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?
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? What is it that occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement? Or material goods such as a dream home? Or a relationship with a particular person? One or two day dreams do not indicate idolatry. Ask rather, what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?
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. In fact, the mark of an idol is that you spend too much money on it, and you must try to exercise self-control constantly. As St Paul has written, if God and his grace is the thing in the world you love most, you will give your money away to ministry, charity, and the poor in astonishing amounts (2 Cor 8:7-9). For most of us, however, we tend to over spend on clothing, or on our children, or on status symbols such as homes and cars. This reveals our idols.
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 good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. If you ask for something that you don't get, you may become sad and disappointed. Then you go on. Hey, life's not over. Those are not your functional masters. But when you pray and work for something and you don't get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god. Like Jonah, you become angry enough to die.
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. If you are angry, ask, "Is there something here too important to me, something I am telling myself I have to have at all costs?" Do the same thing about strong fear or despair and guilt. Ask yourself "Am I so scared, because something is being threatened, which I think is a necessity when it is not? Am I so down on myself because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?" If you are over-working, driving yourself into the ground with frantic activity, ask yourself, "Do I feel that I must have this thing to be fulfilled and significant?" When you ask questions like that, when you "pull your emotions up by the roots," as it were, sometimes you will find your idols clinging to them.
In Paul's letter to the Colossians he exhorted them to "put to death" the evil desires of the heart, including "greed, which is idolatry" (Col 3:5) But how? Paul laid out the way in the verses immediately before.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:1-5)
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.
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.
The great pastor and hymn-writer John Newton once wrote about this struggle:
"If I may speak my own experience, I find that to keep my eye simply on Christ, as my peace and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling … It seems easier to deny self in a thousand instances of outward conduct, than in its ceaseless endeavors to act as a principle of righteousness and power."
The man or woman who knows the difference that Newton refers to—the difference between obeying rules of outward conduct rather than setting the heart on Christ as your peace and life—is on the road to freedom from the counterfeit gods that control us.
Adapted from Counterfeit Gods © Timothy Keller 2009 by Dutton. Published with permission from the publisher.
Previous articles on Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian include:
How Tim Keller Found Manhattan | The pastor of Redeemer Church is becoming an international figure because he's a local one. (June 5, 2009)
Tim Keller Reasons with America | The New York pastor explains why he's taking his ministry model on the road. (June 20, 2008)
New York's New Hope | From inner-city gardens, to fine-art exhibitions, to political activism, street-smart churches are changing the culture of America's largest and most dynamic city. (December 1, 2004)
Manhattan Ministry a Year Later | "As of September 2002, weddings, counseling, and courage in demand" (November 18, 2002)