This guy Denis recently told me, “No one can live without some center or focus, some cherished end and purpose that shapes our ambition, even if we seem singularly unambitious to those who have adopted different ends.”
Denis edits a magazine called Critique, and in the most recent issue (Issue 1 of 2017) he’s determined to make me think about what I’m REALLY after in life. He says, “Whether consciously or subconsciously, there is always something or someone that commands our allegiance. …Idolatry is focusing our life and affections on something unworthy of bearing such significance.”
The apostle John ends his first letter to the church with these words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” So, at the very least we can say – the disciple whom Jesus loved took this idolatry business seriously.
In an effort to help us identify what we worship (i.e. our idols) Denis cites a book entitled Counterfeit Gods, by Timothy Keller: The true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention. What do you enjoy daydreaming about? What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement? Or material goods such as a dream home? Or a relationship with a particular person? One or two daydreams are not an indication of idolatry. Ask rather, what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy or your heart? [p. 168]
I would invite you to consider what is behind the thing you daydream about? For example, if you daydream about a fancy-schmancy house, ask yourself WHY you want that house? Is it the prospect of having a home that other people will envy that excites you? If so, then perhaps your idolatry has more to do with mortal approval and popularity than the physical comforts of a nice home. Denis presses this kind of consideration and self-reflection, again citing Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods, “Just as idols are good things turned into ultimate things, so the desires they generate become paralyzing and overwhelming. Idols generate false beliefs such as, ‘if I cannot achieve X, then my life won’t be valid’ or ‘since I have lost or failed at Y, now I can never be happy or forgiven again.’ These beliefs magnify ordinary disappointments and failures into life-shattering experiences.” [p. 148].
Take 30 minutes to do the following exercise Denis suggests: Read Isaiah 44:9-20 and see the description as a metaphor for human beings establishing something to which they will defer, for which they will sacrifice things, and which will give their life meaning, direction, and purpose. When modern people form an ideology or choose something like work, power, or fame as their central focus and allow it to shape their convictions, views, and values they do with ideas exactly what Isaiah describes doing with a piece of wood.
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”