By Ali Scott, 4th March 2020.

You and I have a worship problem. I make this bold statement with confidence even if I do not know you personally because this is a universal problem. It always has been and always will be.

Sometimes worship is dismissed as being an activity of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ people. However, this is not the case because everyone worships something. We might not all use the language of worship, but there is something that every life is devoted to in an ongoing quest to find meaning, purpose and pleasure.

It is a problem because the things we attempt to set up as ‘gods’ in our lives do not fulfil the promises they claim to make of giving us that hoped for meaning, purpose and pleasure. Even if they do temporarily, the reality is that in time those things will fade and become less shiny and satisfying. People will let us down. Things break. Relationships break down. Health worsens. Jobs are lost. That is because the things we make objects of worship – ‘gods’ – in our lives are created imperfect things. They were never designed to be elevated to the position of godlike status, and so we discover they are not fit for purpose, and find ourselves constantly let down. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good – marriage is good, work is good, children are good, food is good – but they just aren’t god.  

Romans 1:22-23 seeks to define to root of the human problem and does so in terms of a worship problem: 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. The Bible calls this exchange of the worship of the creator God with created things idolatry. And before we think this was/is a problem just for those who build gold statues and bow down before them each day, we need to recognise that idolatry is a far broader category than that. The 20th century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones defined idolatry really helpfully in this way: ‘An idol is something that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves and rouses and attracts me so easily that I give my time, attention, and money to it effortlessly.’

In 1 John 5:21, John closes his first letter with this command: ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’. Although this might initially seem an odd way to end a letter, when we understand the pervasive and destructive effect of idolatry it makes a lot of sense. 

So a really crucial regular life review question is this: What people or things are holding a controlling position in my life?

However, there is a further stage in identifying idols in our lives that is required. In my sermon last Sunday I spent some time exploring the difference between a surface idol and a deep idol. Surface idols are the things we tend to focus on and are the more concrete visible things like money, work, our spouse or children, our friendships. Deep idols are in our hearts under the surface affecting our motivations and desires. Surface idols that we set up in our lives are used to serve these powerful deep idols. The four big deep idols are power, approval, comfort and control. The table below shows what these deep idols look like in practice in our lives.

In addressing our idols, it is crucial we don’t just consider the surface idol. For example, if you have a problem with money or with alcohol or relationships, just addressing those things might help a little bit in the short term but you’ll find they just keep coming back. Rather you need to consider the deeper idols of the heart that the external surface things are serving and feeding.

If we consider the surface idol of money, the way that money subtly becomes an idol in our lives will look different in different people depending on which deep idol it is serving. If the deep idol is control, it might lead to not wanting to spend much, to a desire to save an save just in case something goes wrong in the future, and panic and anxiety when unexpected expenses occur. If the deep idol in your heart that money is serving is approval, you may want money to access certain social circles and to buy things that make you feel more valuable and acceptable to yourself and to others. If the deep idol is power, the more money you have (and the nice possessions that go with it) the more power you feel you have over other people. If the deep idol is comfort, money is wanted so that we can have nice holidays, nice leisure activities, and nice cars and generally insulate ourselves as much as possible from the suffering of the world through a lifestyle of pleasure.

The final column in the chart above is crucial as in trying to discern our deep idols, it is often our problem emotions that give us the key to uncover them. Is it anger or cowardice or apathy or worry that you most often find yourself struggling with in your life? We need to give ourselves enough time to stop and reflect on our emotions to help us work out what is going on, often buried deep down, in our hearts.

The truth is that what we find in our hearts is often ugly so we try not to look. But there is hope! Glorious hope! If the only hope was to try harder and stop setting up idols in our hearts, we would be condemned to despair. But praise God that the way idols are dealt with is through the gospel – the good news of God in the Person of Jesus Christ, and particularly his death and resurrection. Idols can’t be removed but only displaced. The more we grasp the gospel and the Jesus of the gospel becomes our treasure, the less other rival gods will have power over us. We don’t need to feel in control all the time because he is. We don’t need the approval of others because we already God’s complete approval as his sons and daughters in Jesus. We don’t need to seek power and position and status because we are already co-heirs of God with Christ, reigning with him. We don’t need to fill our life with comfort and pleasure because in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and one day we will see him face to face in a suffering-free, pleasure-full, new creation.

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