A couple of years ago the second largest house of worship in Memphis was built. 271,000 square feet, and cost 64.3 million dollars to build. And it was constructed next to the largest church in Memphis, Bellevue Baptist Church. This new place of worship also has a name, it is open on Sundays, and it calls to me: IKEA.
All jokes aside I think Memphis has done something incredible, two of our largest places of worship are next-door to each other. The third, is downtown and is the worlds largest Bass Pro Shop.* This city has managed to bring into stark relief a theological principal that all christians should be aware of. We are made to worship, and we will worship, something. Either we will bow the knee to Jesus, or we will live is pursuit and service of something else. And all idolatry is ultimately futile. It makes many demands of you and ultimately never pays out. There is no better illustration of this principal than IKEA. Every trip there requires more financially of me than my tithe to the LORD and nothing is as fleeting as a piece of IKEA furniture.
The Matter at Hand
The principal I want to discuss is a serious one. What I would like to convey is that we live in a spiritual world. Cheap home furnishings, or pontoon boats are not bad things but they are terrible gods. So are sports teams, bbq grills, friends, entertainment, celebrities, celebrity pastors… I could go on. Idols are good things that have become, God things**.
“Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” Romans 1:25
God gives good gifts, he gives them for our enjoyment. Solomon speaks of good food, good drink, and good friends as a salve God has kindly given to us doing our tiresome days on the earth. But he also warns us that they are vanity, and chasing after them is akin to chasing the wind. The good gifts of God are simply and only that. A gift from God, full stop. The good that comes through them has a fount. Idolatry on it’s face is absurd, but the sin is constant with all others. Satan can create nothing, he can only twist and corrupt the good things God has made. As Screwtape puts it:
“Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.” Screwtape, Letter XXII
And up to this point idolatry seems pretty straight forward and even avoidable. We imagine the sad person prostrate before their god, say friends, with their arms outcrying “Love me?” and like the Pharisees of old thank God we are not like that. But I am sorry to say the tells of every man’s idolatry reveals that we all have our little pet gods. Like the man*** with the little lizard of lust on his shoulder in The Great Divorce we don’t want to kill the thing that we love more than we love God.
Obviously there are many ways to run a self diagnostic on idolatry. Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods has an excellent detailed tool. But to simplify things I would like to lay out three questions that I have found useful to get the ball rolling. 1. What is demands the majority of my, time, energy, emotion, and money? 2. Have I built any alters or shines? 3. What am I becoming more like?
1. What is demands the majority of my, time, energy, emotion, and money?
This is the simpler but easier to cheat, or justify away, but I would encourage honest assessment. For example I read a study a few years back that found the average American male plays two and a half hours of video games daily. This means in a week the typical young man has probably spent seventeen and a half hours on one activity. That is more time than a typical work day. Now I am not picking on video games. Or any hobby for that matter, agin enjoyment of an activity was God’s idea. I merely use this as an example for the sake of assessment. Does that young man then find it impossible to wake up for church? Does he pursuit of Christ have the same devotion? Is he discerning in the content he participates in? Does this particular activity move from rest to the sin of laziness (sins often run in pairs…)? Now as I said, this one can be cheated on. I know have argued with many christians trying to weasel out of conviction that has them dead to rights. Trying to justify away the nudity in a television show. Claim they church will misuse their monies so they are spending it for themselves. Explaining that she really is that bad of a person so it’s not gossip to let everyone know about her… Honest assessment may be painful but it is a necessary part of the Christian life.
2. Have I built any alters or shines?
Immediately this sounds archaic. “We no longer build temples with statues inside.” Modern man snorts, “That is what the ancients did we are far more advanced than them and know better!” Lewis would call this Chronological Snobbery. Our current methods may be different, more nuanced, but they are still the same. As I mentioned in my introduction, temples exist around us. They may not be a blatant as the ancients were, or other cultures are. But the tale tale signs are there. Pilgrimages are made, attire of the faithful is worn, in some songs of praise are sung, or arms raised, liturgy, ritual, and ceremony can take place. And again many of these things are good things that have become God things. A sports stadium is filled with those wearing the attire of the faithful. A tithe is taken up by vendors. Voices and hands are raised in praise, defeat lays the adherents as low as an ancient near east culture watching their champion and, thus, representative of their God fall in combat. And for some the entrance of their team may as well begin with, “Behold your God!” In my own city, a brewery and tap room was built from the ground up in the form of a cathedral, right down to the altar where you pay, the seating looking towards the holy of holies where the beer is brewed, and etched glass over the door radiating the glory of beer. Temples can be large or small akin to a devout adherents in a cult-like primitive baptist gathering. Stores, concert venues, political gatherings, Comic Con, Reformed Conferences, family gatherings, all you can eat buffets, all can become a place of worship. But even in our homes we can build shrines to our gods. One of the interesting developments in home architecture is shrine for a flat screen television. Homes used to be built with the gift of hospitality as central to their structure with dining rooms, parlors, full porches in the front for neighborly interaction, living rooms for informal gatherings, and kitchens with built in seating. But now walk into any empty new house and immediately you will know the implied furniture layout for the living room. All directed to the alcove for a television. Or walk in closets, sometimes with closets within closets. Shrines for shoes, clothes. Again not bad things but terrible god things.
3. What am I becoming more like?
Finally the inexorable principal that reveals idolatry: You become like what you worship. Allow me to present some scriptural background:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:6-8
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,e are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18
To put it in practical terms, if you worship your television you will become like it, ultimately just sitting there, doing nothing, collecting dust. Clothes, a surface level human that only cares about the outward. Friends, a clone that looses all purpose, self direction, and meaning when apart. Sports, you will look like a pale sad reflection of your god, garbed in their apparel, theologizing about their actions. Reformed theology, lovers of a systematic over the God it seeks to glorify and enjoy forever become cold, cruel, inflexible, Pharisees.
The flip side is that those who worship Christ become like him. They move from one glory to another until they see him face to face. The Christian, the little Christ, reflects Him. Like Moses descending Sinai they radiate Christ. I have often explained it as a family resemblance.
Sons of God
If you were to observe me with my parents and siblings, it would become immediately apparent that we are a family. One of my sisters has for years been confused as a twin with me. My other younger sister has the same strawberry blond hair as me, yet she has a bizarre combination of both my mother and fathers temperaments. I possess the mannerisms of my father with the build and hair of my maternal grandfather. The resemblance between us in, form, stature, language is undeniable. For the follower of Christ, the growing resemblance to Him should be equally undeniable. As Paul instructs in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” The confidence of that statement is astounding. If the church in Corinth simply copied Paul with fidelity, they would be copying Christ. Can that be said by you? If your words and actions were simply repeated by a disciple would that person look and sound like Christ or something else entirely? Obviously on this side of eternity no one will be a perfect representation, but we should be increasingly like Christ in an observable manner. We should increasingly have a family resemblance to our big brother Jesus and our Father in Heaven.
And just as a side note, just as God gives other good gifts to us for His glory and our pleasure. God has given to us His Holy Spirit to help us in conforming to the image of God. We are not called to go it alone. And if that weren’t enough God and graciously given His Word, which is illumined by His Spirit. Taken together those two gifts create in the Christian the image of Christ. A simple sign of our worship is the reading and spirit filled obedience to The Word.
The Word we live in is not merely flesh and blood, it is also filled with powers and principalities. Those have molded to us over time, which is why we must always be more conformed to Christ. We are surrounded by other deities, shrines, and temples. We must see them for what they are good things with the potential to become god things. The way out is to worship Christ and become like Him.
“Oh to behold the Glory of Christ! Here in would I live, Here in would I die, here on would I dwell in my thoughts and my affections until all things here below become as dead and deformed things, and in no longer, any way, calling out for my affections” ~ John Owen
*It is housed in a giant silver pyramid with a log cabin foundation… I really don’t know how this happened, but it did.
**I am pretty sure I first heard this phrase from John Bryson, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he lifted it from someone else.
***Or indeed all many of the ghosts from the Grey Town. Each one that remained a ghost had an idol they refused to let go of.