Of Intentions and Idols (Let Us Run)

Chains

I sat with my class in a corner of the sanctuary, music played throughout the building, people sang and prayed and worshiped. I saw children running, only to be stopped by concerned parents and shushed by the present clergy. This was a sacred place, a holy place to encounter the divine.

And on the stage, one might’ve expected to see a pulpit rising above the crowd. But instead, there stood several monolithic statues, faces etched from stone, frozen in time forever, or at least until the years ate away at them, paint faded and crumbling. These were the gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith, impersonal sentinels with stony faces looking toward their devoted worshipers indifferently.

A lot of folks, especially those of my own religion, would compare this scene to that of an ancient city in an ancient world that bears no resemblance to our own. But that is not true. It is a world we live in, and a world we find ourselves entrenched in, even in the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to a Hindu temple in Charlotte. It was an interesting experience, one where I gained much respect for the people, but also came away with a deeper understanding of my own sinfulness.

This particular instance was a more vivid depiction of idolatry than I’d ever seen in my own American dream-ridden life or in the lives of the people around me. It’s a lot less subtle when you watch people literally bowing down to and offering food to statues who will never be able partake of it. But what I saw there was a reflection of my own heart and my own proclivities.

Tim Keller, hearkening back to John Calvin, says that our hearts are idol factories. This means that something about human nature points to the inescapable fact that we are wired for worship. And if God is not the center of our worship, we will surely find something to take his place. I saw people in that temple physically bowing down to idols, participating in what we would call idolatry, but hey! At least they are honest about it.

Myself and so many of those I love fill their lives with a plethora of distractions and luxuries that we like to pretend have no ultimate grip on our lives. And idolatry barely ever starts out as a bad thing…Idolatry, in its simplest form is making good things ultimate things. It is where admiration turns to obsession, where appreciating God’s good gifts becomes focusing more on the gift than on the Giver, where want becomes overwhelming need.

Here’s a good test for whether or not that thing you love is an idol to you: If it were to be taken away, could you go on living? Obviously, I’m not talking about enough food to live or water. But the point is that the problem doesn’t lie in the idols themselves, many of these things are innately good gifts from God. But the problem is somewhere deeper, the problem is inside of us, in our hearts. We are desperate to worship, but not so desperate to be obedient to the thing we worship. Which is why worshiping God seems so difficult, because of what that demands of us.

But the catch is that you cannot worship anything without obeying it, whether you realize it or not. All this makes me thing about that anti-smoking commercial that was floating around a while back. Here it is:

The thing is, whatever you devote all of your time, energy, and devotion to will stop being a good gift to be used and start making the rules for you. You build your life around the thing you idolize. We turn good gifts like sex into porn, prostitution, and nymphomania. We turn food into gluttony or anorexia and bulimia. We make something good sinful and let it reign over our lives. Instead of God.

I have a lot to learn about idolatry, but I see it in my everyday life. My prayer for myself as well as for those who are reading this is that we will return to Christ, worship him as he ought to be worshiped, and place our affections on him, and not on the idols that we hold dear. It is God’s desire for us to seek first the Kingdom, and it is my desire that that would be my desire as well.

“You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.”-Saint Augustine

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The Hypocrisy of the Rest of Us (or, discipleship is messy)

“Yeah, I mean, I’m not about to convert or anything, but I’ve had a breakthrough in understanding what Christians believe about God,” she said.

A friend and I were discussing the character of God yesterday from very different ideological positions in our local coffee shop. She is not a believer. I am a believer, a youth minister, and I am spending my life (and career) proclaiming a message she might think is utter foolishness.

But that is okay. She doesn’t hold it against me (to my knowledge), and we can have civil conversations, even enjoyable conversations such as the one we were having that day. And then she said something and all hell broke loose, but not from me.

“The hypocrisy just gets to me. Like, how can you say God is loving when you read the old testament and see him striking down nations and turning a woman into a pillar of salt. But (another friend) explained to me that love is just one of God’s attributes, and that he is more than that.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “a friend in college challenged me, for example, to read about the conquest of Canaan and think about how a loving God could allow that. It helped me to see something…that I only see a small piece of the picture, but I claim to worship a God who sees it all. So does God’s idea of love always look identical to mine, or can it come about in the form of justice or wrath or provision? Because I believe God knows a lot more than me and his character is all of those things.”

“Yeah, I’m not ready to convert or anything, but it’s just made me think.”

Then we talked a little bit about her experience with the church and Christianity in general, and I heard lots of confusion and experiences with hypocrisy from people who claimed to love Christ.

And then, it happened.

“Excuse me,” a woman on her way to the door said to my friend, “I just want to tell you something. God is love. All of him. It’s the Old Testament God you’re reading about and that’s different. That’s before Jesus.”

Her tone just kept getting angrier and angrier as she spouted out all the broken theology she could recall, reaching a fever pitch.

“See, God isn’t all about that, and you shouldn’t claim that he is.”

And with that, the woman and all of her vitriol made her exit, leaving my friend dumbfounded and maybe a little more resistant to the message of Christ.

We talked a bit more, I apologized for the brash way the woman treated her for simply voicing a different opinion and she gently reminded me that I don’t need to apologize for all of Christendom.

And we continued to talk and flesh out some of the ideas she was grappling with, ideas that I have  confronted and still do confront in my own life. And we talked about other things.

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I was hesitant to make this post. Mostly because my point in writing is to show that we don’t need to take the moral or spiritual high ground over people to reach them. But, at the same time, I don’t want to take the spiritual or moral high ground over the angry woman in the coffee shop, but I think the lesson stands.

See, too often in the Church, we tell people to go and share the Gospel, and they go and do something like that. Chew people out in a coffee shop.

My friends, this is not sharing the Gospel.

It is not patient.

It is not kind.

It is not slow to anger.

It is not love.

It is posturing, insecurity, and ideological warfare.

Sharing the Gospel is a part of Discipleship, our main calling as followers of Christ.  A directive from Jesus himself.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Making disciples is difficult work. It takes a non-defensive posture to challenges to your faith. It is patiently sitting down and walking through life with one another, teaching them what you know, what you hold dear, being an example to them.

And I believe it is a process that can begin before that point at which a person says “I need Jesus.” In most cases, it has to. It is not “defending the faith” against the godless atheists. It is not angrily interjecting your ideas in a conversation you weren’t invited to be a part of to stick up for God (because you erroneously believe that God isn’t a big boy and can’t speak up for himself.) It isn’t about amassing converts or checking your civic duty off on a list.

It is messy work.

It involves growing to know those you speak to deeply and loving and caring for them, regardless of whether or not they ever join (or set foot in) your church.

You cannot share the Gospel with someone you do not love.

And sharing the Gospel is not only expressed in your speaking, but in how you listen, how you relate. How you aren’t afraid to answer challenges with “I don’t know.” 

Because people will never understand faith in action if you try really hard to know all the answers so you won’t have to practice it.

Friends, you and I were called to a life of service, prayer, and joy. I didn’t try to correct my friend when she said something I didn’t agree with. I went into the conversation knowing that we would disagree, she probably did too, but it didn’t stop us from having it. That didn’t stop us from searching for answers and talking like two human beings.

So I guess my word of caution to my fellow Christians is this: Befriend unbelievers. Don’t run from them, and, (literally) for the love of God, don’t attack them. Don’t tell them what they “should” be doing outside of having the type of relationship with them where you know they will take it. Realize that discipleship take time and don’t think they owe it to you to fall down and get right with God right then and there.

Have patience. Show respect. Be Christlike, or the message you proclaim loses its power. Because the Gospel without Christ is no Gospel at all.