In his masterful work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed:
“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
That may seem to be a peculiar notion. Some will, no doubt, simply chalk it up to “O, that Calvin guy had a lot of strange ideas”. Some, being a bit more charitable, may concede that this might be true of man in his fallen nature, but certainly no longer the case once we have been made new creations through faith in Jesus Christ. Some may go even a little further, admitting that sometimes Christians do struggle with issues akin to idolatry, such as lust and pornography, love of money or materialism, or co-dependency and fear of man.
But Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, goes even further and deeper:
We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit God, especially the very best things in life.
What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
A counterfeit God is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought…
If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.
While Keller clearly states that idols are often the good things in our lives, I have found that many people, godly people, may accept this as truth yet still fail to recognize the idols that drive and shape them. They get caught up by phrases such as “more important that God”. To their minds, nothing is more important to them than God. And while in many cases I have no question that this is true of them when it comes to their professional faith (the faith they profess, and actually intellectually believe), they are unaware of the idols that influence them and their functional faith (the faith that effects the moment by moment emotions).
It is somewhat like a malware virus I have had on my computer on a few occasions. Once the virus infects the computer it automatically blocks any attempts to identify the problem. In fact, every attempt to clean it out only serves to further strengthen and entrench the virus. Likewise, in some people I have encountered such a powerful block that any attempts to identify the spiritual malware – the idols – is met with a greater resolve that they are not infected. This especially seems to be the case when the malware is something good, something very good, something even godly, such as a powerful desire for church growth, evangelism, doctrinal purity, etc. Malware in such guise seems to almost always shut down any suggestion that these are problems.
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