had sent word to him that Lazarus was sick. Jesus didn’t come right away and now he was dead. Don’t we tell God He’s late a lot? Jesus told Martha it was for the glory of God that He waited. In chapter 2 of his book, Bigney says that “God is good, but He’s not safe. He will mess with your life–not just to be messing with it, but to conform you to the image of Christ.”
Jesus came late to mess with Martha and Mary because He had something so much bigger up His sleeve than just healing their brother. He wanted to prove that He was the resurrection and the life and to give them a sneak preview of a huge coming attraction–His own resurrection. And they got front row seats. Wow. Follow Jesus and that’s what He’ll do with you. Put your life on the line and He’ll take your clean little life and turn it into a big, messy one. Is it safe? NO. But like Mr. Beaver told Susan in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Still in chapter 2, Bigney quotes Richard Keyes, from “The Idol Factory,” in No One but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. Keyes says that, paraphrased, we make idols because we don’t want to face God himself and His holiness. So rather than to deal with His lordship, we orient ourselves towards ‘creations,’ and kind of make up our own rules.
In other words, we have the evidence of God within ourselves and in the world, but it’s too demanding to play life by God’s rules. So then we make up our own religion that looks kind of like God’s, but we’re the ones in control. It’s too difficult to really draw near to God, because if you’re entertaining unconfessed sin, or flat out rebelling, you can’t be in the same zip code with God. His holiness will consume you. You’ll go nuts.
Keyes goes on to say, “Since we were made to relate to God, but do not want to face Him, we forever inflate things in this world to religious proportions to fill the vacuum left by God’s exclusion.” That’s why we have elevated sports to such an over the top status, even in Christian families. Bigney words it so well: “As Christians–lovers of Jesus Christ–we have a higher calling.”
As soon as we drift away from Christ and the centrality of the gospel, we start erecting substitutes for God. That’s why our culture is so desperate to make heroes and celebrities our everything and everybody–because of our innate yearning for God and the freedom of His gospel, both of which we as a people have rejected. And we try to fill the void with hero and celebrity worship.
The antidote? Shine a light on your heart, but quickly turn it to Jesus. Read the Gospels, delight in grace and what Jesus has done. Don’t drift. In Sunday School we decided to ask ourselves the question about what we needed to fast from that might have a foothold where it ought not have. Bigney’s question in identifying idols is “Am I willing to sin to get it?”
Where have I exchanged God’s best for a lie, a cheap substitute? Where have I caved to something that is easier than to walk by faith and have chosen instead to walk by sight?
We’re going on an archaeological dig straight into our hearts. I’ll tell you what I find.