Facing up to the idols of our hearts…

Tim Keller-6

It is impossible to understand your heart or your culture if you do not discern the counterfeit gods that influence them. In Romans 1:21-25 St Paul shows that idolatry is not only one sin among many, but what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart:


For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him … .They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:21, 25)


Paul goes on to make a long list of sins that create misery and evil in the world, but they all find their roots in this soil, the inexorable human drive for “god-making.” In other words, idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. No one grasped this better than Martin Luther. In his Larger Catechism (1528) and also his Treatise on Good Works he wrote that the Ten Commandments begin with a commandment against idolatry. Why does this come first in the order? Because, he argued, the fundamental motivation behind law-breaking is idolatry. We never break the other commandments without breaking the first one. Why do we ever fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is “because we are weak and sinful”, but the specific answer in any actual circumstance is that there is something you feel you must have to be happy, that is more important to your heart than God himself. We would not lie unless first we had made something—human approval, reputation, power over others, financial advantage—more important and valuable to our hearts than the grace and favor of God. The secret to change is always to identify and dismantle the basic idols of the heart.


It is also impossible to understand a culture without discerning its idols. The Jewish philosophers Halbertal and Margalit make it clear that idolatry is not simply ritual worship, but a whole sensibility and pattern of life based on making particular finite values and created things into god-like absolutes. In the Bible, therefore, turning from idols always includes a rejection of the culture that the idols produce. God tells Israel that they must not only reject the other nations’ gods, but “you shall not follow their practices.” (Exodus 23:24) There is no way to challenge idols without doing cultural criticism, and there is no way to do cultural criticism without discerning and challenging idols. A good example of this is the preaching of St Paul in Athens (Acts 17) and Ephesus (Acts 19.) Paul challenged the gods of the city of Ephesus (Acts 19:26) and that led to such an alteration in the spending patterns of new converts that it changed the local economy. That in turn touched off a riot led by local merchants. Contemporary observers have often noted that modern Christians are as materialistic as everyone else in our culture. Could this be because our preaching of the gospel does not, like St Paul’s, include the exposure of our culture’s counterfeit gods?


Identifying idols


I am not asking whether or not you have rival gods. I assume that we all do; they are hidden in every one of us. The question is: What do we do about them? How can we become increasingly clear-sighted rather than being under their delusional influence? How can we be free from our idols so we can make sound decisions and wise choices that are best for us and the people around us? How can we discern our idols?


One way requires that we look at our imagination. Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” In other words, 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 day-dreaming about?


Another way to discern your heart’s true love is to look at how you spend your money. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” (Matt 6:21) Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love. …


A third way to discern idols works best for those who have professed a faith in God. You may regularly go to a place of worship where you are a member. You may have a full, devout set of doctrinal beliefs. You may be trying very hard to believe and obey God. However, what is your real, daily functional salvation? What are you really living for, what is your real—not just your professed—God? …


A final test is for anyone to use. Look at your most uncontrollable emotions. Just as a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is roiling, look for your idols at the bottom of painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong. …


Replacing idols


Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something besides God. This cannot be remedied only by repenting that you have an idol, or by using will power to try to live differently. Turning from idols is not less than those two things, but it is also far more. “Setting the mind and heart on things above” where “your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:1-3) means appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done for you. It entails joyful worship, a sense of God’s reality in prayer. Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol. That is what will replace the idols of your heart. If you uproot the idol and fail to “plant” the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back. …


Be patient


We think we’ve learned about grace, set our idols aside, and reached the place where we’re serving God not for what we’re going to get out of him but for who he is in himself. There’s a certain sense in which we spend all of our lives thinking we’ve reached the bottom of our hearts and finding it is a false bottom. Mature Christians are not people who have completely hit the bedrock. I do not believe that is possible in this life. Rather, they are people who know how to keep drilling and who are getting closer and closer.



These excerpts are from Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Dutton Adult, 2009).  They are also part of an article published in Christianity Today, “How to Find Your Rival Gods,” the rest of which can be found here.

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