This week a friend asked me where I get ideas for blog posts. I admitted that more often than not, these posts are written about things I am struggling with in my own life. If anyone else I know admits the same struggle, then I’m off and writing about it. So here goes:
The first and second of the Ten Commandments God gave Moses focus on worship. Specifically, both commands forbid the worship of any “god” other than the one true God: “You shall have no other gods before Me,” nor worship any other created thing. (Exodus 20:4-5) And yet I find myself devoting my time, energy, thoughts, efforts, hopes, and affections on any number of things ahead of God Himself. I struggle most with making idols out of the people I love.
In 1991, a mom in Texas hired a hitman to murder another mom in an attempt to open up a spot for her daughter on the school cheerleading squad. Remember that? The truth is, most of us are more subtle than that, but most parents can admit they have been a little, shall we say, “overfocused” on their child at one time or another. The harder I strive to make my child’s life perfect (the best scores, grades, schools; great hair, makeup, clothes, workouts, playing time; the admiration of teachers, coaches, and most of all the right friends; certainly no cussing, detention, e-cigs, naughty Instagrams or WORSE), the greater the danger that I have made an idol of my child.
Aren’t I really striving to make my child- and his life- perfect? Why do I need for my child to be perfect? I most certainly am not flawless, nor has my path through life been simple and smooth. I want my child’s life to be pain-free and utterly successful, and sometimes I actually fool myself into thinking I can pull it off. The lengths I go to, the hours of sleep I lose, the money and time I spend might testify in part to my love for my child, but is it possible that my devotion is excessive at times and therefore harmful to us both?
God has a whole lot to say about making people into idols in His Word, teaching us that the greatest danger lies in our most intense relationships, between men and women and between parents and children. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller explains that God’s determination to free us from the bondage of misguided worship lies at the heart of that most difficult of all stories in the Bible, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Abraham waits twenty-five years for the promised boy Isaac. He has staked his entire life on God’s promise that He would make Abraham into a great nation and give him the land of Canaan for his descendants, and that promise comes when Abraham and Sarah don’t even have one descendant. Isaac’s name, meaning “laughter,” expresses the transformation of doubt to belief and uncertainty to joy at the birth of this unbelievable gift. But then God gives a seemingly inexplicable directive: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering…” (Genesis 22:2)
Keller explains: “Previously, Abraham’s meaning in life had been dependent on God’s word. Now it was becoming dependent on Isaac’s love and well-being. The center of Abraham’s life was shifting. God was not saying you cannot love your son, but that you must not turn a loved one into a counterfeit god.” In short, God challenges Abraham’s idolatrous affection for Isaac, and Abraham demonstrates his love for and trust in God is greater than his love for his only son. Our Heavenly Father is willing to break down any barriers that threaten His union with us. Idols stand in the way of perfect intimacy with our Father, as well as with each other. As Keller says, “If anyone puts a child in the place of the one true God, it creates an idolatrous love that will smother the child and strangle the relationship.” *
Another example: born to parents who have been barren for years, Samson is also a miracle baby, set aside by God as a Nazarite. This special distinction marks him for God’s service, meaning that Samson will never touch anything dead, nor drink wine, nor cut his hair. However, his parents struggle to discipline his strong will and strong body, and as an adult he breaks every one of these vows. Most telling of all, Samson demands a Philistine wife, disregarding the Lord’s strict command that His people should not marry foreigners. Samson tells his parents to “get her for me,” and they feebly protest that maybe he should find a nice Hebrew girl: “Is there no woman among all the daughters of your brethren… that you must go and get a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines? “ (Judges 14: 3) Unfortunately Samson is accustomed to getting his way: “Get her for me, for she pleases me.”
Samson’s parents want the approval and affection of their son more than they want him to fulfill the call of God on his life. Samson has become their god, and their idolatry expresses itself in their failure to set limits for their son. As an unintended result, he does not respect either God or his parents, and he will struggle with his own idol-making heart. Samson’s weakness is women, and he eventually gives Delilah the secret to his supernatural strength because he cannot resist disappointing her any more than his parents had been able to resist disappointing him. Their idolatry flows right into his. (See Judges 13-16)
Certainly Samson, as a grown warrior and leader, is responsible for his own weakness. His parents are not to blame for his sinful choices. But I must learn that I do not do my children any favors by setting them in a pedestal or needing their approval; in fact, I risk undermining their maturity and weakening their character when I idolize my sons. I am also teaching them to be idolaters in their own lives.
First I have to recognize this great evil that comes between my God and me; then I have to do something about it. The solution goes back to that first commandment: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” In other words: God is the first, last and only God in my life.
So, I determine to love Him with all my heart, my mind, my soul, and my strength, letting God be my One and only God:
the Source of my value as a human being,
the One who determines my worth,
the Giver of my sense of purpose,
the Lover of my soul,
my Security, Protector, and King,
the One Who approves of me,
the One Who will never leave me nor forsake me (Who always wants my company),
the One Who supplies my every need according to His riches in glory…
Then and only then, I can love my neighbor (husband, wife, child, friend, parent) as myself.
If I will let God be my God, He will fill me up so completely that I will never need anyone or anything to take His place. I can take my beloved ones down off their pedestals, set them free and love them better. I can enjoy those people in a new way because I will not need them to be any different than they are right now. (Notice I did not say I will stop wanting them to be different- I might still want them to change, but I no longer need for them to.) I will actually love my loved ones more, not less, if I give my heart and mind to God first, and get my needs met in communion with Him.
Don’t take my word for this- take God at His Word:
Father, I know that You are and You only are my God. I pray that You will teach me to love You with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my strength. May I have no other gods before me, nor make for myself any image- any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on earth beneath- and bow down to that image or serve it. For You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created. Deuteronomy 6:4, Exodus 20:3-4, Revelation 4:11
I praise Your holy name, Lord, for You alone are excellent; Your glory is above the heaven and the earth. Psalm 148:13
Write Your Words on my heart. May I teach them diligently to my children. May we talk of You when we are at home, when we are coming and going, when we lie down and when we rise up. As for me and my house, we will serve only You, Lord. Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Joshua 24:15
Lord, if I want to stand with You in Your holy place, I must have clean hands and a pure heart. I must not lift up my soul to an idol. So shall I receive blessing from You, and righteousness from the God of my salvation. Psalm 24:4-5
Father, I confess that I have set up idols in my heart. I have embraced things which make me fall into sin. I ask that you help me repent of my idols and turn away from my sins. Show me the gods that I have made for myself, and help me see that they cannot save me from my troubles. For I cry out to the gods which I have chosen, but they cannot deliver me in my time of distress. I have sinned! Do whatever seems best to You, Father, only deliver me this day, I pray. Ezekiel 14:3,6 NLT, Jeremiah 2:28, Judges 10:14-15
Father, I pray that I will let no man or woman be first in my heart, but say only, “The Lord shall rule over me.” Judges 8:23
Father, help me to put off my former conduct, that old self that grows corrupt according to deceitful lusts. Renew me in the spirit in my mind, so I may put on the new self which was created according to You, in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24
* Counterfeit Gods, The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters by Tim Keller, p. 7. This book is a wise and convicting look at the issue of idolatry, and explains this story of God, Abraham and Isaac better than anything I have ever read. It also contains a discussion of “deep idols,” such as approval, power and comfort that lurk beneath the surface but actually motivate the visible idols that come to govern our behavior. The book is well worth reading.