Well, this is the third and final week of a series I’ve entitled “Everyday Idolatry – The Empty Promises of Counterfeit Gods”.
And as we’ve discussed, an ‘Idol’ is not necessarily a little statue that you bow down and worship. Rather, it’s something good, (in most cases) that you’ve allowed to become ultimate in your heart.
Things like human love, money, possessions, power, and comfort.
And the general idea in scripture when it comes to false Gods, is not just that God hates it, and God does not tolerate it, but that false Gods, promise to give you things they can never deliver. That lasting satisfaction, lasting peace, lasting fulfillment, can never be found in anything other than God.
C. S. Lewis puts it perfectly in Mere Christianity:
Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they want, and want intensely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.
I am not speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.
Week 1, we laid down some foundational truths to get us all on the same page:
- Everybody worships
- We are surrounded by gods
- Anything can be worshipped
- Most idols live in your heart
And then week 2 (last week), we went through 5 everyday idols that will pop up at some point in most everybody’s life:
- The Idol of Love
- The Idol of Money
- The Idol of Success
- The Idol of Power
- The Idol of Comfort
And I want to get into some real practical stuff for you as we close the series, but I can’t resist the temptation to teach you something that I really think may make a certain section of scripture come alive to you.
So In Exodus, we read about God’s people the Israelites. Well we find the Israelites in captivity, they’re slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh is not a name, it’s a title, for the King or Ruler of Egypt.
God raises up this ruler named Moses. So Moses and his sidekick Aaron, go to the Pharaoh and says on behalf of the Hebrew God (we would say “The Real God”) “Let my people go.”
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’ ” (Exodus 5:1)
Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2)
Well Pharaoh says “I’m sorry, am I supposed to know this God? We have our own Gods. In fact, because you brought it up, I’m gonna make their work even harder. Up until this point, we provided straw for them to make bricks with, now they’re gonna have to go get their own straw to make the bricks. So, way to go, “God of the Hebrews.””
There’s a lot happening in the story, but one of the primary things that’s happening is it’s the one-true-God versus the false God, the idols, of Egypt.
You can see this play out in the competition between the sorcerers of Egypt and Aaron, who is basically Moses’s second hand man. Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, and then the sorcerers come and say “Big deal, we can do that too.” and they throw down their staff’s which also turn into snakes, but then Aaron’s snake-staff eats the other snake-staffs. In a display that the Hebrew God is greater than the God’s of Egypt.
But the competition of the God’s is most profoundly shown in the 10 Plagues sent by God.
Now when most people read it, they think “Man, God is TICKED!!!” And that’s certainly true, but probably not for the reason you think.
See, each plague that God sent had a corresponding god.
And in each case, God is showing that that God can’t deliver on it’s promise.
- Water of the Nile was turned to blood. – Challenged Hapi, the Nile god.
- The frogs. – Challenged Heket, the god of fertility who had the head of a frog.
- Gnats from the dust of the earth. – Challenged Geb, the god of the earth.
- Swarm of flies. – Challenged Khepri, god of creation and rebirth, who was fly-headed.
- Death of cattle. – Challenged Hathor god of protection who had the head of a cow.
- Boils. – Challenged Isis, god of healing.
- Hail and lightning. – Challenged Nut, the goddess of the sky.
- Locusts. – Challenged Seth, the deity of storms and other disasters.
- Darkness. – Challenged Ra, the god associated with the sun.
- Death of the firstborn. – Challenged Pharaoh himself, who was viewed as a deity.
I want to return to a quote that we read in the first week that I hope is becoming clearer to you:
“The central theological principle of the Bible is the rejection of idolatry.” (Michael Allen, Christian Dogmatics)
God will put up with a great many things in the human heart, but there is one thing that He will not put up with in it–a second place. He who offers God a second place, offers Him no place. (John Ruskin – 19th Century writer)
So on your handout, you should see the phrase for the week: Demoted and Dethroned
Martin Luther – Idolatry Fundamental Issue in lawbreaking Martin Luther when writing about the 10 commandments says the commandments begin with a command against idolatry. Why does it come first? Well, Luther argues that it’s first because idolatry is the fundamental issue in all lawbreaking, and that we never break any of the other commandments without breaking the first one.
So we’re not going to question whether or not we have rival Gods. We assume that we all do.
The question is: What do we do about them? How do we demote and dethrone them?
Well, I’ve got 3 steps and these are you fill-ins:
How do you identify your idols?
Some people who are, in my opinion, extreme on the grace side of things will say we’re not supposed to even have awareness of our sin. Well, that is dumb. Paul, James, and John all tell us to confess our sins to each other so that we may be healed from them. And I don’t see how we can confess things that we’re not aware of.
Here’s 3 places you can look when you’re working to identify idols.
1. Your Thoughts
“Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” (Archbishop William Temple)
In other words, he’s saying that your real God is where your thoughts go when you’re not paying attention. When nothings demanding your attention, what do you daydream about?
Does your mind wander to:
- What you would do if you had more money?
- The career you wish you had pursued?
- The person you wish you had a relationship with?
It can also be in the negative sense:
- The person who hurt you
- The inconveniences that rob you of being comfortable
- The things or people you’re scared of losing
- The diseases that you’re scared of getting
What is it that lives rent free in your head?
Now look, thinking about things doesn’t mean you idolize them. But excessive thought can tip you off to things that might have too big of a place in your head and in your heart.
2. Your Money
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21)
Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love.
In fact, I’d say that one of the marks of an idol is that you spend too much money on it and you’re constantly having to exercise self-control to not spend even more on it.
You already know this.
- Let’s say you have a 16 year old boy, who works his part time job at McDonalds and spends every cent he makes on video games. What does he love? Video Games. And more generally, pleasure.
- Let’s say you have an 70 year old grandma who gets her social security check every month and dutifully sends her support check in to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). What does she love? Animals.
- Let’s say you have a 40 year old lady who has never been married, and spends an ungodly amount of money on skin treatments, and weight-loss pills, high end clothes, and high end makeup, and tanning bed memberships, what does she love? Herself? Yes, that’s true. What else? Well, I would say, probably, she loves the idea of being in a relationship.
3. Your Emotions
If you want to do some self-evaluation, do this.
Think back over the last 7 days. Where have you felt your most uncontrollable emotions? Well, that CAN BE, a way to see things that are TOO important to you.
- Did someone disrespect you in front of coworkers? Well maybe looking successful is a little too important to you.
- Did someone overcharge you and it made you furious? Well maybe money is a little too important to you.
Also, if you ever experience what I call “Despair”, that can be a great indicator of something you idolize. What do I mean? There’s a difference between sorrow and despair.
- Sorrow is sadness that comes from losing a good thing among others. Someone who’s experiencing sorrow can be comforted. Because they lost one good thing, but they didn’t lose every good thing.
- Despair is sadness that comes from losing an ultimate thing. Someone who’s experiencing despair CANNOT be comforted. Because they lost an ultimate thing. It breaks their spirit.
So, if you lose your job, and you experience sorrow, which is losing a good thing among others, that’s fine. You feel the sadness of losing a job, but you’re able to turn to your family, for example.
But if you lose your job and you experience despair, there is no comforting you, because you lost something that was ultimate to you, well, that’s an idol.
There’s a truth that when I finally ‘got it’ it made a huge difference for me in my ability make positive changes in my life.
And it’s this: “Don’t eliminate, replace.”
Story – I remember when I was a teenager in youth group here at this church, one time we went to camp and heard a message (just to the boys) about lust. And how if we lust after a girl that’s just as bad as adultery. So we thought: “Oh man! That’s the worst! Let’s get rid of this lust business!” And so me and a few of my friends made a pact and agreed that any time we’d have a lustful thought, we’d write it down on a piece of paper. And so I’d fill that paper up, and start on another paper. And then another. We were 16, I don’t think there were enough trees on the planet to provide enough paper. What do you think happened? We just lusted more. And we wasted an incredible amount of ink!
See, you can’t just say “Don’t think about something.”
Let me illustrate. Don’t think about a pink elephant. Doesn’t work.
And there may be some people in here that didn’t think about a pink elephant. I can think of two reasons. One, you’re asleep. Two, you know the trick. The trick is whenever I say “Don’t think about BLANK” You have to instantly fill your mind with something else. Let’s say a blue monkey.
And so the trick is to not eliminate a thought from your head, but to replace it.
And as a young Christian, I didn’t realize just how universal the ‘Don’t eliminate, replace’ rule is. But it’s everywhere.
John Woods – Lust to Prayer He told us, and he got this from his dad Don Woods – When we’d have lustful thoughts about girls, when we would do that, to just stop and pray for that girl. And you know? It totally works. The paper thing, doesn’t work. The prayer thing, now THAT works. Why? Well, one reason it works it because you’re replacing something bad with something good.
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. (Matthew 12:43)
This impure spirit (which is a word used interchangeably with demon) doesn’t like being out in the open. They’re wanting to be inside a person.
Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. (Matthew 12:44)
Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:45)
So Jesus here is teaching us that when a demon possessed person is healed, the demon goes and looks for a new house but doesn’t find anything, and then goes back to the original person, and see’s that the house in ‘unoccupied’, comes back with 7 of his friends and the guy is worse off than he was before.
”Don’t leave your house empty.”
Lose weight. – I’m sure none of you have ever tried to lose weight. Let’s just imagine you are trying. And let’s say every day you eat 3 apple fritters for breakfast. It’s the best part of your day. Well, the key is to not just say “Nope, I’m just gonna sit there while all my friends eat their apple fritters, just staring at em. Eating them. And I won’t eat any.” No, that will never work. Don’t eliminate the 3 fritters, replace them. “With what?” Well, heck, almost anything. An apple. You could replace the 3 apple fritters with 2 apple fritters and it would be better than nothing.
That’s how it is with idols. If you’re identified something that is in most cases a good thing, but you’ve promoted it to an ultimate thing, you need to replace it with something of God.
- Let’s say you idolize your relationship with someone. Real or imagined. Maybe it’s your real husband, or maybe it’s an imagined future husband. You could pray “God, help me to adore you above anybody else. No one is a wonderful as you, God. No one can satisfy me the way you can God.”
- Let’s say you idolize success. And you spend every waking moment dreaming of becoming successful. Whatever that looks like for you. Well, you could pray ”God, help me realize that YOUR approval is what’s most important. And real success is being faithful to you and what you’ve put me here to do.”
Do you see the principle at work here? You’re not eliminating the idols in your life, you’re replacing them with things of God.
Passion of the Christ Movie I watched the passion of the Christ movie exactly one time. It was when we as a church, rented out the theater and watched it together.
I thought, all things considered, it was good. The reason I’ve only watched it the one time, is that I watch movies for entertainment. And passion of the Christ, that’s not entertainment. Love it or hate it, we should all agree, it’s not entertainment.
But there’s a lot of great people who make a point of watching the passion of the Christ however often. Twice a year.
Well the idea, of course, for lots of folks is that watching something like the passion of the Christ, helps them turn a head thing, into a heart thing.
What do I mean? I mean, it’s one thing to know with your brain that Jesus suffered a horrible death for you. He didn’t have to, he chose to, because of his love for you.
Now, it’s one thing to know that in your head, it’s another thing to KNOW and FEEL that in your heart.
Did you know that the passion of the Christ movie is not the only way to do that? In fact, the passion of the Christ movie is not the PRIMARY way of doing that.
So how do you turn a head thing into a head thing? Well, MY answer to that question is what’s called ‘The Spiritual Disciplines’.
They’re things we do to deliberately ‘practice’ our faith.
Something that I think can be helpful to people is this: If Christianity were to become illegal, what is it exactly that would be breaking the law? Well you’d probably say something like reading the Bible, praying, probably gathering together. So those things together are called ‘Spiritual Disciplines’
All spiritual disciplines are, at their core, forms of worship.
- So prayer IS worship. You’re exalting God by choosing to talk to him.
- Gathering together under the banner of Jesus is worship
- Studying the Bible is worship
So the spiritual disciplines exalt God, but they also change you. They take things from ‘head knowledge’ to ‘life changing reality’ in our hearts.
1 Peter 5:8 – Discipline Yourself
Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 NRSV)
I think people in churches when we read this scripture that ‘Satan goes around like a roaring lion’, we tend to think ‘Alright fine, we’re gonna say a special prayer, where we talk to the devil in the prayer. And we’ll cast him down, and boom! We’ve just won the battle.
I love that Peter when talking about Satan going around seeking someone to devour, he doesn’t send us on a prayer demon hunt, he says:
And nobody wants to hear that!
Everybody wants a once per lifetime prayer that we can pray and all our idolatry problems will be vanquished forever. As opposed to the lifelong process of Disciplining Yourself so that you’re able to resist temptation.
That’s not sexy preaching. That’s like saying to get in shape you have to eat less and exercise more.
Isn’t that a bummer?! But most of us think ‘But isn’t there a way that I can just get on a machine that giggles my fat really fast and that will make it disappear. And all the trainers in the world and saying ‘Nope. It’s the food and exercise thing.’ But we want a shortcut.
But unfortunately, identifying and replacing idols in your life is a lifelong process for the Christian.
Atoms, are quite small. There are around 43 quintillion atoms (you might be thinking “In the universe?”, no, in a grain of sand. That’s a 43, with 18 zeros behind it. That’s how many atoms are in a grain of sand.
And we used to think that atoms were the smallest thing. Until we poked it and all kinds of junk came pouring out. Now we know there’s all these electrons, and protons and neutrons, and then we were like “Now THAT’S the smallest thing!” and then we looked inside those and there’s all these little things in there. “Quarks” and “Anti-Quarks”, and there’s probably all kinds of stuff in them too, problem is, we can’t figure out how to open to dumb things.
The human heart is kind of like that. That when you’re a new Christian you like “Understanding the motives in my heart is easy. Just look in there. It’s obvious.” And then it’s not till you’ve been following God for a long time that you’re like “Yeah maybe my motives haven’t been as pure as I’ve been thinking.”
John Newton, was a pastor and a hymn writer. He wrote a song called ‘Amazing Grace’, you may have heard of it. He said it like this:(Updated language):
If I may speak my own experience, I find that to keep my eye simply on Christ, as my peace and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling. It seems much easier to deny self in a thousand outward ways. The great difficulty lies not externally, but internally; in continually preventing self from crawling back onto the throne of my heart.
And if you’re truly following God, that’s gonna be a life-long struggle. And so you have to be patient with yourself. Tearing down idols, just to see them popping up again is going to be there your whole life. So be patient. Be patient with yourself, be patient with God’s work in you, and trust that process. Identify, replace, practice. Over and over and over.
Here’s how I’m closing the series. This is a hymn that was written around 300 years ago, but a man named William Cowper:
The dearest idol I have known,
Whatever that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
(William Cowper Walking with God)