The final session of the Gods at War series by Kyle Idleman presented the claim that all of the other idols covered in the series came down to one root idol: ourselves. That, fundamentally, we must choose between serving, trusting, and giving glory to God or to ourselves. That no matter what form the worship of self takes, it is ultimately about a rejection of the one true God and an elevation of self as the ultimate end of all we do. There was a lot wrapped up in this, but one question stood out specifically to me: have you ever chose not to pursue something because you felt it would lead you further from God? For the first time in this series, rather than God using my past errors to show me what this means, He reminded me of how great it is to serve Him rather than me. But I did not learn that lesson quickly.
I don't know if you know this about me, but nearly every federal election cycle hosts a temptation for me. Now, this is partly a religious thing, a desire to see someone in office who stands for the values I stand for without adding in a bunch of stuff I really cannot abide. But when I'm being honest, that isn't my primary motivation. Mostly it's that I have anarchist tendencies (when I'm being more generous and less angry they can be disguised well as libertarian leanings) and a pride issue and this makes me want to get into the government and start tearing things down and rebuilding it in a way that would actually work. Because, obviously, I'm so great and clever that I could do that better than any of the jokers we keep electing. I now know, on a practical level, that this is nonsense and the process would hurt a lot of people, but no one ever said our temptations had to be good or sensible things.
Understand, it isn't that running for office is a bad thing, it's that my heart wants it for bad reasons. If I go into politics, I can let myself believe that I'm saving the world and doing it my way. But ministry, which I have been called to, doesn't allow that. Ministry has a knack for reminding people that we are just servants participating in God's work, and his plans are far better than ours. When I am fighting off the temptation to turn astray from my calling to pursue public office, I am fighting off a very direct idol of self and trying to reject following and trusting God. This will look different for all of us, but we must not give in to whatever it is that pulls our affection away.
By the time I moved from Norwood to Amherst in 2009, I knew that my future involved church planting. I didn't know what that would look like, I didn't know where it would happen, I didn't even know how to start exploring that fact. But it was a fact, I knew that somewhere deep in my soul. God's process of working on me had kept coming back around to this, it was constantly on my mind, and even though our brief and poorly-handled church planting attempt in Norwood went belly up within a few months, the act of being there for it just burned a desire and joy into me that has never really left. And as I spent time looking at what would be required of me to run for office, campaigning around an area that at the time occupied nearly half of Massachusetts and doing interviews and filling out paperwork and raising money, I was forced to realize that I didn't have time to both run a successful campaign and invest in my church in the way I needed to. I had to choose.
I never turned the paperwork in.
In 2017, I was invited to preach at my friend's church in Vermont while he was out of town. He gave me a passage to preach that would lead into a series he would be starting the following week. The actual message I preached was about taking seriously the fact that we, as Christians, are representatives of Christ and the things we obsess over tell the secular world what God obsesses over. The things we oppose tell the world what God opposes. Do we represent Him well? Do we showcase in all that we do that our trust is in Him and His grace, rather than governments or armies or even our own works? When we advertise what it means to be a Christian, are we making more noise about God's love and grace or His judgment and law? In the service they had done a congregational reading of the ten commandments and so I asked, how quick are we to beg with tears that monuments of the ten commandments stay posted in our town squares as a sign of our faith, and how does that compare to how quickly we preach the gospel to the homeless who sleep under those monuments? Are we as serious about the things Jesus described about what a Christian life looks like as we are about the rules? What do you think the world believes about the gospel when all they hear is rules?
Now my friend and I have joked about the fact that, afterward, there were emails about that sermon. I got emails about that sermon. He got emails about that sermon. These were not terribly encouraging emails. I haven't been back to his church. The real reason is that my family moved two hours away and I got pretty busy with another church so the opportunity just hasn't been there as much, but when we ran into each other at the Small Town Summit I joked that it was because of the emails we got from that sermon. My pastor sat in on the sermon and when he heard about the emails he told my friend that he wasn't really surprised. It truly is an act of grace that my pastor let me preach at our church after that.
But in one of those emails, a member of his church asked me what he seemed to think would be a gotcha question. "If you knew that being elected would ensure that you could stop abortion right now," he asked, "and save the lives of so many precious little ones, would you do it?" He was trying to get me to confess to a certain reliance on political power that I had condemned in the sermon, and oh, how tempting that question was. Not only because I am pro-life, but ever since the 2016 election I had been struggling even more with the temptation to get elected and burn the whole system down from inside. This guy was pushing exactly the right button, and I realized it wasn't an accident. So I prayed before I replied.
"I would not run," I answered. "Not because I do not value that cause, because I do value it; but because God has called me to a different path and I would rather turn down a great work than refuse that which God has commanded." I hit send and never heard from that guy again. And that moment has given me great comfort ever since.
I tell you all that so I can tell you this: nothing in my life has brought more joy, peace, and growth than following the road God has chosen for me. Whenever I have sought after my own will, He has reminded me of His call and forced me to make a choice. Idleman noted that God consistently does this throughout scripture and in our own lives. He will not share us with any other lovers, and whatever we choose apart from Him, he will ensure that we must make a choice at some point. He did it in my life when I was seeking political power. He did it in my life when I wanted to give up on Boston and go back to PA but knew that doing so would ensure I fell right back into the same vices and idols I'd been chasing after before He started His intensive work in my life. He did it when I was pursuing a degree in Astrophysics and realized the only school I could reasonably apply to would be a two-hour drive one way and my wife and I came to the conclusion that if I was going to sacrifice my entire day between classes and commuting I better be certain that it is to pursue what God has for me. I do, as it turns out, drive two hours one way to school now during semesters when I'm enrolled in classes; but the degree I'm working toward is pastoral ministry with a minor in church planting.
When people ask me why I feel called to serve in full-time ministry I usually tell them that God has told us as much, and has confirmed that calling multiple times. What I don't mention as often is that He has also made it very clear that I don't belong anywhere else. Any time I go off and start trying to make my own plans and serve my own interest about things that I think will make me feel important and powerful and successful at forging my own path and saving the world because obviously I'm really equipped to be the savior of the world, He makes me choose. And each time, I have to stop and look at the door I'm trying to force open and be reminded of the one He's put my name on, and I have to let go.
And it gets easier. There are things I still struggle with and I'm sure there always will be, but they're diminishing and changing. As I have matured and grounded my joy on Christ more, I have found myself pushing off in my own direction less often. Because in the end, none of my attempts to make my life work by my rules ever brought me lasting joy or peace. Just look at the rest of the posts in this series and see a sampling of the pain I've endured and inflicted on others through my quest for self-fulfillment. When I serve me first, I can drift off into becoming a true monster, and it isn't worth it. Are you any different, really? Does your idolatry of self improve your life and soul and mind any more than mine has?
The Leader's Guide had us close the final session with Psalm 16, and while the whole psalm is worth consideration, I want to highlight two verses as I end my thoughts on this series.
I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
When everybody loves me
The fact is that we were actually made to draw our value and significance from love, but can never find that need satisfied by the love fallen humans can offer. Because the love we can offer each other, even without the fall, was always meant to be a reflection of the true and greater love poured out on us by God. We cannot be for each other the kind of lover we truly need.
While each lesson has had a question or two that invite people to talk about how these idols have impacted their lives, this was the first week that had us go into smaller groups and really dig into a period of confession. Probably because these idols are some of the easiest to fall into, and to never notice, and to never have noticed by those in our church families. I mean, when do we really talk about sex? Based on the conversations we usually have at church and small groups, how would anyone know if we were struggling with this?
Abusive, and manipulative, and controlling idols of love have given us a false understanding of what it means to talk candidly about the things that hinder our walk. And works-based salvation models have made this problem worse. But if we will be vulnerable, and honest, before our God and our fellow members of the body, we can experience the freedom and relief that comes from a truly confessional life; marked not by a seeking after meaning and value in love, but by a comfortable recognition of the value we already have to the One who loved us first.
This week we discussed idols that fall under the broad category of pleasure. Most of the discussion centered around sex and food, but we did branch out to other things as they came up. One of the issues we talked about was the danger in trying to solve one's idolatry on one's own power; if we have made an idol out of food, for instance, we may try to solve it by going on a diet and exercising. But if that's all we do it's very likely we'll just set the exercising routine up as a new idol. The post-workout endorphin rush can be just as effective a god in our lives as the one that comes from eating to cope. There's a lot that can be said about this, but it's also true of basically all of the forms of idolatry that will be discussed in the series, so this week I want to focus on something that came up that was specific to the topic at hand.
See, our church is located in a town that has been significantly impacted by the opioid crisis. There's also a state college in town, with youth who have been exposed to addictive substances in their first outing away from home, and a not-insignificant level of poverty which tends to exist in the same space as various addictions. Between our food pantry, general outreach, and a growing number of members who live in the city, we interact with addiction. As such it was important for us to get this issue down.
How we view addiction will define how we treat addicts, and how we treat addicts impacts our ability to be effective witnesses of God's love to our communities. If we operate from the assumption that it is a moral or theological failing, we have a habit of being harsh and, in many cases, demanding change before they are welcome in our churches and outreaches--an approach that is not done in love or justified in scripture. So there is value in understanding the secular studies that have shown a medical aspect to addiction; however, if we hold only to that, and write all of the related symptoms off as always being addiction, we will never be able to recognize idolatry when it arises. We must help those who need help, support those who need support, and tear down false gods; and we must do so in a manner that always glorifies God and points our communities to Him in love.
We ultimately came to the conclusion that pleasure idolatry and addiction are broadly overlapping issues that may or may not arise in the same person, even with the same substance or practice, but are nevertheless distinct. That we need to get to know people well enough to be in a position to recognize the difference between a physical placebo and a spiritual one. Both addiction and idolatry need to be addressed, but in different ways, but in the end only Christ can cure either. We must put Him, and His guidance, first in all that we do.
Worship is something we do constantly and, in fact, cannot stop doing. Worship is the sum total of all the ways we organize our lives -- our schedules, our interests, our finances, our loves -- around the thing or things we believe will give our lives meaning, direction, and joy.
Now, this is accurate. All of these things are idolatry (and I have, on more than one national holiday, gotten into some trouble for observing the ways in which this definition of idolatry seems to fit so well the way we treat our flag, and national anthem, and military/police, and nation, but that's something for another post), and should be recognized as such. We must acknowledge the ways that worship shapes our behavior and recognize where our gods are revealed. But I feel we don't always say clearly enough that idolatry is also passive.
What lies at the root of our goals and alliances? What is it we are ultimately trying to accomplish? We have to dig deep here. Sure, our reason for having a given job is to make money in order to meet our needs in order to survive, but is that it? Does it go deeper than that? What is it we intend to do with that life, with that money, with that title? See, if we don't go any deeper, if we let the question end at "I have a job so I can survive," then either we are using our survival as the ultimate governing principle or we are not allowing us to see what our ultimate governing principle actually is. Either way, any 'ultimate governing principle' in our lives functions as a god. It is the end to which we will devote our energy, our time, our resources, our gifts. It will be the final deciding factor in what jobs we take, what we do in our off hours, and how we view all of it. What is the purpose of our politics? Is it enough to want our country to look a certain way? I talked to a lot of one-issue voters in the last Presidential election, whether that one issue was opposing Trump or supporting a pro-life appointment to the Supreme Court or whatever else, in no case did any of them tell me their one issue was facilitating the spread of the gospel. It is possible the gospel was an underlying reason for their support of that one issue, but many of those cases gave me some amount of reason to doubt they were thinking that far ahead. The question was, in every case, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to see your one issue reached? What are you willing to accept as long as it comes with the promise of that one issue? The election cycle and the years that followed, I believe, show that we are willing to lay quite a lot at the altar of achieving our political ends.
We may not always be acting in a manner that directly interacts with our idol. We may not even really be thinking about our idol in a given moment. But we will fashion our lives and words and alliances in a way that draws us ever closer to what we believe our idol demands of us. We will give our idol priority in our schedule, in our relationships, and in our decision-making process. And that, even if not active in that moment, is part of worship. We need to ask ourselves occasionally, what is our ultimate governing principle? And whatever we say it is, do our lives actually reflect that? Because if they don't, then we're misleading ourselves about what our principle actually is.
By what standard do we judge others? Whether or not Christians should judge at all is not really the point here. What is the point is what standards people hold each other to. Think seriously about the criteria we use to gauge one another. Do we fundamentally look down on people in a different tax bracket as us, who vote different than us, whose family life is different than ours? Do we think a person's clothing or job title or race or address say everything we need to know about them?
To what do we give the right of judgment? What is it that we allow to measure the value of a human life? What is our standard of morality?
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus