“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.
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.
How can they be problems? Are they not things that God calls us to? Are these not areas which are most closely akin to honoring God? The answer is “absolutely yes”. God does call us to these things, and these are means by which we can honor God. But they are also things that can give us purpose, identity, and status. And like malware, idolatry is a tricky thing. It will appear as something good, or attach itself to something good, and slowly but effectively corrupt what is good for its own nefarious purposes. And when anything, other than or in addition to God, provides us our identity, purpose, etc, these things, regardless how good or noble, are functioning as idols – spiritual malware.
The only antidote to the spiritual malware of idolatry is an awareness of our susceptibility with a corresponding recognition of our continual need to be cleaned up and cleaned out; and then we need to have effective malware protection that regularly scans our hearts, identifies infected files of our souls, and performs its exorcising work. This is probably especially needed in those of us who are most actively and visibly involved in advancing the Kingdom of Christ, whether as full time ministers or zealous churchmen.
The antidote is the Gospel itself. We are to take frequent dosages daily. We do this by reminding ourselves of the central message of the gospel, and meditating upon its various aspects. In fact, by deepening and widening our understanding of the gospel and the gospel’s implications, we fortify our souls against newer strains of the spiritual malware of idolatry.
But, no matter how faithful and diligent we are to replenish ourselves with the gospel, we will never be completely inoculated. In other words, we must realize that because our hearts are “little idol factories”, as Calvin said, that we are always vulnerable. Therefore it is important that, while taking daily doses of the gospel, we perform regular personal assessment, frequent scans, of our own hearts. One way to do this is to ask yourself some heart penetrating questions.
Scott Thomas , President of Acts 29 Network, offers us an excellent virus protection tool through a thorough inventory check that he calls 35 X-Ray Questions. If one regularly asks these questions of himself/herself, and honestly considers the answers, many – maybe even most – of those pesky subtle idols will begin to be exposed. Once exposed they can be eradicated by applying the gospel directly.
For best results repeat this process frequently, even daily. In time one will begin to see evidences of humility, enhanced worship experiences because the the gospel will mean more to us, and joy that comes from the freedom we have in Christ.