Idol Hope

The story is often told that John D. Rockefeller, an oil magnate and one of the richest men of his time, was once asked when he would be happy. He is said to have replied, “When I make one more dollar.”

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.   —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.  —Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

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I have spent some time thinking about idols recently, mostly because I find the idea to be so challenging. An idol is something, anything, our hearts desire above God—something we put our hope in and believe will make us happy. I usually have no difficulty listing those things by the handful in my life. And yet, I believe idolatry is at the very core of a lack of peace and joy that often haunts me. Since we were created for a relationship with God in which He is central in our lives, displacement of Him from that place displaces everything else. We end up with broken relationships with one another, a distorted understanding of who we are and either an over- or under-appreciation of the good things God has put in the world for us. To be sure, I mean that loving even things as good as family and friends more than God—or the other way around, even loving our own virtue or sacrifice in not valuing the things of this world—will ultimately leave us broken and disappointed.

Said another way, we were created for a “vertical” relationship with God—created to enjoy all other good things, including our “horizontal” relationships with one another (and the world around us), in light (and proper understanding) of that relationship. But we often try to make the horizontal relationships central, and everything deteriorates from there. This is the very definition of sin in the Bible. Not “loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”

Anyway, all this contemplation about how very many things I am inclined to make central in my life over and above God made me realize two (perhaps?) more encouraging things about idolatry. One—we were made to worship. And two—though basically everything we worship disappoints us, they all point to the One who will not.

On the first point, I believe everyone lives their lives for something—hopes in something. There is something that everyone treasures and pursues beyond all else. Almost all of them are good things—family, friends, love, relationships…virtue, kindness, self-sacrifice…even sex, money and power—all gifts from God. The problem is not in the enjoyment of them, it’s in making them central pursuits in our lives—it’s in putting our hope in them and worshipping them! But this very act of worship puts us in a place where we recognize there is something outside us for which we were made. We lay prostrate before it and spend our lives pursuing it. It becomes our god. Very often it is not the God who made us and loves us, but it is something. And the fact that we pick something to worship demonstrates that in His design of you, He made you to desire something more—He made you to hope. We were made to worship.

The problem is described in Romans 1, where it tells us we tend to twist things around and worship created things rather than the Creator. All of these things will disappoint us, even destroy us in the end; even the best of them. What’s worse, we will also destroy those things. When we ask of others what only God can provide we crush them under the weight of sustaining our very essence, a weight that no created thing can uphold.

I ran 4 marathons in the last 7 months culminating in the achievement of a tremendous goal toward which I had labored extensively over the last year—I qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon. But my notes from the morning of the race read: “I die a little every time I accomplish a goal…” See I realized as the race approached that my satisfaction would be much less than what I anticipated when I set out. I don’t mean to diminish the achievement or my enjoyment of it—it’s just that so often when I get what think I want, it does not fulfill me. I just want to run a little faster, run a couple more races (maybe an ultra), feel a little better at the finish. I just want one more dollar.

The ends we idolize are not meant to win our hearts, but the fact that they call our hearts points to the very God who created them. And while I am disappointed by my own lack of worship of the True God, it leaves a bittersweet emptiness. Each time it shows that my heart was made to worship the Creator God—and it shows a glimpse of the joy that is promised when we properly worship Him:

  • Family and friends show the community God wants us to share in his House;
  • Sex shows the intimate, almost romantic relationship He desires us to have in communion with Him—rapturous and blissful!;
  • Money and power are a chance to serve others as Jesus Christ served us.

So lately, I try to wink at my idols. I want to let them know that I know that they make empty promises and can actually serve to help me understand what’s lacking in my worship of God—that they tempt but the promises are empty; that the hope I find in them will only be realized by hope in God.

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My race morning note concluded “…and yet I am made more aware of the fullness of life in Christ.” For in Jesus we see God become a man and die in pursuit of we who treasure all the shiny baubles more than we treasure Him. But He treasured and loved us at the cost of His own life so He could offer us a Hope that will not return empty. Only when we see and understand this love can we begin to worship Him properly.

We hope in many things, yet only This Hope will not disappoint.

  1. Makes me think about what it means to store up ‘treasures in heaven’. Great to see inklings back in action.

    Hard to let go of idol attachment, especially as I tend find myself hardening with age. However, I also feel it shouldn’t be so complicated either. I think you sound way too hard on yourself in the first section. Sure, we can criticize the sin within us, but better to try to let it go, or at least try to focus more on realizing the Kingdom among us. It’s easy to beat ourselves up with woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, but in the Kingdom there is just now and eternity. One of my favorites from corinthians- ‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall now fully, even as I am fully known.’

    Yes, I take full responsibility for trying to crash your funk/moodiness with my ‘wanna be professional surfer, dude I’m clueless but I just caught a few waves’, attitude. 🙂

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