Idols of the Heart :: Weekend Reading List

Modern Christianity speaks often of “idolatry.” In once sense the term is outdated—harkening an era of statues and animism. Yet in another it is radically seasonable. Psychiatrist David Powlison explains:

What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped? “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures. The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned-against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.”

Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are. God has unconditional love for you.” That is not the biblical Gospel, however. God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large.

Dr. Powilson’s masterful work, Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair” explores the immense power idols have on modern life:

Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions. They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law.

A culture’s idols are not simply its statues, but the things it pours the most energy and resources into worshipping. Ancient cultures built structures that survived millennia; U.S. investment portfolios designed around the 7 deadly sins outperform the S&P 500 every quarter. Startup investing Motif Investing explains:

Some luxuries see reduced demand during tough times. But smokers could keep smoking, drinkers keep drinking, and the lustful keep…lusting. Bad habits are hard to break. And when times are rough, who wants to even try? Nobody can predict the markets, but consumers are only human. And economic conditions may not be able to defeat their appetites for sinful stuff.

Christianity challenges the faithful to sacrifice their life of idolatry—not in a misguided attempt at moralism, but because the gospel offers something infinitely more valuable. Powilson concludes:

The Gospel is better than unconditional love. The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contra-conditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curse you deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity is different. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically de-centers people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 28 (Listen – 4:49)
2 John (Listen – 1:50)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 29 (Listen – 3:55) 3 John (Listen – 1:51)
Isaiah 30 (Listen – 5:52) Jude (Listen – 4:12)

Monday’s Reading
Isaiah 31 (Listen – 1:49)
Revelation 1 (Listen – 3:43)

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Daily Idols :: Throwback Thursday

Daily Idols :: Throwback Thursday

By Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. —1 John 5.21

Keep yourselves from worshipping yourselves. Alas, how many fall into this gross sin!

There are those who worship themselves by living a life of indolence. They flit from pleasure to pleasure, from show to show, from vanity to vanity, as if this life were only a garden in which butterflies might fly from flower to flower, and not a sphere where serious work was to be done and all-important business for eternity was to be accomplished.

Then there are some people who make idols of their wealth. Getting money seems to be the main purpose of their lives. Now, it is right that a Christian man should be diligent in business, he should not be second to anybody in the diligence with which he attends to the affairs of this life; but it is always a pity when we can be truthfully told, “So-and-so is getting richer every year, but he has got stingier also. He gives less now than he gave when he had only half as much as he now has.”

Some worship the pursuit which they have undertaken. They give their whole soul up to their art, or their particular calling, whatever it may be. In a certain sense, this is a right thing to do; yet we must never forget that the first and great commandment is, “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This must always have the first place.

Let me here touch a very tender point. There are some who make idols of their dearest relatives and friends. Some have done this with their children. Make no idol of your child. Love them as much as you please—but always love them, in such a fashion that Christ shall have the first place in your hearts.

The catalogue of idols that we are apt to worship is a very long one. Remember that God has a right to your whole being. There is nothing, and there can be nothing, which ought to be supreme in your affections save your Lord; and if you worship anything, or any ideal, whatever it may be, if you love that more than you love your God, you are an idolater, and you are disobeying the command of the text, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 27 (Listen – 2:16)
1 John 5 (Listen – 3:00)


The Angry Watchmaker

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4.8

In the mid 18th century William Paley formulated what is known as the ‘Watchmaker Argument.’ Though Paley’s analogy was meant to provide a God-centered explanation of scientific creation, “There cannot be design without a designer,” it greatly impacted the trajectory of theology in the western world.

The Watchmaker Analogy described creation as an intricate and complex pocket watch. God crafted the heavens and the earth, humans and culture, beauty and brilliance—he set everything in motion—and now sits, detached from his creation, in heaven. Paley explained:

The watch must have had a maker: there must have existed, at some time and at some place or another, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it: who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

The equivalence of the divine with a master craftsman—as fastidious as he is devoid of personal interaction with his creation after it is set in motion—guided many of America’s founding fathers, and continues to shape our culture’s de facto understanding of God.

Later American theology, perhaps in an overcorrection, depicts God as intimately involved—but only because his intense anger demands he wage war against humankind. Entire branches of modern theology start and end with God’s anger. Heaven, in this way of thinking, is the place where God fumes, standing ready to lash out on his categorically unruly creation.

Sin, and God’s anger toward it, are essential parts of Christian theology—how can God be good if he doesn’t bring justice? But God’s anger toward evil is neither the foundation of the Christian story, nor the culmination of it.

Heaven is not a distant place where God sits aloof and fuming; Heaven is where God’s character is in full affect. Scripture confesses that God is love—not just that he has love or shows love, but that his very nature is love. In this sense, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us who God is. The famous passage on love could be paraphrased:

God is patient. God is kind. God does not envy or boast. God is not arrogant. God is not rude. God does not insist on his own way. God is not irritable. God is not resentful. God does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. God bears all things for his children. God believes all things about his children. God hopes all things for his children. God endures all things for his children.

God’s love never ends.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 26 (Listen – 2:58)
1 John 4 (Listen – 2:58)


Overreacting to Moralism

And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. — 1 John 3:3

Moralists believe that perfect living makes people worthy. Those overreacting to moralism abdicate their imagination for personal holiness. Words like “should” and “ought” screech across our theological chalkboard as we flee the distortions of moralism. Yet, N.T. Wright remarks, “the abuse of God’s gifts does not invalidate the real use.”

Personal holiness is demanding—requiring all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength—but unlike moralism, it is not dependent solely on our efforts. We are purified when we meet God at the top of the mountain—even so we cannot underestimate the commitment, strength, and focus it takes to climb to these moments of transfiguration. Wright explains:

The way up the mountain stands for us today as a reminder, a rebuke, and an invitation. A reminder that there are levels and depths of spirituality that are open to all of us, but from which we hide ourselves, perhaps in our heart of hearts quite deliberately, from fear of what the transforming presence of the burning God might do if he were truly given free rein in our hearts and lives. A reminder, thus, of the fact that all of life is, so to speak, ‘sacramental.’

Thus, too, a rebuke: that we so often content ourselves with going through the motions of a pattern of Christian discipleship that stays on the surface, that doesn’t get too excited or exciting, when not far away there are levels of reality, of God’s reality, waiting to be discovered, if we will take time and care, if we will seek silence and grace, if we will invoke the Holy Spirit to transform us.

It is the invitation, Wright concludes, that we miss in our overreaction to moralism:

If your vocation, your God-given path, should lead you in the way of pain, your own or someone else’s, that may itself be a sign that you are called to make another journey up the mountain, to glimpse the vision of glory once more and to gather fresh strength for the journey.

Take time out from your busy traveling, then, come up the mountain, and wait patiently for God. Perhaps it’s time to expose yourself again to the possibility that you too might hear a voice, might glimpse glory, might fall on your face in terror and awe, might be grasped afresh by the majesty of Jesus.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 25 (Listen – 1:59)
1 John 3 (Listen – 3:21)


Spiritual Conflicts of Interest

Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. — 1 John 2:6

“God allows Himself to be found in many ways, and the human tendency to ignore Him or resist Him crosses all cultural lines,” Elisabeth Elliot writes. Reflecting on a life in ministry—as a missionary, teacher, author, and speaker—she asks, “Is there a way of life, a manner of serving the Lord that will deliver us from the temptations and distractions of the world?”

Spiritual conflicts of interest are not removed by vocational or geographical changes. Anyone actively integrating faith into the complexities of life knows every vocation carries its own idols and every place holds its own temptations.

Elliot shares a note from a friend who has dedicated herself to poverty, chastity, and obedience, serving as a nun in a convent:

You know human nature well enough to understand some of the ‘occupational hazards’ that can only too easily compromise the totality of our commitment to the Lord…. Every part of our ‘Rule’ has been chosen to free us for prayer. Centuries of experience have contributed to providing us with an atmosphere most conducive to freeing the mind and heart for prayer, and yet I’m afraid with all that has been given, one can settle for the shell, going through the motions only.

We can compromise the spirit of freedom we have received from the Lord Jesus with the ersatz security and satisfaction of bondage to the letter of our Rule. We can still very easily get caught up in the busyness that makes our heart more a market- place than a house of prayer.

The biblical challenge to “walk in the same way which [Jesus] walked” isn’t aspirational, but relational. If you want to walk as Jesus did you must—by the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit—stay in constant connection with the Father. In this way, the Fruit of the Spirit becomes the transferable attributes of God—the divine characteristics we embody as we become more like the object of our love.

“Isn’t it amazing that He cares so much that we reflect His image?” Elliot asks. “He wants us. He meets us…. He chose us before we chose Him.” She concludes with the words of her friend:

It is my abiding prayer that the Lord we seek will continue to refine and purify our hearts until our offering is as it should be, and the Sun of Justice shines unobstructed with its healing rays.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 24 (Listen – 3:11)
1 John 2 (Listen – 4:04)