So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three… I Corinthians 13:13
John Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Augustine, who lived in the fourth century and is one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church said, “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used and using anything that ought to be worshiped.” Throughout the Bible there is a consistent and bold warning, avoid idolatry. A cursory reading of some of the passages may lead one to think that idolatry is primarily the building of little statues in order to bow down to them. But the passages on idolatry (see Deuteronomy 4:15-40) give a pattern. First, there is only one God, and our hopes, dreams, life purpose, joy, and fulfillment will only be found when our lives center on Him. Second, God has made everything else, and he made those things to display His glory and to be gifts to people. In the Deuteronomy passage on idolatry they are warned of making carved images of fish, and birds, and rocks, and people, but they are also commanded to be careful when they look up to the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars that they don’t try to bow down and serve them, because they are, “Things the Lord your God has allotted to all peoples… (Deuteronomy 4:19).” See that. First, idolatry includes worship of the universe, not just things they carve. And second, God made them for all people to be enjoyed but not to be the center of our affection. All of God’s gifts should lead us to God. And idolatry happens when we exalt the gift to an ultimate place and worship the gift rather than enjoying the gift and worshiping the giver.
Abraham could have been in great danger of doing this after the birth of Isaac. A 100 year old man finally has a son with his 90 year old wife, it would have been almost natural to make Isaac the center of everything in his life. The story in Genesis 22 is a confrontation of the greatest possible source of Abraham’s idolatry, and beautifully Abe realized that God had the right to demand his idols and offered Isaac willingly. God loves us too much to let His followers wallow in idolatry. He knows that only God will fill the hole and transform our lives. Christ’s death is our victory over idolatry, and the more we look at Jesus the greater the glory we will see and the more we will replace our love for things with love for Jesus, which is what Thomas Chalmers calls the expulsive power of a greater affection.
But we all need to know we are prone to worship other things and that those things, which are often very good things will lead us away from God and eventually replace Him in our lives. So how do we recognize our idols and seek to offer them up as worship rather than getting fixated on them. Simply put, our functional god is whatever we at any moment put our greatest faith in, pull our greatest hope from, and love the most.
When the one true God of the Bible is truly our center, we will rest the hopes of our whole life on Him. We do this by trusting in the cross alone for our forgiveness. We know that Jesus is our only Savior, which leads us away from other functional saviors. But faith and trust also has to do with kingship. In other words, whatever or whoever we ultimately trust is the true king of life. When Jesus is King, we realize that He gets to direct and lead us, and our response is obedience. We realize that we can’t put our faith in other things, or even ourselves, because other kings will wreck us. But when we trust in Jesus, He rescues. On the other hand, when created things are the object of our faith, we begin to trust in those things to rescue and lead us. We believe that if we just had more money our lives would work and our problems solved. Or we trust in education as the true savior, so going to the right schools and getting the right grades will open the right doors and make life work. Or we trust in another person, maybe a boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife to be the one who makes life work and all your dreams come true. All of these are examples of placing faith in someone or something other than God as the only Savior and King.
Idolatry also leads us to find our hope in something other than God. The Scriptures teach us that hope is assurance of the promised outcome given in Scriptures. The Bible promises that there is more to this life, and while God gives blessings here, the greater promise is of restoration and renewal at the resurrection. We are promised a perfect place to life, totally restored lives in the image of Jesus, complete joy in the presence of God forever, and perfect relationships with others for eternity. Not a bad things. Looking to Jesus will lead us to find great joy in this hope. But idols want us to live in the temporary, to see our current problems as too great to handle, and therefore they give us a different projected hope. We picture our lives with perfect little children who will make us feel like our lives have meaning. But those kids grow up and give something very different. We put our hope in our portfolio, believing that a great IRA will lead to years of golf and sipping margaritas, but often the end of life is filled with illness and at the very least hurting bones and empty bank accounts. We put our hope in our work ethic, knowing that if I work hard enough I can have everything I dreamed of, and even when I attain it, my life is empty as I have used people to get what I desired. All idolatry makes great promises and gives us projected outcomes that we want, but it never delivers.
Finally, idolatry is about our ultimate affection. We are called to love God first and most. This means that the center of our affections is on Him, but the outcome is that we can love the other people and things in our lives as we ought. If I love playing sports more than anything, eventually I will get injured or old and I can’t play any more. If I love a person more than anything, I am opening myself up to either abusing or being abusive to that person because I will try to keep from losing him or her. If I love my stuff in an ultimate way, it will master me. This is why Jesus told his disciples that they can’t have two masters, they will love the one and hate the other, or despise the one and cling to the other. What he is saying is that if we seek to split our ultimate affection, eventually the idols in our lives will cause us to despise God, because He will not serve our idols, rather he will demand our love and allegiance and command us to offer our idols. If I love Jesus, I can enjoy football without it being ultimate. I can love my wife and kids for God in a healthy way. I can see my house and stuff as a gift, but I won’t have sticky fingers and I will be generous to others in need.
So, let me encourage each of us to spend some time this week thinking about these three questions. Hopefully we will find that God is our center, and Christ is our hope. But the heart is an idol factory.
1. What am I trusting in to rescue my life and lead my life?
2. Where is my ultimate hope and what am I looking to in order to arrive there?
3. Who or what do I love more than anything else?
The answer to these things is your true God!