Idol Worship, Counterfeit Gods

BreakPoint | by Marcia Segelstein | Oct. 27, 2009

What we worship defines us and controls us. And sometimes figuring out what we really worship isn’t easy. Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the just-released book, Counterfeit Gods. He writes that while some cultures still practice idol worship in the traditional sense, “internal idol worship, within the heart, is universal.”

Anything and everything we turn to in order to satisfy our deepest needs and longings can become idols. Even good things such as family, love, and morality become idols when they take the place of God. As Keller writes, “If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.”

Romantic love, fulfillment, self-expression, and fame all have the potential to become idols. So do material success, financial well-being, and prestige. Keller believes the current economic situation offers an opportunity to identify our idols. If we can’t live without something, then something’s wrong.

Keller believes that we all have idols. Some are subtle and insidious, others not. Fame, for instance, can do terrible things to people when it becomes all-important. It can grow into an addiction, an idol that takes top priority—over friends, family, decency. A friend who worked with me at CBS News used to joke that TV cameras projected rays that turned otherwise normal reporters and anchors into self-absorbed, ill-tempered monsters. One on-air personality once confided to me that her own family said they didn’t know who she was any more.

The need to be “in love” can become an idol, too. Like fame, it can take on the quality of a drug that ultimately destroys lives because it becomes the ultimate thing. Song titles like “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” and phrases like, “He worships the ground she walks on,” say it all.

One of my favorite passages from the book is Keller’s recounting of the Old Testament story of Naaman, found in the book of 2 Kings. As commander of Aram’s army, Naaman had reached the pinnacle of success. He was wealthy, well regarded, and served at the right hand of the king as a trusted adviser. But he had one thing he didn’t want: leprosy.

It happened that Naaman’s wife had a slave girl who had been captured from Israel. She told Naaman that he should “see the prophet who is in Samaria,” Elisha. But instead of seeking out the prophet, Naaman decided to go straight to the top. Filled with self-importance, and with letters of reference and plenty of gold in hand, he called on the king of Israel.

The king would have none of it, and eventually Naaman found his way to Elisha’s house. There he was greeted not by the prophet himself, but by a lowly servant. Speaking on behalf of Elisha, the servant told Naaman, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored.”

Naaman was outraged. Not only did he get the message secondhand, it was too ridiculous to be believed! He had good money to pay, and he deserved better treatment than this. It took convincing by his own servants to get him to try it.

“So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.’ The prophet answered, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.’”

It’s a story that, as Keller puts it, “assaults our worship of success.” In order for Naaman to be cured, he had to take advice from his wife’s servant girl, then from Elisha’s servant, and then from his own servants. Naaman believed that the false gods of prestige, power and privilege could purchase a cure. He had to learn that God is a God of grace, and that healing can’t be deserved or earned, only received.

In a beautiful line summing up the story of Naaman, Keller writes: “If you want God’s grace, all you need is need.”

Keller has some thoughtful things to say on the subject of forgiveness. “If you have been robbed of money, opportunity, or happiness, you can either make the wrongdoer pay it back or you can forgive. But when you forgive, that means you absorb the loss and the debt. You bear it yourself. All forgiveness, then, is costly.”

Forgiving is difficult because even when we want to forgive, it seems impossible simply to make the debt (of pain or suffering or whatever it is) disappear. Keller makes it clear that it doesn’t just disappear. We must willingly—and ungrudgingly—agree to bear it. And in the larger sense, forgiveness from God is not free either. It cost Jesus his life.

No individual or group is immune from idolatry, according to Keller, including religious communities. It is what he calls “a subtle but deadly mistake” for people of faith to rely on the rightness of their doctrine rather than on God’s grace. To do that is to elevate doctrine over all else, to make it an idol.

He warns against becoming what the book of Proverbs calls a “scoffer.” When believers show disdain for opponents rather than graciousness, it’s an indication that they have forgotten that they are saved by grace alone. “Instead, their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior.” It’s a theme Keller wrote eloquently about in his earlier book, The Prodigal God.

So what do we do about our idol worship? First we have to discern what our idols are. Keller suggests paying attention to our daydreams, observing how we spend our money, monitoring our response to unanswered prayer, and looking at emotions that seem uncontrollable. Once discerned, Keller writes that it’s not enough to repent or attempt to live differently by willpower. “If you uproot the idol and fail to ‘plant’ the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.”

He writes that we must rejoice in Christ. “To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it.” Then the heart will release its grip on our false gods.

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