Modern Idolatry

I think sometimes when we read the Bible and it’s warnings against idolatry we can become a little conceited or arrogant. Because we read things like Exodus 20:4 that says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Our modern, “enlightened” ears find it hard to believe that people would create something and then call it their God. We see it as complete foolishness and folly like Isaiah did in Isaiah 44:16-17: “Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

And while there are many places that still worship something they themselves have made, most of us would never be won over to this kind of faith. We understand that God cannot be made by our hands lest we be God for making Him. So maybe many of you, like me, saw the countless warnings of the Old and New Testament a bit redundant and unhelpful.

But recently I have been doing a group study by a pastor named Timothy Keller and he shared some thoughts on what idolatry truly is. So I wanted to share some of the bits I picked up from it with you because I think it will help us see this dangerous sin lurking in each of our lives.

First, because we do not make carved images like people of ancient times, we must identify our idols. Carved wooden images of before have been replaced with our more modern idols of status, possessions, fame, acceptance, approval, work or even independence. We have not, like we wish to believe, become more intelligent and enlightened than our ancestors. Rather, we have just exchanged the idols of old for new ones to fit our modern culture. So while idols may continue to be something we can hold, (money, possessions, a person), they are more likely something we dream of, want, wish to attain or strive for.

For each person the idol may be different, but if you look deeply they are there. You can find your idol mainly in two ways. First, think of the thing you are most afraid to lose and that is most likely your idol. So for example, if you are worried about people not liking you, then your idol is most likely approval. If you are most worried about your job or career not working as planned or becoming a failure, then you may have a work idol. Secondly, look where you spend your time and money. If all of your time and money is spent trying to make yourself look good, (clothes, make-up, the gym, etc..), then your idol is probably your appearance. If you spend your time and money on a specific social cause, then that may be your idol.

The thing about idols is that not every one of them is inherently bad. Social justice, people liking you and being successful at work are all good things. But they become idols when they take the ultimate or supreme place in our lives. This is why God’s first commandment was “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Because idolatry is a sin we must take this seriously. I hope that each of us can take a long look at our lives, (our greatest fears, our greatest desires, where we spend our time and money), and try to identify which of these modern idols are taking hold in our life.

Secondly, once we have figured out which idols we struggle with, we need to smash them. Just like God commanded the Israelites to smash the idols in their midst, (Exodus 23:24 for example), we too must smash our modern idols. But doing this may be more difficult than it sounds because there is nothing physical to smash most of the time. If you idolize your appearance it doesn’t mean you need to beat yourself up. And if you idolize approval it doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk so people won’t like you. Rather, smashing idols is moving them back down to where they belong and putting God back up where He belongs.

How can this be done? Hard work, will power and trying your best won’t suffice, especially if this particular idol has had a hold on your life for a long time. Also, if you remove this idol it is likely another will fill it’s spot, (many of us struggle with multiple idols so if we take down one another one will pop up quickly). So we must displace the idol or idols in our life with something greater: God.

God alone can and deserves to take the highest place in our lives. He alone is able and He alone is worthy. In order to do this, we first must repent. We must confess to God our idols and not pretend like they are not a problem, (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” 1 John 1:9-10). One we have confessed and recognized this idol in our life, the idol starts to lose it’s power and hold over us. So we first must come to God in humility and confess whatever it is we have placed above Him.

Next, we need to work at replacing the idol with God. This is done by spending more time and money focused on God than our prior idol. This is done by spending more time in prayer and studying God’s Word than on whatever idol took that place before. This is also done by finding greater joy and peace in God alone and recognizing that this idol can never give us the joy and peace that God alone can. And as we continue to do this we begin to see God reigning in our lives where He alone belongs.

Now this isn’t some quick two step process to get yourself idol free. This is something that takes years and will have to be done over and over and over again as new idols pop up in our lives. But if we continue to confess and repent before our Great God and daily crucify our desires and misplaced joys then we can start to have victory over these idols in our life by, through and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So I hope that we can all come to realize what idols are holding power in our lives right now. Look at your time, your money and your fears and see what thing, (maybe even a good thing), is wrongly taking the place of God. Then repent, confess and go back to God for His help. May we not be so arrogant as to think the warnings of idolatry were only for those in the ancient world. May we see these dangerous modern idols for what they are and daily displace them with He alone who is worthy to be Lord of our life.

Being All You Can Be is Not All its Cracked Up to Be

So the last few weeks I have been writing a lot about things we can practically do in order to serve and honor God in our daily lives. And while this is good and necessary, I want to caution us that this is not the point of this blog. In fact, this is not the point of our lives. Living your life in such a way as to honor Christ is important, but if you make it your focus you start to do for duty sake rather than love.

Now I want to make a quick point here. For Christians, trying to be more like Christ is good. It’s called sanctification. Once you have a relationship with Christ you now go through the process of becoming more like him. But if you do not know Christ, this idea of self-improvement is actually sin because you are trying to do so without Jesus. Without Jesus as your foundation, it just won’t work.

I remember when I was growing up there was an advertisement for the army that said “Be all you can be.” Sounds great right? On my own I am decent, but what if I fully unleashed my potential as a human? Wouldn’t that be a great benefit to myself, those around me and my society? We love the idea of becoming a better or more useful person. No one goes to college in order to find a worse job. No one gets married to make their life more lonely or boring. Almost everything we do is done in order to add positively to our lives.

And that’s where the danger lies. Especially when talking about our Christian faith and our walk with God. Learning how to live a more moral life is only good and useful if it is built on a foundation. You could read the Bible, go to Church and even use this blog as a way to make yourself a better person. But all of that would be self-focused and not the point. So what is the point?

The point is that you can’t be all you can be. You can’t improve yourself to the level that you are able to unlock all your hidden potential. There is no secret enlightenment. There is no higher level. There is no finally arriving at my best self now. As much as you improve and better yourself you will still fall short. You will still make mistakes and slip up. It’s called sin, and no matter how hard we study or try, we can’t outrun it. Yes you may become slightly better in some areas, (that’s called maturity), but you will continue to see your actions, thoughts and words all stained with sin.

Look at Paul, a man far better than you or I could ever be:

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” -Romans 7:15-24

So as long as you try to work hard and will your way over sin you’ll continue to miss the point. YOU CAN’T DO IT. That is not something our modern ears like to hear. But it’s true. There is absolutely nothing YOU can do to overcome, cancel out or move beyond sin. But that is exactly where the beauty lies. You don’t have to.

The truth of Christianity is that you can’t, but Jesus did. While most of us these days can admit that no one is perfect, few have an answer for how to solve this sin problem. The main difference between Christians and non-Christians is that we have stopped trying to do it ourselves and rather have asked Jesus to do it for us. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9).

And that’s what the Bible is for. That’s what Church is for. That’s what this blog is for. Not a better you today, but a new you. A completely new person whose identity is found in Christ. Paul teaches us in Romans 6 that our old self was buried and our new self was raised to walk with God. We weren’t meant to grit our teeth and bear it to overcome sin. We were meant to trust in Christ who was and is able to overcome.

So stop reading your Bible, going to Church and reading this blog if you are just trying to be a better person. If you want to hear nice things about how to be a better person watch Oprah or Dr. Phil. But if you want life transformation, come to Jesus. Learn how to have a real, loving relationship with God. The point is not duty and self-improvement. Rather, it is humility and realizing I can’t do it alone. God is looking for relationship, not religion.

Finally, I feel like many of you may wish to believe this, but something is keeping you from the joy of knowing Christ. Usually it is one of two things: either some sin you love too much, or an idol you have made to take the place of God. I just want to ask you, is that sin or that idol really fulfilling? Are you really find a deep, lasting joy in it? These could be family, job, money, sex, pleasure, comfort or even TV. Whatever your sin or idol is, I want you to take a closer look at it and examine if it is really as good as it seems.

So may we stop trying to improve ourselves without first having the love of Christ. May we see that Jesus did what we can not possibly do. May we stop trying to be all we can be, and realize we can’t but He did. May we humbly come to Jesus and become a new creation. May we lay down any sin or idol that may try to take Christ’s place in our lives. And ultimately, may we count it all as loss compared to the surpassing joy found in knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, (Philippians 3:8).

Are You a Doer or a Hearer?

So last week I spent some time reading through the book of James. If you haven’t read James in a while I suggest you stop reading my blog and go read it. It is a very challenging book and one that always convicts me. And this week I wanted to talk about something I think we Christians all struggle with greatly.

I think we have all become really good hearers these days. I mean, look at how we gauge what a good Christian look likes. If I attend Sunday morning Church every week, attend as many small groups or Bible Study’s at my Church as possible, make sure to be at Sunday School and then read my Bible everyday people think I am some sort of super Christian. For some reason, we have equated attendance with spirituality. But that flies in the face of what James says in James 1:22. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

Church and Bible study attendance are very good ways of helping us hear the Word and learn, but these do not make a person a Christian. I fear that many Christians today have lost sight of this. We are now content being hearers, going to get “recharged” or seeking fellowship for ourselves. Rather, the Bible tells us that this kind of faith is really no faith at all, (see the countless examples in the Gospels regarding the Pharisees).

So how do we become doers instead of just hearers? Well I am glad you asked! First, we have to remember that Church, the Bible and everything else isn’t about us. It’s all about God. The problem is that we think Church and the Bible are tools used to help me. I go to Church to get my recharge or I read my Bible to gain useful knowledge that can help me live a better, happier life. This is not Christianity, only extreme arrogance and selfishness! We go to Church to see and worship Jesus Christ. We read our Bible to know God and how we can love, serve and glorify Him. “So whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As long as you are going to Church or reading your Bible for your gain or your glory, you will only be a hearer. Rather, do all things, ALL THINGS, for the glory of God if you want to be a doer.

Secondly we need to learn how to apply what we learn, not just learn more information. Now I am going to suggest something a little controversial here, but stay with me. I think we need to stop going to so many Bible Study’s, Sunday School’s and Churches. Yes you need to be going somewhere for fellowship each week, but some of us are getting ridiculous. I met a few people who attend a study every night! Now we first hear that and think they must really love the Lord, (which I believe they do). The problem is that all of this study leaves little or no time to learn how to practically apply this knowledge.

The Bible is useful in our lives when it produces fruit. We see in Luke 13:6-9 that if you are not bearing fruit you may get “cut down.” I don’t take this verse to mean you can lose your salvation, but rather that if you are busy collecting knowledge but not actively applying it you may have no root to begin with just as the Pharisees didn’t, (see Matthew 23:1-36). The Bible also teaches us that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” (1 Corinthians 8:1). I don’t have an answer for how many Bible study’s we should attend each week, but I will say over attendance can be just as dangerous as under attendance. My advise is find out how many study’s you need so you can learn and apply what you are learning in your every day life.

This is why we see so many “Sunday morning Christians,” (if they truly are even Christians), out there. They come to Church and Bible study’s for the love and encouragement, but once they walk out those Church doors back into the “real world,” you could not tell the difference between them and a non-Christian. This is what it means to be a hearer but not a doer.

And this is the last thing I think we need to do in order to be doers. We need to live radically. I feel like most Christians I meet are more marked by the culture they live in than by the God they live for. Jesus said in Luke 9:26, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

This goes back to the idea of being light in Matthew 5:14-16. If you have the light of Jesus in your life, why would you hide it? Why would you be ashamed of this amazing light just because there is so much darkness around? Like I have said before, light is most effective in the darkest places. So instead of trying to fit in with the culture and society around you we Christians should be living above and beyond our society and culture. How can Christians drive $250,000 cars and own $3 million houses when there are millions who are starving each day? How can we be so consumed with our own lives when so many have yet to hear of this Gospel of Grace?

Next week I will be talking about money. I feel like how Christians approach money is very important, and often we Christians err on one side or the other. My goal is that even our money would show the world that we are doers not just hearers, and that it would shine Jesus’ light to the nations. So let us all stop just hearing and instead begin doing. Let’s be so in love with Jesus that it changes the way we see our everyday life. Let’s use our knowledge for love rather than for self. And most importantly, let’s remember that it’s not about us, it’s all about God.

Sick of Self Help? Drink some water

Every time I go to the bookstore, I am astonished at how large the self-help section is, and how there inevitably always seems to be someone glancing through it. We are all looking for help with the various temptations, sins, and shortcomings that make up our lives. We all want the “7 steps to becoming a better person,” or the “5 secrets for your best life now.” Why was the book “The Secret” a best seller? Just because of its name! People are dieing to know how to improve their lives or find some secret to happiness. But, as people sadly realize, these books and the processes or steps they describe only provide a surface solution. It may make the reader feel better for a time, but in the end they are back in the self-help section looking for another fix. (The real secret in “The Secret” is that it doesn’t work!).

In the secular world, people look to all kinds of various manuals to help them figure out what to do, (Can we all agree there are waaaaaay too many books with the word “Dummy” in the title?). But are Christians any different? As I have said in a previous post, (shameless plug to read my other posts), Christians are also far from perfect. While we have been forgiven we are still going through the process of sanctification in order to be more like Christ. That means we also struggle with temptations, sins and shortcomings and thus need help. So where do we turn? To the Bible of course!

Here’s the catch. People often open the Bible looking for some quick fix to whatever issue they have. They treat the Bible like some self-help book. For example, maybe I have been struggling with the sin of arrogance. So I pray about it and then read every verse in the Bible about why arrogance isn’t good and why humility is best. Is this going to fix my problem? I can tell you from personal experience it most likely won’t. I used to think that in order to overcome sin I only needed to read what the Bible said about it, memorize a couple verses to recite when I was feeling tempted and then use my will power to overcome.

The problem with this approach is that we make the Bible about ourselves and self-help instead of what the Bible was really made to be about. This was the same issue for the woman in the story in John 4: 1-45. We see that she, like many of us today, was looking for happiness in all the wrong places. She thought sleeping around or having a husband might give her happiness, (John 4: 16-18). Or maybe her ancestry or nationality (Verses 11-12). Whatever the case, we know this woman was in need of help. It says in verse 6 that it was the sixth hour, which means about noon. This is important because in that day and culture, women would go out to draw water in the evening due to the heat. For a woman to be drawing water at noon typically meant she was trying to avoid the ridicule and disgrace from the other women. I feel like this woman would love the self-help section at a bookstore today!

But Jesus doesn’t offer self-help, he offers transformation. Just as the Bible is not about self-help, it is all about the glorification of the Father, Son and Spirit. And that is what Jesus offered that woman. He doesn’t offer some guide to happiness or some steps she can take to be successful. Jesus offers Himself. John 4: 13-14 tells us just that. Jesus answer for self-help? JESUS! While the woman was looking for surface changes, Jesus was offering her true life transformation. Just as we often are only looking for some quick fix or guide to whatever sin we are struggling with instead of desiring to be closer to Jesus. The Gospel of John does a great job of showing us over and over again that Jesus is all we truly need.

So whatever temptation, sin or shortcoming you are dealing with this week, I hope that instead of looking for some model or process for self improvement that you would look to Jesus. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scriptures has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7: 37-38). May we all stop seeking self-help and instead seek Jesus. May we all realize that Jesus is to be desired above all this world has to offer. And may we realize that Jesus alone offers true life, happiness and transformation. So if you are needy, lacking or thirsty in anything turn to Jesus and be completely satisfied.