While I was thinking about the implications of discouragement and how it can be an indicator of idolatry, a very timely article* came to my "Inbox" regarding the hopeless spiral of pursuing things other than God, i.e. idolatry. [If you missed last week’s remarks on idolatry you may want to read: Why you are Discouraged] Commenting on Romans 1:22,23, T.M. Moore demonstrates just how making anything but God our ultimate desire in life sets us on a track destined to lead us into foolishness and ultimately disappointment… He says it best:
When people hope in transient things, they’ll do whatever seems right in their own eyes – whatever they think makes sense or feel to be in their best interests. But these mostly leave them disappointed and looking for somewhere else to place their fading hopes.
The conscience holds and reads the maps of life. It guides the mind and heart through the many options facing us as we pursue our hopes and dreams. When people reject the knowledge of God they do not reject the need for values, priorities, and default choices. Instead, because they are not focused on God and His Word to guide them in tutoring their wills, they lean on created things: wealth, success, fun, fame, attention, power, and all the usual idols of our age in flight from God. Once a person establishes one or more of these as his ultimate objective in life, the tumblers in the conscience fall into lockstep with the demands of their chosen idol, and all their values and priorities line up accordingly.
From that point forward the conscience and will are trapped in a Chinese handcuffs of self-serving, foolish decisions and choices, and sooner or later, most people end up doing really dumb things. Strive and struggle though they may to make their wills bend in more wholesome directions, those who will not embrace the Gospel of Jesus will always fall for a lesser god, which is no god at all, and the whole, sad cycle of folly repeats itself anew. Hopes fade and must be reconstructed; changes disappoint, yet we insist on more; and the ability to do anything different eludes those who are trapped in the downward spiral of sin…
Granted, this writer refers to unbelievers, but clearly idolatry is a temptation for believers also especially when we lose sight of the hope of the Gospel. When we "make anything but God our ultimate desire in life" we are setting ourselves up as idolaters and in the process missing out on the righteousness, peace an joy that are earmarks of our inheritance as subjects of God's Kingdom! (Rom.14:17)
Jonah had a reality check on this. After fleeing from God, choosing to make his own travel arrangements, he was brought to his knees inside a whale after a frightening near-drowning. Here he came to the incisive conclusion that "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." (Jonah 2:8) Another rendering of 'worthless idols' is 'lying vanities'. In other words, all things worthless, temporal and 'not-as-they-seem'.
Though Jonah didn't want this mission he was assigned, this dunking 'reset' his sense of appreciation for the one true God whom he was called to serve. It restored him to his senses and he declared: "Salvation belongs to the LORD!" I imagine that as he shook the water out of his ears he resolved to be done with pretending to be his own god or any other such 'lying vanities!' He realized that any strategy for his own ‘salvation’ other than calling on God is worthless!
What vain hopes have I set my heart on instead of, or in addition to, God? What do I believe I need in order to be truly happy? Have I gladly submitted myself to His rule and calling in my life or am I attempting to pull off an escape route? What strategies do I use to get what I want when my circumstances aren’t quite to my liking?
There is a better alternative than grasping at ‘lying vanities’. David immortalized the right response when he wrote these words:
"Into thine hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O LORD God of truth. I have hated them that regard lying vanities: but I trust in the LORD.” (Ps.31:3-6)
This line would later be quoted by Jesus on the Cross. Psalm 31 is a precious trove of all things true of our God, that should keep us from ever being tempted to idolatry…
"Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you." (19)
It's a beautiful model to follow when times are discouraging, seemingly hopeless, or just plain SCARY, and we're tempted to scramble for relief elsewhere!
One thing I've realized this week is that it's certainly easier to spot potential idols in someone else's life than to recognize my own. I came across some helpful indicators in a sermon, "A Turn to God from Idols" taken from I Thess.1:7-10…** After asserting that idolatry is a universal and perennial sin that everyone struggles with, Rev. Ligon Duncan went on to define an idol as "anything in which we think we can get ultimate security and satisfaction apart from God." Then just in case that was a little too nebulous he suggested three questions that may help us to pinpoint potential idols in our own lives:
1--What do you think about? What are the things in those quiet moments when you’re away from the press of the immediate demand and the fight of the day, what is that thing that you think about that gives you hope and delight? When you begin to identify that thing or those things, you’re coming close to identifying your idols.
2- How do you spend your time, your resources, and your energy? Because when you look at those three things and you ask that question, you’re going to see the things that you really care about.
3-What disappoints me? What absolutely crushes me with disappointment? And chances are, if you answer that question honestly of yourself you’re going to find an idol. There’s going to be something that you think that you need to have, or something that you desperately want to have that you don’t have, and you’re disappointed by it. It may be a situation that you have in your life that you don’t want. It may be a situation that you do not have in your life that you do want. And you are crushingly disappointed by it. It may have to do with your family life. It may have to do with your vocation. It may have to do with your children or your parents, but you are disappointed by it. And if you’ll think about it for a while, you may well be able to identify your idols.
As I've mulled these over I've re-framed them for myself.
--What preoccupies my thoughts when they're not busy with life at hand?
--What unfulfilled wants hinder me from being fully satisfied with God and worshipping Him with a joyful heart? In other words: What excuses do I make for postponing joy? (Though the fig tree has not yet blossomed will I trust God? )
--What prospect has the ability to fill me with sickening dread, esp. in the middle of the night? ( If the fig tree never blossoms will I still rejoice in my God)
These questions hit closer to home for me, helping to pinpoint those things that tug at my heart and keep it from whole-hearted worship of the only God worthy of my worship. When other things/people/goals capture my heart to the extent that I can't live joyfully without them, I have entered dangerous territory. I now have cause to live in fear, anxiety, depression and discouragement…for what I need could be taken away or never granted! I'm not designed to live this way.
I'm reminded of the first question in the Westminster Confession:
What is the chief end of man?
The answer—"to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever" as evidenced in such texts as these:
Psalm 144:15: Happy are the people who are in such a state; Happy are the people whose God is the LORD!
Isaiah 12:2. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation
No wonder the foremost command is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. There will be no room left for rivals and no need of any!
And this brings Jesus' words about hating family into perspective. "If any [man] come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." Lk.14:26
My love for Him must be so much greater than my desires for my own flesh and blood, that I will never be swayed from devotion to God by my natural desires for my family's well-being. It begins to make sense. Only in worshiping God with my whole-heart am I prepared to love my family rightly, rather than making their well-being my chief end.
But I am talking to myself now. I will leave you with these thoughts on idolatry. May God teach us to find our satisfaction in Him. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Then discouragements will not defeat us and joy will be our companion even in bitter disappointments. The things of earth grow strangely dim when we focus on Him…
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Eph.4:17,18
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation. Ps.42:5
Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the LORD. Ps.31:24
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods,
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols
but the LORD made the heavens! Ps.96:4,5
*T.M.Moore, "Saved from Foolish Choices" Part 5 of Real Hope. Real Change series, available at ColsonCenter.org .
**Rev.J. Ligon Duncan III, “Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Turn to God from Idols”. I Thess. 1:7-10. May 20, 2012. Transcript available here.