Idolatry is defined as taking an incomplete joy of the world and making it the centrality of your world. Rampant in mainstream and Christian culture today, people everywhere are bowing down and offering sacrifice to their idols. Of course I am not one of these people—or so I thought. Tim Keller opens the pages of Scripture to shed light on the destructive idolatry within the world—and the church—today. He writes that “internal idol worship within the heart is universal…the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.” Counterfeit gods, however, always disappoint.
As I read this book, I began to see how my own heart had been manufacturing idols. One of the most revealing statements to my heart was the very definition of an idol. Keller defines an idol as “whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’” The opposite is also true, that if I say “I can’t live without that,” then I am dealing with an idol. A recent riding accident left my shoulder in a significant amount of pain, resulting in the need for absolute rest for a week, with the possibility of that being extended to up to six weeks or more. In the aftermath of this announcement, I caught myself thinking that, “I will die if I can’t play volleyball, or Frisbee, or ride, or swim for four weeks, let alone six.” Having just read Counterfeit Gods, my heart checked itself at the realization that my “need” to remain active and fit by competition and sports had become an idol in my life. Keller says of such idolatry that, “when an idol gets a grip on your heart, it spins out a whole set of false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness. It redefines reality in terms of itself.” It is this very occurrence that caused me to want to attempt to play volleyball with my already painful shoulder rather than let it rest in the first place.
Keller writes, “If we are deeply moved by the sign of [Christ’s] love for us, it detaches our hearts from other would-be saviors. We stop trying to redeem ourselves through our pursuits and relationships, because we are already redeemed. We stop trying to make others into saviors, because we have a savior.” To illustrate the heart’s natural tendency towards idolatry, Keller used the familiar Bible stories of Abraham and Isaac, and of Jacob. Explaining his interpretation of these stories, he commented that “the reason for our confusion is that we usually read the Bible as a series of disconnected stories, each with a ‘mural’ for how we should live our lives. It is not. Rather, it comprises a single story, telling how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.”
“Jesus gave up all his treasure in heaven in order to make you his treasure—for you are a treasured people (1 Peter 2:9-10). When you see him dying to make you his treasure, that will make him yours. Money will cease to be the currency of your significance and security, and you will want to bless others with what you have. To the degree that you grasp the gospel, money will have no dominion on you. Think on his costly grace until it changes you into a generous people.” (Keller, 2009) Keller addresses the common idols of relationships, money, success, and power, and for each, shows the power of the gospel to replace these idols in our life.
Before we can address the idols of our hearts, we must first identify them. Unfortunately, they are often very well disguised, for it is rare that an idol is not first something good. David Powlison comments: “…that most basic question which God poses to each human heart: ‘Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s functional trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?’ Questions…bring some of people’s idol systems to the surface. ‘To who or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security, and acceptance?…What do you really want and expect [out of life]? What would make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success?’ These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors.” (Keller, 2009) Once we’ve identified our idols, it is then our responsibility to uproot the idols and replace their worship with that of the living God. Keller warns, “If you uproot the idol and fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol with grow back.” Finally, “Rejoicing in Christ is also crucial because idols are almost always good things. If we have made idols out of work and family, we do not want to stop loving our work and our family. Rather, we want to love Christ so much more that we are not enslaved by our attachments.”
Thus, the sum of the matter is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.”
Keller, T. J. (2009). Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. New York: Penguin Group.