What are the idols of your heart? What are the ways in which you have allowed your heart that is intended to worship God, to worship the golden calves that surround us?[i] There are several ways to diagnose our hearts. Ask yourself the question: what keeps me up when I’m trying to sleep? What do I fear? What do I think about? What do I daydream about? What gets me most excited in life? What do I give myself to? What do you use your time for?[ii]
Often what we will first uncover are the superficial idols. Maybe it’s pornography or adultery, or maybe it’s alcohol, television, or shopping. Or maybe it’s fitness, sports, work, patriotism, or family. Everything can be turned into an idol. And these gods are rarely solitary.[iii] Gods open doors for gods. Culturally, we are often taught therapeutic methods to deal with these idols, often exchanging one idol with another seemingly “good” idol. We exchange pornography for patriotism, alcohol for fitness, television for family and think that we’ve fixed ourselves, but we haven’t. We are still worshiping a god. There are many churches out there who preach the good news of these better gods: family and patriotism and financial security. But these are still gods, and while they are good gifts from the Giver, they are still just gifts.
But there are deeper idols that lurk behind these superficial idols. The enemy is quite content to have us replace these superficial idols with “better” idols that serve the same function in our lives. What lies deeper? What are you trying to get when you crave coming home and collapsing on the couch and watching TV? What need are you filling when you shop?
What lies behind the answers to those questions are the deeper idols. And these too are almost always good on their own. They are gifts from the Giver. If you aren’t a Christian, it’s how you answer the question: what I hope for most in life is _____. Or, if you’re a Christian, it’s how you honestly answer the question: I would be content, if I could have God and ______. What is in that blank? Happiness, power, money, achievement, satisfaction, comfort, security, love, independence, respect?
That last one is my idol of choice. When I’m frustrated or discouraged and able to dig into my heart to figure out what the cause is, it’s usually because my idol of respect is being threatened. I am a master at defending my idol. “I show them respect. Is it too much to ask that they respect me? “I’m just asking for what is owed to me.” “Everyone around me has ______.” “Doesn’t God want me to be ______?”
God desires good things for us, his children, and the best of those things is the purity of our hearts, our holiness. So when I ask, “Doesn’t God want me to be respected?” Or when we ask “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” Or “Doesn’t God want me to be secure?” Or “Doesn’t God want me to be loved?” The answer is yes, but those are all trumped by God’s desire that you are holy and that you worship him alone. And so, God will allow those other good things to be uprooted for that ultimate reason. He will refine us of those idols so that our worship will be set on him alone and our happiness will be found in him alone.
What is God’s response to Israel’s idolatry? He burns with anger. This anger might make us uncomfortable, but it is a holy and a pure anger. God loves us too much to leave us as we are. He is the just judge who will judge wickedness and evil. He will one day purify the earth from all evil and unrighteousness. If God was not angered by idolatry, if God was a “live and let live God,” we would have no hope that one day what was wrong would be made right. We would have no hope that the wickedness in our own hearts would be purged. But it will be.
So God responds ferociously to our idols. It’s startling, but God shapes us as his people by destroying our idols and ridding our hearts of idolatry that we might experience true worship.
Moses spends forty days with God and then comes down to the people worshiping the idols. Furious, he breaks the tablets and God brings his wrath on the people, bringing a plague and destroying those who worship the idols. God actually has those who worship executed. It’s not easy to read.
This doesn’t make sense unless we understand how serious God is about shaping us as pure worshipers. On the mountain, God is manifested as a devouring fire, and when we experience him, we are refined by him.
God loves you and has given his Son that you might enter into an exclusive relationship with him. The Gospel is God’s unconditional love for you on display. It is, in fact, better than unconditional love, it is ‘contra-conditional love,’ a love where Christ bears the consequences of our idolatry.[iv] A love that loves us too much to let us remain as we are. It is a love that does not leave us to our own ways, but transforms us into his likeness, a love that leaves us with the shine of Christ on our faces.
God calls us to put away the shiny things and turn to him so that we might have shining faces. When Jesus calls us to follow, he calls us to be all-in. God can’t be one god among many. If our answer is that in this life will only be content if we have God and _____, then there are idols that must be taken down. When Jesus made it clear that it was all or nothing, many left.[v] Will you leave or will you stay? Will you allow God to shape you as he desires? Will you destroy your idols and be shaped by whole-hearted worship of the true God?
[i] In Timothy Keller’s important book on this subject he says, “The biblical concept of idolatry is an extremely sophisticated idea, integrating intellectual, psychological, cultural, and spiritual categories. There are personal idols… cultural idols… intellectual idols…” Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xix. Keller examines what he considers the three basic categories of idols: love, money, success, glory, and gives prescriptions for how to demolish each one.
[ii] Tim Keller quotes Archibishop William Temple who said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 168.
[iii] See David Powlison’s tremendous “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair’” for a tremendous exploration of this: http://cldibillings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Idols-of-the-Heart-David-Powlison.pdf.
[iv] I borrow this wonderful idea of ‘contra-conditional’ from David Powlison’s “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair’”: http://cldibillings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Idols-of-the-Heart-David-Powlison.pdf.
[v] John 6:66