When the Promises of God Are All You Have

There are signature moments in our lives, markers between before and after. A big move, the death of a loved one, a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, a terrible fire. Occasionally we realize, in the middle, that our world will be different on the other end. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it is tragic.

What Has Been Lost

In Lamentations 4, we are reading the after of one such moment. A large part of lament is noting how much now is different than it was or should be. In this chapter-long prayer, the author calls out many unremarkable facets of life which are upside-down as a result of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Babylon.

Gold is tarnished and holy stones are scattered (Lam 4:1). The remaining men, though “precious sons,” are regarded as no more than “earthen pots” (Lam 4:2). Infants and children are starving, with nursing mothers treating their children no better than wild jackals (Lam 4:3-4). Even those who were rich are living in refuse and dying (Lam 4:5).

Signs of Judgment

There is a clear reason everything has been overturned. Behind Babylon’s tactics is the wrath of God; it was his hot anger that kindled a fire in the city and consumed it (Lam 4:11).

Jerusalem is receiving a punishment worse than Sodom—shocking, since the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was the most notable destruction of cities in the Old Testament to that point. (This story is in Genesis 18–19.) The punishment is worse because it is drawn out; Sodom was destroyed in a moment, while the residents of Jerusalem are slowly dying of hunger (Lam 4:69). Jerusalem deserved a harsher punishment, in part, because they were God’s people with his word and his temple; the residents of Sodom had not known the Lord.

These verses reveal specific aspects of divine judgment, horrible as they are. The women of Jerusalem boiled and ate their young children—this was both an act of compassion on the babies and a desperate search for food. This was a curse foretold in Deut 28:53. We also read one reason for this judgment: the prophets and priests have sinned horribly in the city (Lam 4:13). The people cried “Unclean!” at them as they wandered through the streets (Lam 4:14-15). These religious leaders were banished from the city by God himself, scattered among the nations (Lam 4:15-16).

False Hopes

As the Lord brought judgment to Jerusalem, some of their false idols came to light.

Historically, the siege of Jerusalem was paused for a time when it was thought that Egypt would intervene. Judah had been hoping for rescue, but this hope never came; Egypt turned out to be “a nation which could not save” (Lam 4:17).

Judah had also been hoping in Zedekiah, their king when the city was attacked by Babylon. This is mentioned in Lam 4:20, where the king is referred to as “the Lord’s anointed.” The people thought he would protect them, that they could live “under his shadow,” but he, like so many others, was captured.

Waiting on the Judge

At the end of Lam 4:20, the writer is in a miserable state. With the fall of Jerusalem, so very much has been lost. God himself has been judging his people through the Babylonian army. The people are without prophets, without priests, without temple, and without food. And their hopes (in Egypt and in King Zedekiah) have come up empty. What is left?

Much remains! The writer falls back on the promises of God.

Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom,
you who dwell in the land of Uz;
but to you also the cup shall pass;
you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare.
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished;
he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish;
he will uncover your sins. (Lam 4:21–22)

The author of Lamentations knows who God is and what he has promised. Even though they are part of his plan, those who brutalize God’s people will themselves be punished. The cup of judgment will pass from Israel to Edom (another nation in the area).

More hopefully, God’s wrath against his people is finite, and he will keep them “in exile no longer.” This is not some idle wish—this is a rock-solid promise of God. (See Jeremiah 31, among other places.) This fits squarely with God’s character and his love for his people (Lam 3:31–33).

God’s promises are a life raft, and with this particular promise, the call is to trust in the Lord and wait. This is not new! We have seen previously that waiting for the Lord is a large component of seeking him (Lam 3:25–26).

We May Have Sorrow, but We Always Have the Lord

Though a request is a common component of lament, there is no bold request in Lamentations 4. The author’s distress is severe and obvious; he is calling the Lord’s attention to his troubles and reminding himself (in the presence of the Lord) that God’s promises are true. God is trustworthy and we can—we must!—rely on what he says.

Of course, this is true for us too! In our distress or suffering, we must not rely on our health, our optimism, our bank account, our reputation, our friends, our safety, or any sort of harmony in our life. We can, however, look to the Lord and his promises!

In an upcoming article, I plan to write about a few of God’s promises that we can call to mind in times of anguish, pain, and discouragement. It may be a good exercise, until then, to search the Scriptures yourself and search out the promises of God which are yours in Jesus. These are precious.

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Turn to Serve and Wait: Our Christian Calling

The late author and theologian John Stott introduced me to the wonderful phrase, “holy gossip.” In contrast to gossip that wounds people and splits churches, holy gossip happens when news spreads about the work God is doing.

In the apostle Paul’s ministry, he heard holy gossip about the Thessalonians, and he wrote about it in his first letter to that church. In the process, he gave a memorable description of the fundamental calling of the Christian life.

Early Christian Growth

Paul began his first letter to the Thessalonians by thanking God for his work within these people. When the letter was written, the church was only a few months old, and Paul had seen and heard convincing evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit among them.

Paul described how the Thessalonians began their Christian lives. They first received the word of the Lord with joy, though with much tribulation (1 Thess 1:6). In this way the people became imitators of Paul, his companions, and the Lord (1 Thess 1:6). Believers in nearby areas pointed to this church as an example (1 Thess 1:7).

Though the church was young, God was using them mightily. The word of the Lord “sounded forth” from them, and news of their conversion and faith was the holy gossip of the day (1 Thess 1:8).

Verbs for the Christian Life

Here is what Paul heard regarding the Thessalonians.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

Paul’s verbs in these verses give us a compelling summary of a Christian’s calling.

Turn

First, the Thessalonians turned to God from idols. Conversion always involves a turning around, whether from a life of violence and addiction or disinterested religious observance.

The word “idols” may evoke images of carved, wooden figures, but we’re better off thinking of an idol as anything we worship instead of God. Comfort, success, relationships, health—these can all be idols.

A turn to God from idols might not be immediate, but it is decisive. Once we realize the water glass at our lips is full of sand, we can’t help but run to the fountain of living water.

And though this decisive turn happens at the beginning of our Christian lives, the implications reverberate through our remaining years. Walking faithfully with God means developing a habit of turning to him from idols.

Serve

The Thessalonians didn’t just change their religious allegiance. They turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

Conversion is not merely a shift in our religious thought life; it is coming alive from the dead. And the clearest evidence of our new life is our service to our new king.

The order here is crucial. Our service to this “living and true God” does not gain us his love. We are not loved because we serve; we serve because we are loved. When we wake from the dead and see how we have been bought with a great price, we cannot help but love and serve our God and Father (1 Cor 6:20). Of course, this service to God also involves loving our neighbors (Matt 22:34–40).

Wait

The most surprising verb in Paul’s list might be the last one. The Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve and to wait. This is a hard command for impatient people.

Faith in God always has a forward-looking element. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we have great hope for the future. We long for our true home, our true family, our true king, and the glorious end of the curse. And since the future is not the present, we must wait.

This is not a thumb-twiddling, foot-tapping, bored-and-yawning sort of waiting. We’re waiting for a person—the Son of God! Paul describes this Son in verse 10.

First, he is in heaven. He is on the throne, in power, having ascended to his rightful place. Also, he has been raised from the dead. He was crucified and shut behind a stone. But death could not triumph over Jesus.

Finally, Jesus is the one who delivers us from the wrath to come. Wrath is coming, and we all deserve it. But Jesus will rescue those who are his from this terrifying end. We wait for the one who experienced wrath in our place.

Look to Jesus

This summary of our Christian calling might sound like an impossible task list. And if we separate this summary from the gospel of Jesus, that’s exactly what it is. But God never intended that separation.

We will fail to turn, serve, and wait perfectly. But Jesus has turned, served, and waited in our place!

Jesus never worshiped an idol (1 Pet 2:21–25). He turned away from idols toward God without fail.

Service was the foundation of Jesus’s life (Mark 10:45). He served the living and true God through obedience, love, and sacrifice.

Finally, Jesus waited. While on earth, he longed to return to his father (John 17:11Luke 9:51), and he waited three days for his resurrection. He looked toward the future with hope like no one ever has.

As we look to Jesus, let’s help each other to identify and turn from our idols, to serve God and our neighbors, and to wait for his Son from heaven. Living this way will generate more holy gossip than we could imagine.

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The Right-Now Blessings of the Kingdom of God

Christians have a sure hope of heaven. Because Jesus has paid for our sin and we have received his righteousness, we are children of God who will be with our Father forever.

That’s wonderful! But, some might ask, what’s in it for me now?

Though most Christians don’t ask this question in polite company, many have wondered. Aren’t there some tangible, present-time benefits of being a Christian? Or must we wait entirely for heaven?

We Have Left Our Home

Jesus addresses this matter with his disciples on the heels of his interaction with the rich ruler in Luke 18. The ruler wants to do something to inherit eternal life, and Jesus pokes his finger where it hurts.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

The ruler leaves in grief because he is so wealthy, and Jesus notes how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of prosperous Christians, however, because “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

Peter then says, “See, we have left our homes and followed you” (Luke 18:28). Peter must be thinking back to Jesus’s words in verse 22. We have done what the ruler did not. What does that mean for us?

Jesus’ reply is stunning.

And he said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29–30)

There is eternal life to come, but the blessings of the kingdom of God start now. And those blessings are abundant.

Blessings in this Time

We can almost hear the gears turning in Peter’s head. What is it that we receive now?

Jesus is not talking about wealth. That wouldn’t make sense in the context of leaving house and family, and it doesn’t fit after the warning about material riches.

There are probably hundreds of gifts we could discuss, but let’s focus on three.

The Freedom from the Grip of Idols

If an idol is anything (even a good thing) that occupies a commanding place in one’s heart, then the ruler made an idol of his wealth. Jesus told him to sell everything—not because this is a universal command to all believers, but because Jesus wanted the ruler to confront his idol. Sadly, the ruler was devoted to his riches.

When we follow Jesus, we start down the path of freedom from our idols. Jesus calls us to this freedom and gives us the power to make this freedom happen.

To determine the idols that occupy our hearts, we must ask ourselves: Where do I turn for refuge, safety, comfort, or escape? What brings me hope or causes me despair? It could be family, reputation, achievement, politics, or work. It might be a dozen other things.

If you’ve identified one or more idols here, don’t despair. It simply means that you are a human being. Jesus is eager to help idolatrous humans like us!

The Church

In the first century, a disciple who left his family (Luke 18:29) was leaving virtually all of his friends and contacts. With a few exceptions, he probably didn’t know any other disciples, but he was so compelled by Jesus that it didn’t matter.

We may lose family and acquaintances when we follow Christ, but we gain so much more. Christians who have joined a healthy, local church know the joy of belonging to a new family (Matt 12:46–50).

The people in the church are our brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29). They care for us; they help us with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; they share a mission and a vision with us. In prayer, in gathering around the Scriptures, they point us toward the most important things in life—loving God and loving our neighbors.

The Presence of God

The disciples walked the same roads as Jesus. This was its own blessing—they learned from and were cared for by the Son of God! This is the very gift Jesus wanted to give the ruler in Luke 18.

And this gift is just as present for us. We have the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said that in some ways we have it better than his first-century followers.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

The presence of God—lost in the garden of Eden, accessible to a select few in the tabernacle and temple, described and promised in the psalms and prophets—is a real, glorious gift for Christians right now.

Not Just in the Age to Come

The best earthly blessings resonate with us because they offer a foretaste of heaven. Freedom from sin, the fellowship of believers, the presence of God—we long to have these gifts in full!

But the good news of this passage is that leaving everything to follow Jesus has benefits now. These present-time blessings strengthen us, encourage us, and develop our affections for eternity.


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Ask Questions to Expose Idols

cafe

What is an idol? I’ve addressed this at greater length elsewhere, but here’s a quick definition. An idol is anything we worship that is not the true God.

This definition of an idol includes the statues and poles shaped from wood and metal that we read of in the Old Testament. But it also includes more common things—even good things—we see and enjoy around us every day.

Family. Church. Reputation. Lack of conflict. Influence. Wealth. Knowledge. Success.

Because our hearts are expert in twisting and fashioning idols from good, God-given parts of our lives, identifying idols is a difficult task. In fact, it’s a task we cannot do on our own.

Idols Kill Relationships

Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak has some excellent advice for Christians who long to kill their idols.

The first things any idol takes from its worshipers are their relationships. Idols know and care nothing for the exchange of authority and vulnerability that happens in the context of love—and the demonic powers that lurk behind them, and lure us to them, despise love. So the best early warning sign […] is that your closest relationships begin to decay. It is those relationships, after all, that could grant you the greatest real capacity for meaningful action. But they also demand of you the greatest personal risk. — Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak, pp. 106–107

The more we give ourselves to an idol, with its false promise of success or peace or power or happiness, the more our closest relationships wither.

Exposing Idols

Relationships may be a casualty of idolatry, but they also offer a strong defense against the same. The strategy is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement.

Ask your friends, consistently, about their closest relationships.

By asking your friend about her relationships with her sister, her mother, her best friend at work, or her husband, you may help her identify some idol currently gaining a foothold in the dark.

Part of the beauty of the church of God is that we’re not alone in the battle against sin. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have a valuable role to play in our friends’ spiritual lives. Having these conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward—they involve real risk!—but these interactions are a tangible way for us to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11).


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Christian Battaglia (2015), public domain

Five Leadership Lessons From the Mountain

man on mtn

When we think of the Israelites wandering through the desert, we often picture God leading them by cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). But God also appointed human leaders to govern, judge, and guide his people into the promised land.

God famously called to a man named Moses from a burning bush in Exodus chapter three. He summoned Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were enslaved (Exodus 3:10). When Moses protested that he wasn’t skilled in speech, God promised that Aaron, Moses’s brother, would go with him and speak to the people (Exodus 4:10–17).

These brothers led the Israelites away from Pharaoh and out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and eventually to Mount Sinai, as God commanded. Here, Moses climbed up to meet with God and left Aaron in charge of the camp below (Exodus 24:12–14). After just 40 days, Moses returned to a camp in chaos.

Open Idolatry

In Exodus 32, we see a failure of leadership, and the contrast between Aaron and Moses is stark.

While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai with God, the people at the base camp grew restless. They demanded that Aaron make them “gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).

Aaron seemed eager to comply. He melted their jewelry into a golden calf. The people were enthralled; they threw Moses to the side and forgot the God who delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 32:1, 4; see also Psalm 106:19–23). They attributed God’s mighty saving acts to the idol.

When the people wanted to worship the calf, Aaron built an altar and proclaimed a feast day (Exodus 32:4–5). Aaron knew better; yet he even used God’s covenant name “YHWH” (v. 5) in his feast day proclamation.

Meanwhile, God told Moses of the rebellion (Exodus 32:7–8). God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses interceded and pleaded for mercy, which God granted (Exodus 32:9–14).

Moses then went down to the camp, and he was super upset. As he charges into camp and confronts the people, the contrasts between the brothers jump off the page.

Five Characteristics of Godly Leaders

Let’s observe the major differences between Aaron and Moses.

1. Godly leaders know God and are concerned for his glory.

When God told Moses about the people’s sin, Moses immediately took to prayer (Exodus 32:11–14). He reminded God that wiping out the nation would violate his purpose in delivering them (v. 11), expose him to slander from the Egyptians (v. 12), and stall his promises to Abraham (v. 13). Killing all the Israelites would contradict God’s purpose to glorify himself through his people.

Meanwhile, despite seeing God’s miraculous work up close, Aaron built an altar for the idol. “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Had Aaron been jealous for God’s glory, he would have rebuked every attempt at false worship.

2. Godly leaders don’t tolerate sin; they work to eradicate it.

When Moses came into the Israelite camp, his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). He broke the tablets and destroyed the calf. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses knew the evil of the idol. He saw the temptation it offered and eliminated every trace of it.

Aaron, on the other hand, formed the idol and made no attempt to point the people back to God.

3. Godly leaders fear the Lord.

Aaron caved to the people’s request, perhaps fearing they would harm him (see Exodus 32:1–2).

On the other hand, Moses took action against popular opinion. He destroyed the calf in quick order, and then addressed the people’s behavior. He sent the Levites through the camp with their swords drawn. “And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell” (Exodus 32:28).

While Moses feared God and honored him as holy, Aaron feared the people.

4. Godly leaders take responsibility for their flock.

Aaron was quick to make excuses when Moses confronted him. “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). You can hear the contempt in Aaron’s words. He saw the people’s flaws and eagerly blamed them, rather than take responsibility for the sin he advanced.

But Moses worked for the people’s forgiveness. He didn’t minimize their sin, but sought the Lord on their behalf. He took on their burden as his own. “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30).

5. Godly leaders are sacrificial.

Moses wasn’t perfect. But the contrasts in this chapter culminate in a breathtaking example of sacrificial leadership.

When Moses spoke to the Lord about the people’s sin, he begged for their forgiveness. But he knew that sin had a cost, and his love for his people produced a shocking request:

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31–32)

While Aaron condemned the people to save himself, Moses was willing to be condemned to save his people. And in this request, Moses points to the Messiah.

At the cross, Jesus our great High Priest also appeared before God and confessed his people’s “great sin” (Hebrews 3:1-3). Like Moses, Jesus stood as a leader and mediator, knowing that a sacrifice was needed for the people to be saved.

And while God refused Moses’s proposal (Exodus 32:33–34), he planned and accepted Jesus’s offer of himself (Isaiah 53:10).

Learning from These Lessons

Godly leadership is of vital importance, and all of God’s people need to pray for, recognize, and encourage such leadership.

The contrast between Moses and Aaron is particularly arresting for those in or aspiring to leadership positions in the church. We would all benefit from considering these reflection questions that flow out of Exodus 32.

  • Where have you made allowance for sin in your life? Are there idols you need to grind into powder?
  • In what ways have you blamed others? Take note of your temptations toward gossip and resentment.
  • Have you been concerned for your people’s holiness? Have you compromised God’s standards to satisfy your people?
  • How is God calling you to sacrifice for your people? Are there unpopular steps you must take to help your people glorify their Savior?

If you find these questions convicting, don’t lose heart. The Savior who Moses foreshadowed is sufficient for leaders and followers alike. He always offers forgiveness, cleansing, and strength for those who come to him in faith.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Julentto Photography (2017), public domain

 

How to Share in Your Small Group

friends1

As Christians share with each other in a small group, they obey the one another commands in the Bible. Though such sharing is difficult, God honors it by strengthening Christians to fight their sin.

But what does such sharing look like?

The Importance of Prayer

You cannot talk about your struggles against sin without knowing what they are.

Listen to King David.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)

Praying this way is one of the most important steps we can take to grow as Christians. God loves to answer this prayer.

But we need to pray as Christians. We don’t wallow in our sin; we seek it out to defeat it, knowing its power has been crushed by Jesus at the cross. Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s advice is wise: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

If seeing our sin puts the enemy in our sights, then meditation on the gospel pulls the trigger. Remembering the love of the Father and the work of the Son—this is the way God changes our hearts, giving us proper affections and motivations for obedience.

Categories

When someone wants to pray for your growth as a Christian, categories can be helpful.

  • Works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit — Use passages like Gal 5:19–21 and Gal 5:22–24 to talk about the sin you hope to kill and the character you want to develop. There are many other such lists in the Bible—read them and learn the biblical vocabulary.
  • Longings in the Psalms — Read the Psalms and note the love the writers expressed for God. I’m humbled to compare my tepid affection with the hearts of these long-ago saints. (Psalm 63 is a great place to start.)
  • Idols — An idol is anything that takes the place of God for us. These can be vices or addictions, but more often idols are blessings to which we ascribe outsized significance. Family, job, money, success, friendship—these can all be idols. The solution is usually not to ditch the idol, but to return it to its proper place and worship God alone. To help you start thinking in these terms, check out this list of idol-revealing prompts by Tim Keller.
  • Spiritual disciplines — The habits we develop to aid Christian growth are called “spiritual disciplines.” In this category you’ll find Bible reading, prayer, fasting, memorizing Scripture, fellowship, weekly worship, etc. While no activity or discipline saves us, a lack of attention to the spiritual disciplines often reveals a heart that is cooling toward God. Take note both of ignoring these practices and adhering to them with a distracted or divided heart.

A Personal Example

How does one share in a small group setting? The basic elements are knowing your sin and asking others to pray and help you fight against it. Lest that sound vague, here is a personal example.

Please pray for me in my fight against gluttony. I eat when I’m not hungry, eat foods that aren’t good for me, and eat too much. Sometimes I eat because I’m bored. Other times I eat for comfort. Ultimately, I want to find my comfort in Christ, not in food. Pray that I would love God more than food and that I would care for the body God has given me.

Sharing doesn’t have to be lengthy and you need not have everything figured out. Don’t worry about sounding spiritual. You only need to know some of your sin and want to put it to death.

Remember, this is good for you. In addition to being a matter of obedience (James 5:16), your friends can help you. God is ready to give you tangible help as your friends pray.

How to Listen

There’s one last piece to this puzzle. How do you handle someone sharing personal prayer requests in your small group? We’ll tackle that next week.


Photo Credit: anonymous (2016), public domain

Idolatry is Embarrassing

If you are a Christian, you have no doubt seen the term idolatry before. Idolatry (worshipping anyone or anything that is not God) is a terrible offense to God, a grievous sin. If you’ve been around an evangelical church at all, you know that idols are not just figures carved out of wood, stone, or metal. Oh no—we have moved well beyond Golden Calf 2.0.

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The idols of the modern man (including modern Christians) are legion: money, sex, reputation, peace, family, job, friendship, and a thousand others. We might define an idol like this: an idol is anything from which we seek significance or in which we place trust aside from God. Consider the following sentence: “If I lost _____, I don’t know how I could go on.” If you can complete that sentence with a word aside from “God,” you have identified an idol. Congratulations! You’ve won the prize: a life-long battle with a rascal that can strangle your soul!

But we read in the Bible that idolatry is not just morally wrong. Worshiping something other than God is not only offensive to his holiness. It is downright embarrassing. Consider Isaiah 20:

1 In the year that the commander in chief, who was sent by Sargon the king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and captured it— 2 at that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.

3 Then the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, 4 so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. 5 Then they shall be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast. 6 And the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, ‘Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’” (Isaiah 20:1–6, ESV)

God made Isaiah into an object lesson, a three-year nudist colony of one in the midst of Israel. God’s aim was not to humiliate Isaiah; his purpose was to give a graphic, visual prophecy. Judah had become dependent on other nations in sinful ways (verses 5 and 6). They relied on other nations to deliver them from the king of Assyria; this, when God had declared and proven that they must rely on him alone for deliverance.

Now read verses 3 and 4 (above) again. Can you sense the embarrassment? Those same soldiers in whom Judah had hoped were paraded naked through the streets by their captors. What a display of their weakness and frailty! What a dramatic point about the foolishness of trusting in them! You can almost hear the heavenly narrative: “Instead of me, the Lord of hosts, you trust in these guys? Really?!

Consider a modern, personal example. God has been teaching me volumes this spring about the idol of my reputation. My reputation (at work, in the church, with friends) is an intangible possession I treasure so dearly that I change my behavior in drastic ways to uphold and advance it. But for what purpose? Will the opinions of others sustain me? Will they bring me closer to the purpose for which I was made? Will they forgive my sin, take away my shame, and present me to my God without blemish? Trusting in my reputation is not only sinful but embarrassing, and I have been asking God to parade it through the streets (so to speak) to show me the repugnance and folly of relying upon it.

When we look at our idols in the cool, honest light of the Bible, we see just how puny and weak they are. In contrast to our covenant-keeping God, idols boast of out-sized promises they can never keep. Will you shine this light on your own idols? Will you ask God to show your idols to you and destroy them? Because God (rightfully) desires all worship to be his, this is a request he will gladly grant to you in Jesus Christ.


Photo Credit: lincolnblues, Creative Commons License

Impatience and Idolatry

If you want to grow as a Christian, it is crucial that you learn to examine your heart. The sins that we and others notice should be treated as symptoms of a heart condition, not the disease itself. Repenting of these sins of the heart involves identifying and destroying idols.

Usually idols are not inherently evil things but rather good things that we make ultimate things. I’ve read numerous questions over the years designed to help one identify his or her idols, and these can be helpful diagnostic tools, both for individuals and accountability partners. But in preparing for a recent small group Bible study, I ran across a tool I hadn’t seen before.

This Bible study focused on the topic of patience. In Colossians 3:12, we read that we should “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…” (NASB) This passage makes a clear connection between patience and the heart, and in preparing this study I had a chance to think more carefully about the practical outworkings of this connection.

When we’re tempted to impatience, it is because of a desire. Some person, situation, or limitation is between me and something I want. Since idols are often overdesires (desiring something so much that it becomes an object of worship), when we are impatient it is often an idol peeking out from under the corners of our heart. We worship the idol more than God, and we sin. We become angry, bitter, resentful, withdrawn, etc., because our idol consumes us and we refuse to wait on the Lord.

There is a helpful corollary to this, then: one way to hunt for idols is to see when you are tempted to impatience. Try to find the related desire that is not being fulfilled, and you won’t be far away from identifying an idol of your heart. Repenting of the sin and tearing down the idol are the next steps, but that should be left for another post.

Perhaps an example would be helpful. When helping my older daughter brush her teeth the other night, she was not working as quickly as I wanted. She was distracted and playful, despite my repeated commands to focus on the task at hand. I quickly became impatient, and while my impatience mostly rumbled beneath the surface, in my heart, it briefly boiled over into angry, short words with my daughter too. Her teeth eventually got clean and my daughter went to bed, but this was not a proud moment for me.

What was the problem? Instead of being happy with this opportunity to spend time with my daughter, I wanted to rest at the end of a long day. And when she didn’t obey? I wanted to be in control, and I thought I deserved her obedience. I was bowing down to the idols of comfort and control, believing lies instead of the truth.

Identifying these idols didn’t happen in the moment of sin, but it was a helpful exercise after the fact. And it has helped me in the days since this incident — by God’s grace, it has been easier for me to wait for and listen to and love my daughter.