Idols, Significance, and Security

 If you’re looking for a helpful biblical resource on idolatry, I very much recommend Richard Lints’ Identity and Idolatry.  I’ve read a few other good resources on idolatry, but in my view, this one is the best.  In this book, Lints talks about the various angles of idolatry, including image, identity, worship, purpose, significance, and security.  Speaking of significance and security, here’s an excerpt I appreciated:

At the heart of worship is a sense of ‘giving yourself away’ to another.  Key to worship then are the questions ‘To whom are you giving yourself away and in what manner are you giving yourself?’ Genuine worship is giving yourself to the living God in whom and for whom you ave been created.  Idolatry by contrast is substituting the true object of worship (God) for an imitation (idol) and reorienting the relationship from worship to possession.  One who worships the living God does not possess him for one’s own purposes.  But those who create an idol seek to possess it for their own purpose….

An idol is desired as a means to an end, and the end is significance and security on the individual’s own terms.  Since significance and security cannot be fulfilled by the idol, the idol creates a deeper longing for significance and security for that which it cannot provide.  This results in a chasing after the idol, driven by the conviction that eventually the idol will somehow provide the promised significance and security.  The cycle repeats itself.  Longing provides the opportunity to chase, and chasing creates a deeper longing.  Effectively the idol possesses the one who fashioned it.  The yearning for significance and security that initiated the dynamic of idolatry has in fact led to a deeper dissatisfaction and a greater frustration – a dissatisfaction and frustration caused by the inability of the idol to fulfil that which it appeared to promise.

That’s worth reading again – and it helps us as God’s people fight against the idols in our own hearts and lives.

Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry, p. 156-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Your God is Too Small!

In the first half of his excellent book published in 1955, Your God is Too Small, J. B. Phillips exposes “the inadequate conceptions of God which still linger unconsciously in many minds, and which prevent our catching a glimpse of the true God.”  Or, to put it in the form of a question, “What are some faulty views of God?”  Here are some of Phillips’ (edited/summarized) explanations of inadequate conceptions of God.

1) Resident Policeman.  To many people conscience is almost all that they have by way of knowledge of God.  No serious advocate of religion would deny the function of conscience, yet to make conscience into God is a highly dangerous thing to do.  Conscience is by no means an infallible guide and it is extremely unlikely that we will ever be moved to love, worship, and serve a nagging inner voice.

2) Parental Hangover.  In this view, the conception of God is almost invariably founded upon the child’s idea of his father.  This view almost always goes hand in hand with fear and/or guilt.

3) Grand Old Man.  Some Sunday School children were once asked to write down their ideas as to what God was like.  Most of the answers said something like this: ‘God is a very old gentleman living in heaven.’  Children often view their superiors and “old,” which carries over into a person’s conception of God.  People use old and archaic language or Victorian expressions to speak about and pray to God, because he seems old to them.

4) Meek-and-Mild.  Why on earth do children’s hymns call Jesus ‘mild?’  Of all the epithets that could be applied to Christ this seems one of the least appropriate.  What does the word ‘mild’ bring to mind?  Someone who would let sleeping dogs lie and avoid trouble; someone of a placid temperament who is almost a stranger to the passions of red-blooded humanity.

5) Heavenly Bosom.  Some critics accuse Christianity of being escapist.  They do have a point, as is evident in the hymn ‘Jesus Lover of My Soul.’  It is true that there is refuge and shelter in God, but this is not pietistic escapism as if we can be free from life’s troubles.

6) Managing Director.  Humans have a tendency to build up a mental picture of God from our knowledge and experience of man.  Man may be made in the image of God, but it is not sufficient to conceive of God as nothing more than an infinitely magnified man.  This view runs the risk of thinking of God as the Commander-in-Chief who cannot possibly spare the time to attend to the details of his subordinates’ lives.

You’ll have to get the book to read the details of those points (Note: the book is well under $10 on Kindle or paperback).  Phillips also talks about these faulty views of God: Projected Image, Pale Galilean, God-in-a-Box, Second-Hand God, Perennial Grievance, and a few others.  In the second half of the book he gives a constructive – biblical – explanation of who God is and what he is like.  As Phillips notes in the intro,

“If it is true that there is Someone in charge of the whole mystery of life and death, we can hardly expect to escape a sense of futility and frustration until we begin to see what he is like and what his purposes are.”

J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, New York: MacMillan, 1955.

shane lems

Relevance, Truth, and Eternity

Product Details  I’ve mentioned many of Os Guinness’ books on this blog in the past, including this one: Prophetic UntimelinessGuinness is one of those authors I always enjoy reading.  Below is a section from Prophetic Untimeliness that I have marked up quite a bit; it is on the topic of relevance and the church today.

“Simone Weil, the French philosopher, [said], ‘To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.’”

“So how on earth…can we achieve the impossible?  To begin with, we have to face the fact that the pursuit of relevance as being constantly timely is a mirage.  When relevance is invoked as a self-authenticating concept, it becomes meaningless and dangerous because it begs the questions, Relevance for what?  Relevance to whom?”

“Such questions are commonly ignored in today’s headlong rush after the unholy trinity of the powerful, the practical, and the profitable.  But if we don’t ask them, the constant appeal to relevance becomes an idol, a way of riding slipshod over truth, and a means of corralling opinion deceptively.  Until, that is, we finally deceive ourselves.”

“The fact is that nothing is finally relevant except in relation to the true and the eternal.  Unless something is true; its perspective will at some point be wrong and its practical value in the end will be nil.  Only truth and eternity give relevance to ‘relevance.’  To think or do anything simply ‘because it’s relevant’ will always prove to be irrational, dangerous, and a sure road to burnout.  It may taste like unpleasant medicine to our practical modern thinking, but in fact it’s a powerful antidote to perpetual folly: There is an irrelevance to the pursuit of relevance just as there is a relevance to the practice of irrelevance.”

Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 105-106.

shane lems

Idolatry and the Cult of Narcissism

In the last few years, quite a few Christian preachers and authors have written books that discuss idolatry in the Christian’s life.  Building on C.S. Lewis and other currently trendy Christian thinkers from the recent past, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll and other popular leaders do a decent job unmasking the idols many of us have.  I’m glad these teachers are helping us fight idolatry in our lives, but in my opinion their work takes a distant back seat to a book written nearly 30 years ago: Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols For Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture.

I have mentioned this book on the blog before (here and here), but it is important enough to mention again.  In Idols for Destruction, Schlossberg talks about these: 1) Idols of History, 2) Idols of Humanity, 3) Idols of Mammon/Money, 4) Idols of Nature, 5) Idols of Power, and 6) Idols of Religion.  The final two chapters are sort of application chapters where Schlossberg wrestles with the difficult questions of how Christianity relates to such an idolatrous culture.  This 300+ page book is a brilliant and scholarly walk-through and critique of the idols Americans worship daily.

For one example, listen to Schlossberg’s discussion of narcissism – or at least a little part of his discussion:

“Psychologies of narcissism fall into the mainstream of the new American society in stressing the importance of the experiences of life.  As materialism gives way to the new spiritualism, what is possessed seems less important than what is experienced.  People would rather save for a luxurious vacation than a luxurious car.  Experience is important because it is composed of sensations, and sensations are all that is left of man after the reductionisms of both behaviorism and pantheism destroy his being.  For behaviorists and pantheists human life consists of a succession of sensations inhering in nothing.  Without experiencing sensations, then, man loses his identity, even his existence” (p. 167).

After reading this book, the other recent books on idolatry seem elementary to me.  You might guess the book would be dated since Schlossberg wrote it around 30 years ago, but it is not.  Over and over again as I read it, I was amazed at how his explanations and discussions are completely relevant today.

If you read and study Idols for Destruction, you’ll save time and money: you won’t have to get all the recent books that discuss idolatry.  Granted, Idols for Destruction is a tough read; it is not for everyone.  It’ll take time and energy to work through.  But I guarantee it will be the best book on American idolatry that you’ve ever read. 

shane lems

The Church as Sponge (Or: Religion as an Idol)

 In this brilliant book, Idols for Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg argues how religion can become idolatrous when churches water down their distinctives.  This is also known as syncretism.  I don’t have the space to discuss this part of the book (chapter 6) in-depth here, but I do want to throw out a few thought-provoking quotes.

“Ecclesiastical structures that depart from the faith do so by the loss of distinctiveness, the gradual conformation of their thought and life to that of the larger community.  Sociological observations confirm that, by and large, the religious institutions of the United States do not teach values that are distinctive to their own traditions but rather use religious terminology that ratifies the values of the broader society.  There is little to distinguish what the churches say from what other institutions teach, and we are left therefore with only an indistinctive religion-in-general” (p. 235).

“…The master of the American church is likely to be whatever cultural or intellectual fad has gained the ascendancy.  Christology displays this tendency when the Gospels are used selectively to show that the ‘real Jesus’ was an exemplar of the American middle class, or perhaps a guerrilla fighter, a social democrat, or a model of psychological fitness.  This is a recipe for intellectual and spiritual sterility, for by accepting the dead-end of the reigning assumption, the church absorbs whatever conclusions ‘englightened’ people consider current.  In sociological terms, the church functions as just another means used by the political and social establishment to integrate society’s values into the next generation.  The support it receives depends on the extent to which it uncritically transmits values.  Its passivity makes it acceptable and ensures its irrelevance” (p. 236-7).

How ironic!  In the name of being ‘relevant,’ many American churches put away their doctrinal distinctives which ultimately leads to their irrelevance.  In Barth’s terms, the church becomes a “fifth wheel.”  Schlossberg said it best.

“It is a paradox that the attempt to be contemporaneous, which is to say relevant, ensures the irrelevance of theologies and churches.  Taking their values and their epistemologies…from whatever it is that history has brought to center stage, churches completely lose their function.  Instead of exposing the modern idols, they promote and serve them” (p. 255).

I agree.  It is high time for American churches to stop catering to this culture and start calling out the idols of the day (money, power, experience, religion, sex, politics, etc.).  And this must start with our own churches smashing these idols in her midst.  Maybe another title of this post could be, “The Church as Iconclast.”

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Treasures, Gifts, Idols

 

“How do you feel when you lose a night of sleep or stub your toe or misplace a twenty-dollar bill?  Sleep, feet, and money are all good things, aren’t they?  But when losing or injuring these things makes your world fall apart, more precisely, makes you fall apart, doesn’t that reveal something about what your heart has attached itself to?  A seminary professor of mine had a helpful saying that I’ve never forgotten, ‘You know what your idols are by observing this: when they shake, you shake.'”

“Am I cherishing, trusting in, or fearing the dwindling of my bank account?  Then God loves me enough to send an unexpected bill in the mail perhaps.  Do I trust too much in the complements I receive?  Then God may send me into a ‘dry season’ where the most encouraging thing I hear is ‘have a nice day’ from the girl in the drive-through window.  Paul’s hardships [cf. 2 Cor 1.9] were aimed to arrest his attention and soberly remind him that sleep, food, companionship, or any creature comfort were not enough to carry him through life.  Such gifts become idols when we rely on them to bring us satisfaction.  Paul needed one thing at the center, the same thing we need – Christ alone.”

Quotes taken from page 71-72 of Greg Dutcher’s You Are the Treasure That I Seek.

shane lems

sunnyside wa