By Dr Daniel Chan
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. Acts 17.16
In the Bible, we come across many accounts and warnings about idol worship. Even Athens, the sophisticated intellectual capital of the Greek Roman world was full of idols. Do we read these stories as only what occurred in the ‘pagan’ world? Many of us have never made offerings to statues and images or lived in a home which had idols and worship altars. Many of us try to live a ‘Christian lifestyle’. Does that mean that we are free from idol worship? How should Christians apply this teaching?
I came across the book Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller while browsing at a bookshop a few years ago. (This book was recently recommended by Pastor Wei-en in his sermon on 20 August.) Looking at its cover and the small print, I expected that it would be a dry and uninteresting book. Nevertheless, it was on special offer and I bought it. It turned out very different. It was a lively read and contained many stories and illustrations, some from the Bible, some from the author’s pastoral experiences and quotations from secular culture. The chapters discuss the nature of idols and share examples in the areas of love, money and power.
What is an idol? According to Keller, “It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything to give you what only God can give. The human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turn them into ultimate things. Our hearts make them the centre of our lives and deify them, because, we think they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfilment, if we attain them.”
The book then asserts that the human heart is an idol factory, it mass produces them. (This is actually a quote from John Calvin the Christian Reformer in 1559). The human heart takes good things and makes them into idols that drive us. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans Chapter 1:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened ……. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Romans 1.21,25
Idolatry is not only one sin among our many. It is the sin that provides the soil for all the other sins. As Keller says, “I am not asking whether you have rival gods. I assume we all do; they are hidden in every one of us. The question is what do we do about them. How can we be increasingly clear-sighted rather than remaining in their power?”
This is a practical book, and has a chapter entitled ‘Finding and Replacing Your Idols’. In it Keller suggests tests that we could use to examine ourselves and to discern our idols. Particularly interesting is a test apparently suitable for those who profess faith in God.
But discerning our idols and removing them through repentance and will power is not enough because it will grow back. We must uproot the idol and plant the love of Christ in its place. Jesus must become more beautiful to our imagination and more attractive to our heart than our counterfeit god.
Part of the attraction of Keller’s writings are that it combines a deep knowledge of Scripture and understanding of contemporary culture. His teachings draw from the rich well of the Puritans and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards. His illustrations come from people he encountered in his ministry in New York City. Timothy Keller passed away recently of pancreatic cancer. We will miss him greatly.