Have you ever finally achieved the promotion you always wanted, or bought the car or house of your dreams, or dated the most beautiful person you’ve ever met…and yet felt strangely empty upon realising that long-held hope or dream? Have you then decided that perhaps there’s something or someone else out there who will make you happy? Are you in an endless loop of striving for something that will bring true fulfilment?
The words idolatry and idol worship typically conjure up images of people in ancient times prone before mythical statues…but the truth of the matter is much closer to home. Tim Keller (referencing De Tocqueville) tells us that when we take the “incomplete joy of this world” (p.xi) and build our entire lives on it… “that is the definition of idolatry.”
Today, the “gods” of beauty, power, money and achievement have assumed the same mythical proportions in our lives and society as the Aphrodites of history. We may not be physical kneeling prostrate before them…but we are nonetheless still in thrall to them. They are subtle, and often so much part of our culture that we fail to see how deeply they have entrenched themselves in our lives and attitudes. Here Keller brings us up short with his definition of an idol, which is anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God.
What’s crafty about idols is that they often take good things - like family, money, love, material possessions - but turn them into ultimate things. We put them at the centre of our lives, because we think they will give us significance and security, safety and fulfilment. But the nasty thing about idols is that they are hard to appease, they drive us into the ground and they can easily start to dominate our lives and break our hearts.
While most of us think we want our dreams to come true, in Romans Paul writes that one of the worst things God can do is to give us over the desires of our hearts. Most of us are familiar with the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, who God commanded him to sacrifice as a burnt offering. Abraham’s son was gradually taking the place of God in his affections, he was becoming a counterfeit God. If God had not intervened as he did, Abraham would have come to love his son more than anything else. So long as Abraham did not have to choose between his son and God, he was unable to see that his love was becoming idolatrous. In a similar way, we may not realise that certain things are becoming idols in our own lives, until we are confronted with a choice.
Whatever the “Isaacs” are in our lives, Keller writes that we need to find a way of “offering them up…to keep from clutching them too tightly…” (p.17). “We have to know, to be assured, that God so loves, cherishes, and delights in us that we can rest out hearts in him for our significance and security and handle anything that happens in life.” (p.17). Keller also warns us that we have to be more than theoretically willing to part with our idols…we actually have to leave them behind and live without them. Some of the most painful times in our lives will be when our idols are removed - but do we have the faith to see this as God’s mercy and the courage to trust that Jesus is all we need.
Tim Keller identifies several of the most common counterfeit Gods:
The search for love
The search for love has enormous power over the human heart and can come to excessively dominate our lives. In the Bible, Jacob certainly thought that the beautiful Rachel would give him happiness, but his idolatry of her led to decades of misery for his family. If you put all the weight of your deepest hopes and expectations onto one person you will crush them with your expectations and they will inevitably disappoint you…”no person, not even the best one, can give you all that your soul needs” (p.39).
Don’t love your partner or spouse less, just make sure that you love and know God more.
Keller remarks that in Western culture the absence of God is being replaced with the love of money. This idol is particularly stealthy in that many people fail to recognise its hold on them, or to identify their attitude towards it as problematic. Greed often hides itself very deeply, and so it’s no surprise that Jesus warns people far more often about it than about sex. Zacchaeus is a stark reminder to us all: his love of money drives him to take one of the most hated jobs in society, to betray his family and his country and live as a pariah in his own society.
Keller helpfully identifies two ways in which we can idolise money. 1) Lovers of money daydream about making more money and what they would buy with it. 2) Trusters of money feel secure and safe because of their wealth. Be warned: greed is not just about the love of money, but also excessive anxiety about it.
When Zacchaeus decided that he wanted to follow Jesus, he immediately realised that money was an issue. He didn’t ask “How much must I give?” but “How much can I give?” Keller writes: “God’s salvation does not come in response to a changed life. A changed life comes in response to the salvation, offered as a free gift” (p.63). We will not change our lives simply by redoubling our efforts; what breaks the power of money over us is a deeper understanding of the salvation of Christ, through which money will cease to be the currency of our security. Beware of “behavioural compliance” that is not accompanied by a complete change of heart, because it will be “superficial and fleeting” (p.68).
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The seductions of success
Many of us are driven by a need to prove ourselves to those around us. But at the end of the day, the satisfaction of achievement quickly fades and we find ourselves needing the next fix. But it’s more serious than that. Personal success can lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest on our own performance. We might even go so far as to expect our achievement to keep us safe from the troubles of life (we are untouchable), in a way that of course only God can. Is your self confidence wrapped up in a need to stay at the top? Remember, we can’t earn our salvation, and we certainly don’t deserve it. Don’t come to God saying “Look at all I’ve done”…God wants us simply to look at Him.
Jesus’ disciples continually asked Jesus when he was going to take power. Instead he served humbly before being tortured and killed. “Jesus’ salvation was achieved not through strength but through surrender, service, sacrifice and death. This is one of the greatest messages of the Bible: God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, the foolish and despised things to shame the wise, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (p.96).
The power and the glory
Keller remarks that we can often look at our political leaders as “messiahs”, political policies as saving doctrine and turn our political activity into a kind of religion. When we deify political causes, we make a god out of having power. Political philosophies can become a saving faith when they become ideological and believe that they have the answer to society’s problems, thereby hiding the real need for dependence on God.
In any society where God is largely absent, sex, money and politics will fill the vacuum, and it’s the reason why political discourse is increasingly polarised. But it’s not only those in positions of power and authority who need to watch out. We can all pursue power in small, petty ways. Power gives us the illusion that we are in control. But success is much more arbitrary than that. Popular culture tells us we can be anything we want to be. But we are the product of 3 things - genetics, environment and personal choices - only one of which we have any control over. In fact most of the forces that make us who we are lie in the hand of God.
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as thought you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:6-7).
Jesus’ example and grace should heal our need for power. By giving up his power and serving, he became the most influential man who ever lived. “Only by admitting our sin, need, and powerlessness, and by casting ourselves on his mercy, will we finally become secure in his love and therefore empowered in a way that does not lead us to oppress others.” (p.125).
Surface and deep idols
One of the most helpful observations in Keller’s book relates to “deep” and “surface” idols. We must be careful not to be superficial in our analysis of our idols. For example, our attitude to money is often a surface idol that says something about a much deeper idol in our hearts. Someone spending too much money on clothes might be responding to a deep desire to look attractive…while someone who refuses to spend money might be driven by a fear of the future, a lack of trust and a need to stay in control. When we reflect on the idols in our lives, we can’t deal with just the surface ones such as money and sex…we need to get to the deep root of the problem. And the root of the problem is almost always the fact that we have not truly grasped our salvation, submitted our lives to God and found our identity in Him. How that manifests itself will be different for each of us.
As well as personal idols such as money and power, Keller warns us against hidden idols within our culture and society that are often much harder to spot:
- Profit - a good thing that can become the ultimate value.
- Idols in our culture - when those around us consider something normal, it can be difficult to discern it for what it is e.g. materialism, beauty, individual freedom or careerism.
- Religion -
- when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false God…when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace
- When spiritual gifts and ministry success are turned into counterfeit gods
- That a virtuous life is deserving of respect.
The complexity of idols
Keller writes that “corporate gods of culture and religion can supercharge personal idols and create a poisonous mix…The idols that drive us are complex, many-layered, and largely hidden from us” (p.133). We have perhaps overlooked the deeper messages in the story of Jonah as it has been appropriated by Sunday schools as a lesson about a man swallowed by a big fish. But it tells us a lot about the complexity of idols in our lives and what they drive us to do. Jonah’s reluctance to go to Ninevah as God said was driven by racial pride, cultural narrowness and a fear of failure. Although Jonah began to realise the truth about God’s grace while in the belly of the fish, Keller argues that at this point it was still only head knowledge. Jonah does then go to Ninevah, but instead of rejoicing in the people’s response to his preaching Jonah rails at God for his compassion, exposing the continued depth of his hatred for the Assyrian race and his belief in his own superiority. And he is still consumed with self-righteousness at the end of the story, although Keller is convinced that he did ultimately have a change of heart.
As with Jonah, it is often under stress, in real life experience, that the true nature of our hearts is revealed. While many of us say that Christ is our saviour - not our career or wealth - Jonah shows us that it is one thing to believe this in our minds and another to let it work in our hearts to affect everything we think and do.
Identifying our idols
If we are willing to make a start in tackling our idols, Keller gives us some helpful pointers. He quotes Archbishop William Temple: “Your religion is what you do with your solitude” (p.168). Where do your thoughts drift when there is nothing else commanding your attention? What do you daydream about?
You may also need to look at how you spend your money (where your treasure is there your heart is also…).
Keller also asks us what our “real, daily, functional salvation” is (p.169). What are you really living for?
What are your most uncontrollable emotions? Why do you feel angry, afraid, despairing or guilty?
Overcoming our idols
Keller describes the process of overcoming our idols as “winning through weakness”. The blessing through the Spirit that is ours through Christ is the only remedy against idolatry. Often, we only discover this after a life of looking for blessing in the wrong places. It may even take an experience of crippling weakness for us to discover it.
“For the foolishness of God is wider than man’s strength, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” 1 Corinthians 1:25
Idolatry cannot be remedied simply by repenting and using willpower to live differently. We must “set out minds on things above” (Colossians 3:1-3). This means “…appreciation, rejoicing and resting in what Jesus has done for you. It entails joyful worship, a sense of God’s reality in prayer. Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol…If you uproot your idol and fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back” (p.172). Keller wisely says that it is when we rejoice over Jesus’ sacrificial love for us that we will be truly convicted of our sin. If we repent out of fear, this is only really self-pity. But when we rejoice in God’s sacrificial love for us - what it cost Him to save us - we learn to hate the sin for what it is.
As we saw earlier, idols are often good things. We don’t want to stop loving things such as work and family, but we must love God more. And this comes down to “rejoicing in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). Rejoicing isn’t about always feeling happy. To rejoice is to “praise God until he heart is sweetened and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else that it thinks it needs” (p.173). We cannot beat our idols intellectually, but by getting the peace that only Jesus gives… a discipline and process that Keller both warns and encourages us will take a lifetime.
***** Readability (5/5): this book is accessible for everyone
**** Application (4/5): no one can fail to identify with much of what Keller says
**** General appeal (4/5): the issues are relevant and the writing style is engaging
* Weekend read or major commitment (1/5): weekend read
*** Challenge (3/5): it’s not Keller’s style to be too direct in his challenge, but nonetheless this book should spur us on to examine our attitudes and idols
***** Would you pass it on to a friend? (5/5): Yes