Hi, my name is Dustin…and I am an idolater.
I would like to say “was an idolater,” but I still struggle with it.
The very word conjures the image of a primitive people, crouched around a stone image by firelight, incantations and chants rising into the night air. “Those misguided and blind people,” we think. “If only they knew Jesus is enough.”
But then, there are other idols, ones not made of wood and stone, but still just as dangerous and meaningless at the same time.
For some, the idols are status symbols: a larger paycheck, a bigger home, a newer car, an enviable address or the most fashionable clothes. For others, it’s a person. This might be a Hollywood star, a musician, a political leader, an activist or an athlete. Even pastors can become idols as we admire their crowd more than their creed.
We can go further down the rabbit hole: television, possessions, money, job, relationships, titles, credentials or degrees. In each case the danger is to think only of the primitive people a world away staring at their silent idols and still say, “Those misguided and blind people. If only they knew Jesus is enough.” Yet if we turn an honest eye inward, the same could be said for many of us. “We are a misguided and blind people. If only we lived like Jesus is enough.”
There are other idols, ones that we don’t talk about often, if at all. The reason we don’t speak of them is that we don’t see them as idols. These idols do not sit in your bank account or in your garage. They are not splashed across the silver screen or standing before a massive congregation. They are not made of stone and wood and decorated with flowers and paint in an ancient ritual to ensure a hopeful harvest, but they are still idols. These are the idols in our hearts…
Ezekiel 14:2-3 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity…”
The idols of our hearts are often difficult to identify and hard to dethrone. We hold our idols close, and our lives grow tightly around them. We reorder our thoughts to accommodate our idols. We mistakenly give them validity as they creep into more and more areas. We search for Bible verses to back our notions while ignoring the context or passages to the contrary. Soon, the idols seem to be a part of us. When our hearts intertwine with our idols, an attack on idolatry feels like an attack upon our lives.
For me, my idols bear two names: preference and expectation.
Though to explain fully how those two idols have influenced my life at times would fill volumes, perhaps a story will help illustrate the struggle.
A few years ago, as I served in a ministry geared toward adults, I was approached about working with students. Having taught middle schoolers for a decade in an educational setting, the thought was that I would be a natural fit. Though I wrestled with the decision, I finally stepped into the role with a bit of reluctance and a large amount of uncertainty.
At the first student worship time, I sensed my idols being rocked.
I made mental notes as I critiqued the elements…
Music: too loud
Room: too dark
Spotlights: too bright
Smoke machine: unnecessary
Then as I led the Bible study, I saw that my normal, adult-oriented approach just did not work with the younger generation. I began to think about how to tailor the sermons for them, all the while still grumbling inside at the different stylistic elements. My traditional mindset had to be the right way to worship, right?
So, week after week, it was the same thought process…
Music: too loud
Room: too dark
Spotlights: too bright
Smoke machine: unnecessary
And then, about a month into the ministry, as I stood and watched the middle school students worship, I sensed God speaking to my heart, “You value your preferences more than the soul of a lost child.”
I argued silently with Him. That was certainly not the case! Surely God was mistaken. My beliefs were solid, unchanging, rigid…oh. The clay feet of my idols began to crumble as I watched students respond to the worship time. Eyes closed, tears streaming, prayers offered, Gospel preached, lives changed. I revisited my checklist…
Music: on point
Room: right atmosphere
Smoke machine: an added perk
One year in, having embraced the role and the life of a student pastor, things were moving along. My preferences had changed (and though the message of the Cross remains the same, my preferences now run toward “whatever it takes.”). As God continued to move in the lives of the students, Gene suddenly appeared and asked about helping in our ministry.
Gene was one of our senior adult members, and he held strong opinions about things. He was not a rude or condescending person, but he was bold. When he said he had been praying about volunteering with us, I hesitated. My earlier checklist of all the elements I had initially pushed against came back to mind. “What on earth might Gene think of the service? How would he respond? How will I address his complaints in the right way?” Such questions swirled in my head.
I looked at Gene and said, as tactfully as possible, “That’s great that you would like to help. But let me suggest something. Why don’t you come by one Wednesday night and sit in to see what happens. It is very different from what you might expect.”
Gene agreed, and the next Wednesday, he showed up. That Wednesday went like most nights: high-energy music, passionate praise and biblical teaching, all amid the atmospheric surroundings of a dim room with lights to direct the focus of the worshippers.
After the service, as the last few kids drifted from the room, there stood Gene. His face was etched in thought; his hands on his hips. I took a deep breath, nodded and shifted into diplomat mode as I walked toward him. As I got closer, he looked at me and said, “I have to tell you something…That was tre-men-dous! Oh, did you see how they worshipped God? Why doesn’t everyone know what goes on down here? They sang so loudly. We adults never seem to sing like that! And they heard the Word of God taught, and they listened. I would love to be a part of this, just tell me what you need me to do.”
From that day on, Gene became a valued part of the ministry. He taught the kids how to shoot pool. (Little did we know that Gene was a bit of a pool shark in earlier years, and routinely ran the table on all of us.) He encouraged our students and spent time listening to stories about their weeks. When Gene went in for a surgery, the kids put together a big get-well card for him. The ministry was better for Gene being there, and his service was valued more than he could know.
Gene saw immediately what I almost missed, all because an idol filled my vision. So often, how I expect things to be gets in the way of what God wants to do. Though allowing God to cut those idols from our hearts is painful for the moment, the real pain comes from allowing them to remain buried in the places that belong only to Christ.
Be astonished, O heavens, at this,
And be horribly afraid;
Be very desolate,” says the Lord.
“For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
And hewn themselves cisterns–broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen (1 John 5:21).