The Light of Life Magazine
A ministry of Christian writing




Editorial: November 2011

IDOLATRY


P. Abraham

God's agenda for our lives is for us to be holy, just as He is holy. This holiness is the fruit of what we think or trust, and what we desire or worship. Sinful behaviour and negative emotions arise when we believe lies about God, instead of trusting God's Word. Peter tells us not to 'conform to the evil desires' we had when 'we lived in ignorance' (1Pet.2:11). We sin because we desire or worship idols, instead of worshipping God.

Often we do not think of ourselves as worshipping idols because we think of idols in terms of statues and shrines. But God told the leaders of Israel that they had 'set up idols in their hearts' (Ezek.14:3). We should not look down on the Israelites for worshipping idols. Instead, we should see a mirror of our own hearts. John Calvin says, "Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols." God says, "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water!" As a result, you 'follow other gods to your own harm' and 'your own shame' (Jer.2:13;7:6,19).

An idol is anything we look to, instead of God. Our double sin is, first, rejecting the truth of God's greatness and goodness, and, second, placing our affections elsewhere. Martin Luther said, "A god is whatever we expect to provide all good and in which we take refuge in all distress... whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in, that, I tell you, is your true god." "An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero-anything that can substitute for God." "Our idols are those things we count on to give our lives meaning. They are the things of which we say, 'I need this to make me happy,' or 'If I don't have this, my life is worthless and meaningless.'"

If 'idolatry' is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then 'desires' is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift. The New Testament talks about idolatry as 'sinful desires.' Literally, it is 'the lust of the flesh.’ 'Lust' here is not just sexual desire, but all sinful desires. And 'flesh' is not talking about our bodies, but about our sinful nature, the bias towards sin that we have from birth. Paul describes greed as idolatry (Col.3:5). Your idol is whatever you are greedy for. It may be money, approval, sex or power.

The flesh urgently desires many things. It wants power, pleasure, wealth, status and admiration. None of these is wrong in itself. Nothing would be wrong with liking these things. But desire, or lust, is more than liking: It is the will to possess. Lust turns good things into objects of worship. That is why lust, or covetousness, is closely linked to idolatry. What we lust for we worship. Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt.6:24). Whatever you treasure most is the thing that has your heart and controls your life. We are captivated. We are made captive by our desires. We think we are free when we break away from God, but we become enslaved by our own sinful desires. "A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him" (2Pet.2:19).

"No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt.6:24). We serve whatever our hearts desire most. If that desire is for God and His glory, then God is our master. But if our desire is for money, then money is our master, and that is idolatry. Money has become 'mammon.'

Our choices are predicated upon what we think is 'good', 'most desirable.' The truth about our choices is that we always choose what we believe to be our best. We always choose what we believe will bring us the most delight. Every sin begins in the heart with a sinful desire. "Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever" (Rom.1:24-25). Sin arises because we exchange the truth about God for a lie. Sin also arises because God gives us over to the sinful desires of our hearts. It arises when we worship or desire created things, rather than the Creator. We believe lies rather than believing God, and worship idols rather than worshipping God.

Eve thought (Gen.3:6) the fruit could give her more than God, and so she desired the fruit. That desire controlled her heart and determined her behaviour. This was true of the first sin and it is true of all subsequent sins. "Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin: and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (Jas.1:14-15).

We are not sinners because we commit sinful acts. We commit sinful acts because we are sinners, born with a bias to sin, enslaved by our sinful desires. That is why we cannot change ourselves simply by changing our behaviour. We need God to change us by renewing our hearts and giving us new desires.

Desire is at the helm of our lives. It determines our behaviour. We always do what we want to do. An alcoholic may desire a drink, but refrain from having one. It looks as if he is not doing what he wants. But what has happened is that another desire, say to avoid shame and losing his family, has trumped the desire for a drink. He is doing what he wants; the desire for drink is not the biggest desire. We think that we want to be good, but are victims of other factors-circumstances, history, biology, ill-health, etc. But the Bible says that we are responsible. This understanding gives us hope for change. By faith, through the Spirit, the desire for God trumps the desire for sin.

The world is full of good things given by God. We can, and should, enjoy them. But they are meant as bridges to joy in God. We delight in the gift and the Giver. We do this by receiving them with thanksgiving (1Tim.4:1-5). But a good thing can become a 'god-thing' if it eclipses God, if the gift matters more to us than the Giver.

In John 6 Jesus miraculously fed 5000 men with just five loaves and two fish. The next day the crowd came wanting more. People came to Jesus looking for satisfaction. They were not interested in Jesus. They simply wanted a free meal (v.26). Jesus urged them not to look to Him to fulfil their idolatrous desires, but to find the true satisfaction that He offered.

We also look to God to provide our material and emotional needs. And often He provides. But God always has a bigger agenda. He wants us to know Him and serve Him. He wants us to become like His Son.

Desires deceive us by masquerading as needs. We take a good desire and turn it into an idolatrous desire and call it a need. God and His glory are no longer at the centre of our outlook. Instead, we are at the centre, demanding that people worship us, by giving us affection and affirmation.

We look for God when we need Him, and expect Him to be grateful when we serve Him. But actually we are there for God. We exist to give God glory. He does not owe us anything, not even explanations. But we owe Him everything as our Creator and Redeemer. It is better to reflect the glory of God than to be consumed by the empty pursuit of our own glory.

Sin arises because we desire something more than we desire God. Overcoming sin begins by reversing this process: desiring God more than other things. The Bible calls it repentance.

Repentance is not a once in a life-time event that takes place when we are converted. John Calvin says, "God assigns to believers a race of repentance, which they are to run throughout their lives." Repentance is a life-long, continuous activity of turning back to God from God-dethroning desires. Repentance is not just turning from sinful behaviour, but turning from the idols and desires that cause sinful behaviour. We need to discipline our hearts to say 'no' the moment we become conscious of sinful desires. "Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col.3:5).

Sin is mortified in our lives through Christ and by the Spirit. Christ dealt a fatal blow to our old sinful nature on the cross, freeing us from its power. It is because we died with Christ and have been raised with Christ that we put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature (Col.2:20;3:1,5). Mortification is like gardening. We need to weed out the sin in our lives. A particular sin may have gripped our heart for so long that its roots run deep. This is a constant task. When our thoughts are filled with the glory of God and our lives are filled with the service of God, there will be less room for sin and temptation (Gal.6:7-10).

Our sinful nature has idolatrous desires that cause sinful behaviour and emotions. But the Spirit has placed in the heart of every Christian a new desire, the desire for holiness. We sow to the Spirit whenever we strengthen our Spirit-inspired desire for holiness. A renewed affection for God is the only thing that will expel sinful desires.

Christians have traditionally spoken of the world, the flesh (the sinful nature) and the devil as the three threats to a Christian. They all work together. The world is under the control of the evil one. He spreads his lies through the culture of the world (1Jn.5:19). These lies resonate with, and reinforce, our sinful desires (1Jn.2:16). Which voices are you listening to-the voices of the world, the flesh and the desire, or the Word of God? Psalm 1 reminds us, blessing comes when we screen out the voices of the world and listen to the Word of God.

John Stott sums it up like this, "'To sow to the flesh' is to pander to it, to cosset, cuddle and stroke it, instead of crucifying it… Every time we allow our mind to harbour a grudge, nurse a grievance, entertain an impure fantasy, or wallow in self-pity, we are sowing to the flesh... Some Christians sow to the flesh every day and wonder why they do not reap holiness."

The best way to avoid weeds is to sow other plants in their place (1Tim.6:10-11). The Word of God is the "water by which we are washed, the weapon with which we fight, the tool kit with which we are equipped and the milk by which we grow" (Jn.17:17; Heb. 4:12-13).

Don't read the Word of God each day as a duty to tick off. Savour the truth of God it reveals. Look for the glory of Christ. Let it interpret your heart. Meditate on what you read. Pray it through. Read it not simply to be informed, but to be transformed and conformed to the likeness of Jesus (Rom.12:2). With eyes fixed on heavenly things, we "put to death... whatever belongs to our earthly nature" (Col.3:5). Thinking of Christ's return loosens the hold that the world has on us and inspires us to change (2Pet.3:10-14;1Jn.3:2-3).




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