Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Sense of Goodness

Perhaps the most challenging idol in our hearts, and this is true for almost all of us, is our sense of entitlement. 

Entitlement has gotten a bit of a heavy connotation in our culture, as we often use it to talk about programs that provide benefits to those who do not receive them from working - things like food stamps, government health insurance, unemployment, and the like. We call these "entitlement" programs. But that's not what we're talking about when we talk about the problem of entitlement in the heart. 

Entitlement in the heart is the sense that we somehow deserve something, that we have earned it. Particularly, when we talk about idols and our worship of God, that God owes us something. 

For most of us, this arises out of a sense of our own 'goodness.' We hold a measuring stick up against our lives and determine that we are 'good' persons. We give of our time and resources, we don't curse, we help others, we read our Bible, we go to church, we pray faithfully. We can go on and on listing the things that we are certain make us good. And if we are good, and particularly if we are good in the ways that God desires for us to be good, then He owes us the good life. We have earned it. We deserve it. 

This is why it is so devastating for us when life doesn't go our way, when it is harder or less pleasant than we think it ought to be. When we face trials and troubles. Something in our entitled hearts cries out, but wait! I am good. Because we have come to believe that it is our goodness, not His, that determines the course of our lives. 

What makes this so troubling is that what has happened in this scenario is that our own entitlement, that thing that we have come to worship, has actually set us up to worship the Lord Himself as an idol. 

That's how idol worship has worked for every peoples since the beginning of time - if they are faithful, if they are good, if they do the things that their idol desires of them and offer pleasing sacrifices and please the god of their affections, then their god owes them whatever it is they are seeking, whether it be healing or fertility or a bountiful harvest or whatever. It's why the prophets of Baal did everything they could think of, even down to cutting themselves and pouring out their own blood at his altar, to try to get him to show himself on Mount Carmel; Baal's presence and power were directly connected to their living worship. 

So when we get this notion that it is our goodness that makes God faithful, we are doing nothing more than reducing Him to the same kind of idol that the world has always worshiped. No wonder, then, that in times like these, He is less likely to answer us in the ways that we expect. No wonder He continues to stand up against our sense of entitlement and declare that this is not the way that He works. No wonder we're so continually frustrated. 

We have taken our worship and turned it to not one, but two idols, and both will inevitably fail us. 

(That is not the say that the Lord fails us. Rather, it is only to say that we are failed by our false ideas of Him when we do not worship the true Living God but only our image of Him.) 

As we talked about yesterday, this is difficult because it seems to be rooted in a nugget of truth. God is good. He does love us. He does want good for us. He does care what we are doing with our lives and the ways that we are choosing to live. We do want to be good persons. We do want to live good lives. All of these things are good. It is only when it becomes transactional, rather than intimately relational, that it is no longer good. It is when it becomes tit-for-tat and an expectation based out of our own goodness rather than His that it's troublesome. 

And then, my friends, it is most troublesome. For the idol of our own goodness sets us for us an idol of our faithful God, and before we know it, we have spent our lives worshiping a god made in our own image, rather than one who created us in His. And that's why this particular idol in our hearts is so devastating. 

Because it takes us so, so far away from where we think we're going, all the while telling us that we're getting there. 

Beware, then, your sense of your own goodness. And focus instead on His. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Affairs of the Heart

Yesterday, we looked at some of the idols in our lives that are fairly easy to tear down, for when they come up against the truth of God, they don't stand a chance. These idols are often external to us - they are ideas outside of ourselves that we are convinced somewhere, somehow to buy into. 

What's more difficult are the idols that set up in our hearts. These internal idols, we often don't realize are distractions to our true worship. In fact, we often think they are an integral part of it. 

That's because these idols are often rooted in some kind of truth, but that truth gets corrupted to the point that it's hard for us to tell what is truly good and what isn't. 

We're talking about things here like the things that often lead us to say stuff like, "That's just who I am" and "If you can't handle that, then you can't handle me" and "I'm not going to apologize for who I am." We even go so far as to say, "This is how God made me." 

Eh...maybe. 

We can recognize these kinds of idols when we find ourselves starting to offer a ton of justifications for our behavior or our thought processes. It's a bit messy because often, our justifications have to do with "God," but it's not quite as clear-cut as it seems. 

God can make you confident, but He never makes you obstinate. So the minute you're claiming your confidence in God as a reason to no longer have to listen to anyone else, what you have in your heart is not holy. 

God can make you generous and self-sacrificing, but He never makes you self-ruining. So when you try to give out of an empty place, that's not God. And He never makes you indispensable. So the moment you think that whatever you're doing can't be done without you, even if it's because you're serving God in that place, then what you have in your heart is not holy. 

God can make you gifted, but He never makes you arrogant. So the minute you start boasting in your gifts and not the Gift Giver, what you have in your heart is not holy. 

God can make you compassionate and encouraging and a tremendous gift to those around you, but when you start receiving your affirmations from those you're blessing instead of the One who has blessed you, what you have in your heart is not holy. 

See? It's tough. These are good things, all of them. Every single one of these things, and so many more, are gifts from God. But the minute that we start thinking they are our gifts and not His, they become something less than holy. They become, honestly, profane. 

These idols are harder to defeat in our lives because they seem like such good things, because they are rooted in a nugget of truth that is God's truth. You are beautiful. You are talented. You are a blessing. You have every reason to be confident. You have every grace to be generous. All of these things are true, and they are things that God has put in your heart for a reason. They make you who you are. 

But being who you are can't make you arrogant about your self. It can't make you unmovable or unchanging. It can't make you unapologetic. That's, maybe, the best way to see where the idols in our lives are. When something that we do or a certain way that we behave or however we try to love in the world hurts someone, causes offense, or creates greater distress than we walked into, if we are unapologetic about the way our lives have impacted someone else, then what we have in our hearts is an idol. If our gut reaction is to say, "Well, that's just who I am" or "You just can't handle me" or whatever, then what we have is not holy, and it needs to be torn down. I don't care what nugget of truth it seems to be standing on. 

And there is yet one more idol of our hearts that we must be wary of, that we must constantly be on guard against. This one is maybe tougher still. What is it? We'll talk about that tomorrow. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Objects of Our Affection

When we talk about idols, particularly when we talk about idols of the heart, it's more than just talking about the things that we believe have power in the world. We can worship an image or the work of our own hands without really loving it, and it would be an idol, but it wouldn't have our heart. We do this all the time with things like success and acknowledgement, climbing the corporate or social ladder, as it were. These are the games that we play because we feel like we have to if we want to get ahead, but we have no particular affection for them. 

These idols are certainly a threat to our true worship, and they are easily broken when we are able to rest in God's promises about who we are, where we're going, what we're doing, and how deeply He loves us. And that's precisely because these idols don't have our hearts. 

But what about the ones that do?

When we talk about idols of this type, we can really break them down into two categories: the things that have our hearts and the things of our hearts. We'll talk about the first category today (and spoiler alert: the second, tomorrow). 

The things that have our hearts are fairly straightforward: these are the idols in the world that we do have affection for, the things that we love. Specifically, they are the things that we love more than God. For some, they look like the idols that many of us could take or leave, but for others, they are a dangerous trap. They are often things that are not particularly evil or threatening in and of themselves, but only when they get into our hearts and start setting down anchors that keep us from ever drifting God-ward again. 

Things like...television. Money. Sex. Power. Appearances. Food. Achievement. The list goes on and on, and it could include nearly anything. Most of these things that get our hearts are external things. That is, they come from outside of us. They are things that we go outside of ourselves to engage in, and they are often things that we purposely get outside of ourselves to engage in. Many of them have us disconnecting from something on purpose, pushing aside some meaningful part of ourselves, some vulnerable part of ourselves that is just too fragile, we think, for a world like this one. 

The thing about these idols is that every one of them replaces something essential that God has already provided for us. Television gives us a story to invest in, neglecting the story of God that He has invested in us. Food seems to satisfy something that isn't satisfied by the world, or the Lord, or it offers us a provision that we aren't sure is coming from anywhere else, when God has provided for us from the very beginning. Achievement tells us we're worth something, though God has told us that we are worth everything. Sex tells us we can be intimately connected and feel pleasure, when God has invited us into covenant with Him and promised us good. Do you see what's happening here? The idols that we set up in our lives, the ones that we let get hold of our hearts, are things that answer the questions that God has already answered, if only we were listening to Him. They're the things that take the place of what God is supposed to be doing in our hearts, if only we'd let Him. 

These types of idols are particularly fragile, just as the other set that we talked about earlier (those we don't become attached to). A little dose of truth usually shatters these to bits. When you discover God's incredible story that you're already a part of, television can't hold a candle to that. When you know what you're worth in God's eyes, one more certificate on the wall does nothing for you. When you are deeply satisfied in the Lord, you no longer need that piece of cake or that giant cheeseburger (although it's okay to want and to enjoy both - God has, after all, made these for your pleasure). When you're in a fulfilling intimate relationship with the Creator of the Universe, you no longer need sex to feel connected to things. And on and on and on it goes, as the idols in our lives come up against the truth of God and are revealed as very poor substitutes. It's not hard to choose the better thing when you know for certain what that better thing is. 

What's harder is the third type of idols, the things of our hearts. The things that are so deep into them that they seem somehow like a fundamental part of who we are. These things are not external, but internal, and that makes them harder to topple. We'll talk about some of these tomorrow.  

Monday, April 12, 2021

Idols

When you read through the Old Testament, one of the themes that you see rather clearly is the theme of the Lord our God versus the idols of the nations. Although the idols of the nations are images and items that you could actually put your hands on, our invisible (yet ever-present) Lord defeats them every time. 

In fact, He sometimes comments on how laughable it is. These idols of wood and stone, these works of men's hands, are so easily defeated. 

And they are. 

Perhaps because they are so fragile.

Anyone who has ever owned something precious to them knows how difficult it can be to figure out what to do with something that you never want broken. Do you put it in a prominent place where you can always see it, where you will enjoy it, where it will be a centerpiece of your decor, but where even the slightest bump or breeze threatens to topple it and send it crashing in pieces to the floor? Or do you put it up somewhere safer where it is out of the way, but where you won't see it as often and it won't be central to your space?

This has to be the problem that ancient persons had with their idols, doesn't it? Do I put my idol where I can worship it...or do I put it where it can't be broken?

Remember what happened when the presence of the Lord came adjacent to the idol of Dagon. The worshipers of Dagon kept waking up to find their idol bowed down, toppled under the power of the one true God. They kept setting it back up only to find it toppled again until their idol's hands and feet broke off and it had nothing left to stand on. Rather, they had nothing left to stand it on. 

Israel just laughs about all of this. Look at those nations, depending upon their idols. Don't they know? Haven't they heard? 

It's how Hezekiah can be so confident when his enemies are taunting his army. They aren't taunting his men; they are taunting his God, claiming that no other god has been able to stand up against them, so how can anyone believe the Lord God of Israel will be able to? But the answer it's simple. It's because all these other gods are mere idols, the work of men's hands, and a strong wind could blow them over. 

The Lord God of Israel, on the other hand, is the strong wind. And if you don't believe that, then just stand in front of His people and taunt Him for a minute. 

I was reading some of these passages lately, and I was thinking about how silly it is that we form such fragile things with our hands and then put so much importance on them. I was thinking about what God repeatedly says, which is how easily these things are defeated in our lives. How quickly they fail us. And I was thinking that was true. 

But then I was thinking...what about, not the works of our hands, but the works of our hearts? What about the strong places that we build up inside our fragile egos? These...don't seem so easily defeated for some reason. These seem harder to break, almost impossible to tear down. A strong wind blows against them and somehow, they seem to lean into it. 

What's up with that? 

(It's something we'll talk about more this week.) 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

A Light in the Darkness

We started last week by talking about a heavy grief and a reflection on the fact that as Christians, we do not grieve the way that the world grieves. We do not enter the dark places the way that the world does, for we know the light. And we left off last week by talking about the Pharisees and how quick they were to determine that healing must be work when, we have to confess, they had no way of really knowing this - the Pharisees never healed anyone. 

Today, I want to bring some of this together because this is important. Namely, what I want to say is that one of the greatest failures of our faith is when we live like these Pharisees - claiming to know the light but not living it. 

In other words, one of our greatest sins is our failure, or our refusal, to enter the dark places. 

This is hard, particularly because we live in a world that values the comfortable life. And not just the world, but the Christian faith has come to say that the mark of truly faithful living is that bad stuff never happens to you. If your faith was as strong as you say it is, and if your God is as good as you say He is, then you wouldn't have to suffer. You wouldn't have troubles. You wouldn't face the hard things. 

I'm not sure where we came up with this notion. It's certainly not something we see in the Bible. Throughout His story, God's people have had troubles. Jesus even promises us that we will - in this world, you will have trouble. Christians have never been exempt from illness, from death, from disease, from poverty, from famine. In fact, if you read God's story at all, the one thing you notice is that His people always seem to start in need. That's how they come to meet God. That's how they come to know Him. 

And yet, here we are, saying that we cannot go into the dark places because somehow, the dark places are a failure of our faith. The hard stuff is a betrayal of our good God. 

I'm telling you, the very opposite is true: it is a failure of our faith to refuse to enter the dark places. It is a betrayal of our good God not to engage the hard stuff.

And that's because we know how good He is. It's because we know the value of faith and the difference that His promises make in our lives. The Pharisees thought they had all the truth in the world about God, but they never put it into practice and healed anyone. They never stepped into the hard places with it. They never exercised what they knew, and they never exorcised the demons of the world. I think that's one of the reasons Jesus was so frustrated with them all the time - they had all the light of His hope right in their hands, and they refused to put it into the darkness where it could actually help someone. 

I think that's why He gets so frustrated with us. We have all the light of His hope right in our hands, but we still step back from the dark places instead of stepping boldly into the very situations where we have the greatest witness. We pull back from the hard things instead of facing them head-on. We pretend that our hope is supposed to shield us from all these things when in fact, our hope is meant to strengthen us for them. 

And that's why we go into the dark places. Not because we want to - nobody wants to. Nobody wants to face the troubles of this world. Nobody wants to wrestle with the heavy stuff. Nobody wants to grieve. 

But if we fail to do so, then it is not our faith that is failing us; it is we who are failing our faith. We are no better than the Pharisees, for we know how to heal the people, but we refuse to do it. 

So let us go boldly into the dark places. Let us step confidently into the hard things. For we are a people with all the light of His hope right in our hands; may we hold it out to those most in need of it. 

Those who, we must confess, are sometimes...ourselves.