Abram and Sarai
At First Baptist Church, where I serve as the Adult Ministries Pastor, we are currently spending time looking at the life of Abraham. Our preaching series is taking us through the chapters in Genesis that tell the narrative of his life. This past Sunday, Pastor Matt preached on Genesis 16 and explained how Abram (that was his name before God changed it to Abraham in Genesis 17) and his wife Sarai grew impatient with God's promise of a son. They took a short-cut to try and fulfill the promise on their own by having a child through Sarai's servant Hagar. In the end, this ended up causing significant conflict for them and their decedents. Abram and Sarai wanted the gift of a son more than they wanted to honor and trust the promise of the giver. You can listen to the full sermon audio here.
It is tempting to look at the actions of Abram and Sarai and condemn them for their short-cut. They were more in love with the gift than the giver. They pursued their own means to satisfy the desires of their hearts. While we may want to validate ourselves by criticizing their choice, we are blind if we think that we are immune from this type of behavior.
The most powerful idols in your life are the ones you don't see and often they are fueled by a disproportionate love for some of God's most treasured gifts.
Moving beyond the less acceptable sins
It is not uncommon for a person to share their testimony of faith and for them to describe how they had formerly succumbed to a pattern of sin, but have now moved beyond the behaviors of their past. Especially when it relates to some of the most common sins we think about (ie. pornography, alcohol abuse, drugs, stealing, gambling addictions, sexual promiscuity, etc.). These are not sin patterns to take lightly. We must fight these with deep resolve and persistence.
Unfortunately, we have created a culture in which people feel lost after they overcome those sin patterns. Once we see consistent victory over these past behaviors, we don't know what comes next. Our definition of sin has become truncated and myopic. We can only see sin as those "really bad" things that we used to do.
The more subtle sins that creep into our lives are the worship of God's good gifts. These idols can become the most powerful and unnoticed sins. And they have the potential of being even more destructive than the more obvious sins we leave behind.
I experienced this process personally in my own journey of faith. As I grew in my commitment to Jesus, I walked through a process of fighting off one of these more "obvious" sins. Eventually, I came to see that I still had idols that I worshiped, only these idols were often associated with many of God's good gifts.
What is an idol?
We commonly associate the word idol with a trinket we might find in an animistic culture or the god of another religion. In the Bible, we see idols such as Dagon (1 Kings 5) that the Philistines worshiped. But idols in American culture are not often found in a god-like entity, but rather a material item, social status or emotional connection. In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Timothy Keller defines an idol this way:
"What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god [idol] is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children , or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving 'face' and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty and your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in Christian ministry (pg. xvii - xviii)."
Idols are anything that surpasses the level of our love and commitment to God. We are more committed to our idols than our God. We are more in love with our idols than our God.
Abram and Sarai were more in love with the prospect of a son than they were with their love and trust for God. As you delve into the story more, it is also apparent that Abram was more concerned about keeping Sarai happy than he was at being committed to trusting the promise he had heard from God. Abram elevated his wife's approval and happiness above his love for God. These are all ways that our idols begin to creep up and sap our love for God.
God's good gifts
The challenging thing about idols is that we often make them out of God's greatest gifts. As Timothy Keller delves into the danger of counterfeit god's, he examines some of our most common idols. He spends a chapter each on the idol of love/relationships, money, success and power. He also talks about how religion and morality can become an idol when we worship our own righteousness.
Love and relationships are good gifts. The opportunity to invest in a loving marriage is a beautiful and sweet gift. Having children who we can care for and see grow into mature adults is a legacy worth leaving. Loving relationships are not bad. They are actually something God has given to us to enjoy and celebrate. Unfortunately, we can twist these relationships into idols. This happens in the person who sacrifices their own integrity in order to receive affirmation from another person. It happens in the sexually promiscuous life that pursues meaning through fulfilling lustful desires. It happens in the young man or woman who spends their time looking for significance in internet pornography instead of developing meaningful relationships with real humans. We begin to love God's gift more than we love God. We make an idol out of it, and idols can be cruel masters.
Money and material possessions are good gifts. Through money, we are able to purchase food, shelter and clothing. With money we are able to enjoy many other elements of God's creation. We can travel to visit family or go to a conference. Through money, we can support the mission of God in the world through churches and ministry organizations. Money is a good gift. But it can easily become an idol. We can quickly become consumed by getting a bigger paycheck, so we can buy a bigger house and nicer car. It does not take long before we love our money and our things more than we love our God.
The most elusive idols come when God's good gifts become our ultimate desires. We begin to love the gift more than the giver.
How do we overcome our idols?
If you read Keller's book, you can get a far more comprehensive solution, but allow me to suggest a few quick steps that can help to remedy your idol worship.
1. Identify your idols
The first step to overcoming your idols is to see which ones exist in you. You can ask yourself some questions: "What thing in my life, if I lost it, would utterly devastate me?" or "Where do I spend my resources of time, money, emotions and mental energy?" or "When I feel sad or hurt, where do I turn to for comfort?"
You can also ask God to help reveal the idols that exist in your life. Ask God to help you see where you are loving his gifts more than you are loving him. You can also ask the people closest to you. Ask them to tell you where they see idols in your life (this might be hard, but also very helpful).
Once you begin to see idols surfaced in your life, you need to take the time to confess them and repent. Confess them to God and repent of the way you have been worshiping these counterfeit gods instead of the one true God. Repentance is not just acknowledging sin through confession, it also includes a desire to change.
3. Remember the Gospel
Once you have repented, remind yourself of the gospel. Tell yourself that "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rm. 8:1)." Remind yourself that "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Ps 103:12)." Remember that the grace of Jesus "is sufficient for you (2 Cor. 12:9)." God has set you free through Jesus. He has given you new life through Jesus. Repent and acknowledge the weight of your sin, but do not stay there. Remember the gospel of Jesus and live in a way that is consistent with the new life Jesus has purchased for you.
4. Elevate the giver - don't minimize the gift
We may assume that in order to not worship these idols we need to minimize their goodness. That will not actually help us much. Because the gifts truly are good. They are God's good gifts for his people. Love, relationships, success, money and righteousness are not bad. We do not need to villainize that which God has given to us as good. The solution is not to minimize the gift. The solution is the elevate the giver. Increase your love and affection for Jesus. Remind yourself of the gospel. Get into a community that helps to cultivate your love and commitment to God.
At times, it may mean that you need to actually remove the barrier that an idol has created by selling the thing you idolize. It may mean that you need to give up an unhealthy relationship or that you need to change careers. Increasing your love for Jesus may require a more radical change. Although, it should be in the service of helping to grow your love and affection for Jesus, not because that good gift is necessarily bad.
5. Ask God for help
You don't have to do this on your own. In fact, you can't do it on your own. Ask God for his help and trust in the work the Holy Spirit will do in your life.
What about you?
I would love to hear from you. What ways have you seen God's good gifts turned into idols? And how have you been able to battle the idols that seem to weasel their way into your life?