Why Personal Idols Destroy Community

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, 182:

One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.

Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem — idolatry is what we project onto others. Idolatry de-values others and becomes a relational cancer in our families, our communities, and our churches. In other words, personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community.

Lord, Teach Us To Live

J. H. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life (Eerdmans, 1958), 80–81:

The man who finds insufficient pleasure simply in service, simply in self-giving, simply in doing the will of Father in heaven, needs three idols.

He needs money in order to bring his life to a higher level. He needs the powerful spice of honor in order to season the food of life. He needs pleasure in order to quench his thirst after happiness. The three, when brought together in this manner and as it were placed in contrast to the great ideal itself, are idols. They are the trinity of sin. They leer at and lure human life, they pump it dry and then drive it off, and each of the three is an illusion. They are themselves far too poor to be able to satisfy for any length of time the hunger of the human heart.

They are powerful gulfs which tug at the little ship of one’s life, which draw it to the bottom, and there is no human being who can struggle himself free from their attraction. Nobody is above this, with only a single exception.

A consideration of all of the questions of life brings one to the ever more profound acknowledgment that there has been only one man who has known what life was, who has really lived, who has placed Himself beyond these three illusions, who has not bowed down before the trinity of sin — the man Jesus Christ. That is why all the questions of life converge on Him. “Lord, teach us to live!”

He offers the solution: Struggling one, you can live only if you begin with a quiet trust that you are living in a meaningful universe which was conceived and made by the eternal Father. It is possible only if you repose yourself on the confidence that He has given you your existence, your talents and your abilities, and that you have nothing more to do in the place where He has put you than quietly to shine and to serve. If you thus believe that the Father is behind everything and in everything, then you no longer need these three — money, honor, pleasure. Then you can go on your way like a child. Then you have the only true and high ideal of life that is worth the trouble to live for, namely the purpose which the Father has granted you the capabilities to complete.

If you can do this, if you can believe so firmly in Him, believe that everything in the world has its place and purpose to which it has been conceived and assigned by Him . . . but human soul, you are living then, aren’t you? To live is to serve in the confidence that one is placed in a meaningful world, by the hand of the wise Father.

Nobody Does Not Worship

Tim Keller shares this illustration in his new book, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton; 2013), 28–30:

Everybody has got to live for something, but Jesus is arguing that, if he is not that thing, it will fail you.

First, it will enslave you. Whatever that thing is, you will tell yourself that you have to have it or there is no tomorrow. That means that if anything threatens it, you will become inordinately scared; if anyone blocks it, you will become inordinately angry; and if you fail to achieve it, you will never be able to forgive yourself.

But second, if you do achieve it, it will fail to deliver the fulfillment you expected.

Let me give you an eloquent contemporary expression of what Jesus is saying. Nobody put this better than the American writer and intellectual David Foster Wallace. He got to the top of his profession. He was an award-winning, best-selling postmodern novelist known around the world for his fierce and boundary-pushing storytelling. He once wrote a sentence that was more than a thousand words long. And, tragically, he committed suicide. But a few years before that, he gave a now-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. He said to the graduating class,

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god . . . to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before [your loved ones] finally plant you. . . . Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

Wallace was by no means a religious person, but he understood that everyone worships, everyone trusts in something for their salvation, everyone bases their lives on something that requires faith. A couple of years after giving that speech, Wallace killed himself. And this non-religious man’s parting words to us are pretty terrifying: “Something will eat you alive.”

Because even though you might never call it worship, you can be absolutely sure you are worshiping and you are seeking. And Jesus says, unless you’re worshiping me, unless I’m the center of your life, unless you’re trying to get your spiritual thirst quenched through me and not through these other things, unless you see that the solution must come inside rather than just pass by outside, then whatever you worship will abandon you in the end.