Category Archives: idolatry

Fatal Attraction: All That Glitters is Not Gold, Part 2


Cross-posted from Gospel Centered Discipleship

I’m a sucker for the occasional B-movie escapism. Replete with a low budget, painful dialogue, and a severely undefined story arc, it can be the perfect silliness for a Friday evening. Enter Anaconda. As only 1997 could deliver, the film chronicles a documentary crew headed into the jungle to shoot footage on a mysterious Indian tribe. On their way, they pick up a stranded man who then takes the team hostage on his quest to capture the world’s largest and deadliest snake: a record-breaking green Anaconda.

The thrust of the storyline in one sentence (spoiler alert!) is: people scanning the crest of the river to determine where this deadly snake might be. That’s it. You can imagine the dialogue: “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!”

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways we pursue happiness and my drifted to Anaconda. Though most of us wouldn’t articulate it this way, we stroll through our human existence, scanning the surface of our hearts until we find what we think we are looking for. Our time, our energy, our attention, and even our money is devoted to a quest of self-assurance and self-significance.

The Great Hunt

We want to be loved. We want to belong. We want to make a difference. We want to feel important. And we’ll look endlessly until we have found something we think might satisfy us—much like the documentary crew looking for what lies at the crest of the river. But the fruit of our self-salvation projects lie at the surface of a greater hunt in our lives.

Want happiness? It’s important to identify what is at the surface of our hopes and desires. In order for us to find real satisfaction, we must start here. We must ask, “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!” The Bible calls this self-diagnosis idol detection (1 Cor. 10:14). Today, we discussing step one of this self-diagnosis: unearthing those idols that lie on the surface.

Many times these idols are easily discernible. You can identify them by listening to your prayers. What do you ask God forgiveness for? Maybe it’s an anger problem. Maybe it’s an issue with lust. Maybe you have bitterness in your heart towards another. Anger, lust, and bitterness are exterior sins indicating deeper root sins. These are branch idols. You can see them easily but the root sins are what’s actually feeding them.

Hunting for Your Idols

Here are some questions as you look for your surface idols.

  • Do I need to be esteemed by people?
  • Do I demand order in my world?
  • Do I compare myself favorably to others?
  • Am I angry or defeated if things are not accomplished immediately?
  • Do I have to be the center of my family life, my job, or my church?
  • Do I dictate that people must submit to me?
  • Do I think my opinions are all-wise and correct?
  • Do I do whatever pleases me?
  • Is my appearance—whether religiously or physically—ultimate?
  • Do I desire to be accountable to no one?
  • Do I have to win at everything?

If you notice, these questions require a sense of self-awareness. Tim Keller says that one way you can identify your surface idols is by looking at your most uncontrollable emotions.

Just like a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is rolling, look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong . . . when you ‘pull your emotions up by the root,’ as it were, you will often find your idols clinging to them.

So what are your surface idols? Look at where the water is rolling on the crest of your heart and you will locate them. It’s an essential first step to reversing the fatal attraction of idolatry in our lives.

Next time, we will look at why we can’t stop at just identifying our surface idols if we want to find true significance and happiness. To find real peace and contentment in life, there is something that lurks beneath the surface that we must address because our surface sins are only symptoms of much deeper sins.

Fatal Attraction: All That Glitters is Not Gold, Part 1

stlouis skyline
I was just a young boy when it first happened. Gazing out the window of our sedan, my heart leaped when I saw a cityscape scuff the sky. I was mesmerized.

Growing up in small-town southeast Missouri, the tallest building I had ever seen was our town’s three-story red brick high school. Now in my purview was a gray jungle spattering the horizon, with yellow lights placed perfectly like stickers in rows. Bright lights, big city.

The jutting skyscrapers and surrounding city felt like Oz. But unlike the movie where this magical land was just a dream, this was real. And this material city had a certain allure to it. One that I haven’t been able to get away from since. Looking upon the urban panorama as a child, I had no need to click my heels. I was home. It had captivated me. Why?

Underneath the awe, it promised me something that I thought I wanted. Fulfillment, significance, worth. Even as a young boy, those yearnings were there. And they were being tugged at.

All of us could make a short list of the things that have caught our fancy. But many of us could take that same list and wax eloquently about how things have failed to deliver what they pledged. That’s the problem with allurement. All that glitters really isn’t gold. Sometimes our magnetisms are just gold-plated rubbish.

The Bible calls our misguided pursuits of what charms us idolatry. And we aren’t talking golden calves here either. As a Christian, idolatry is anything that supplants God in my life with a lesser god. It’s an inverted move of the soul. When our hearts engage in idolatry, we have to ask ourselves the question that the Avett Brothers sing: “Are we growing backwards with time?”

Theologian Doug Stuart masterfully explains idolatry’s attraction in Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary). He says there are a few things in an idol’s appeal:

Idolatry obliges: Fashion your god out of stone or wood or precious metals and a god would enter the idol. No need to wait on a god to answer your prayers anymore. Summon him and get what you want without delay.

Idolatry gratifies: The motive of idol worship was to get what you needed, when you needed it. It was entirely centered on the person seeking — not the one being sought.

Idolatry numbs: Ancient idolatry took the place of fervent spirituality. It stimulated vain religious hullabaloo. It anesthetized individuals because what kept you good with the gods was not relational but sacrificial. Bring your gods a scapegoat for your sin and you were exonerated.

Idolatry indulges: Find a divinity that meets your needs and bow down to it. Or better, find a few idols that meets your specific desires and worship them. The glut of deities available created a smorgasbord approach to spirituality. And why not? One God over all? Hogwash, they would say. Find whatever works for you.

Idolatry reassures: Worshiping an invisible deity was not comforting. A god you could see — now that was the ticket. Tangible divinities make more sense, don’t they? Surely, the gods would want us to see them instead of placing our faith in the unseen.

Idolatry impresses: With an invisible deity, it was almost impossible to astonish your fellow man with your sacrifices. An unseen God who looks at the heart — above all else — has no usefulness in vain, repetitious activities. But bring a costly sacrifice to a lifeless idol? It was a sight to behold. And the bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the show.

It’s easy to see what the central “thing” is in idolatry. It’s not the wooden or golden deity esteemed. It’s actually us. It’s the individual. Our personage is principal when we chase after blessing. We are the “blesser” and the blessed – we fashion divinity for our own sake.

So what’s the big deal? The raw truth about replacement gods is that they don’t deliver. The illusion of interim happiness is just that – a mirage. And therein, we find the treadmill we all run upon.

We run from one promising oasis to another only to find its promise evaporates before our eyes. But we are so desperate to belong, to be loved, to feel significant, to feel secure, the never-ending hunt overtakes us. Before we know it, we are knee-deep in our own despondency and we scan the horizon for something new that allures.  Something novel that will once-and-for-all deliver the goods.

In its truest sense, idolatry is a fatal attraction. It’s not that it literally kills us in an instant (although, I guess it could in some instances). It is more a slow slink backwards within the soul.  It’s the actuality of the question the Avett Brothers sing about: “Are we growing backwards with time?” We are. And it’s more than “growing” backwards – it’s that we are “dying” backwards. It’s a dawdling succession of little deaths, decision by decision, day after day.

Pastor and author Greg Dutcher says it this way: “Idolatry … is not a showboat. It does its best to work in subtle ways. Like a puma lying low in the gentle grass, taut muscles held in place like a coiled spring, sin waits in the ‘safest’ of places. … it waits patiently for a chance to creep in unaware.”

That is why it is a fatal attraction. We are typically naive to its creep. And at the right time, it pounces on our insecurity. It ambushes our anxiety. It attacks our uneasiness.

The good news is that there is a new way to be human. We can reverse our worship and find what is behind the delusion of our self-made gods. But first, we need a deep diagnosis. It’s one thing to understand the category of idolatry. It’s another to isolate what deity (or deities) you bow down to.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.