Ever said things like that to yourself? I know I have! I know I do - every day.
What I don't see is the ugliness underlying the "little things". What I don't see are the idols at the heart of me. What I don't see is me bowing down to whatever it is that has captured my desires.
Have you been to a temple with an idol in it? I have. It was a long time ago, but I remember the sense of darkness and gloom in that place. Have you been to a restaurant with a little shrine hanging on the wall? Perhaps, like me, you paused between mouthfuls to reflect on the futility of making offerings to a golden statuette.
But we are no different. In our hearts, we're bowing down to idols in a dusty temple. We're making offerings in a shrunken shrine (Ezek 14:3). I set my desires on other things besides God: success, relationships, peace, happiness. I serve these idols with my thoughts, choices, time, energy, and money.
Trace a sin back to its root, and you not only find a lie, you find an idol (Rom 1:25). That's why Chester says that the key to change is to trust God instead of believing lies (faith) and to worship God instead of worshipping idols (repentance).*
Repentance is not an add-on to faith: it's the flip-side of faith. I love Chester's reminder that it's impossible to turn towards something without turning away from something else.* But this is what we try to do with God. We want Jesus, but we don't want to give up our idols.
"We always do what we want to do."* It doesn't always feel that way: I often feel like I do what I don't want to do. That's because there are competing desires in my heart (Gal 5:17). But I always follow my strongest desire. Whenever I sin, my desire for something is bigger than my desire for God. I forget that to serve anything else is to hate and despise God (Matt 6:19-24).
Take something as little as arguing. It's no big deal, is it? We all bicker and complain sometimes! It's just a way of letting of steam. It's just a little thing. But God says that arguments come from the "desires that battle within" us. We get angry when we don't get what we want, when we set our hearts on something besides God.
"You adulterous people"! That's how God responds to "little sins" like quarreling: he "envies intensely". Like a wife discovered in bed with another lover, a flippant "sorry" isn't enough. God calls us to "grieve, mourn and wail" over our divided hearts, to purify our double-mindedness, to "put to death" our idols (see James 4:1-10 cf Col 3:5)
So what do I do when I see sin in my life? When I garden (rarely!) I teach my kids to dig weeds out by the roots. I need to uproot the little beginnings of sin: the lustful look, the self-pitying thought, the complaining word. I need to plant seeds and grow habits of love, trust and thanksgiving. I might also need to dig deeper to discover and uproot the idols that underlie my sin.
If I spend too much money on possessions, what's motivating me? Maybe it's vanity, people-pleasing, or control. If I'm angry when my kids disturb my quiet evening, what's my idol? Maybe it's rest, pleasure, or peace. If I'm obsessed by our house renovations, what desires am I setting my heart on? Maybe it's security, success, or prosperity.
Identifying my idols will help me deal with the real issues underlying my sin. But there's a danger in examining our hearts: we may become introspective and self-obsessed. Chester warns against going on an "idol hunt": "A good guide is to explore your sinful desires [idols] only when you see the bad fruit of sinful behaviour and negative emotions in your life."*
It's better to spend an hour reflecting on a Bible passage about Jesus than an hour squirrelling into our inner workings. M'Cheyne gets the balance right: "For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ." When we realise how wonderful Jesus is, how meaningless and stupid our idols will appear!
O Israel, stay away from idols! I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you. I am like a tree that is always green; all your fruit comes from me.* (Hos 14:8 NLT cf Ps 16:11, Isa 55:1-2, Jer 2:13, 10:5)
By all means, take a good hard look at yourself. Work out what idols underlie your anxiety, anger or discouragement. Figure out what idols are driving your greed, gossiping or quarreling. Grieve. Repent. Flee. But when you've done that, turn to Jesus, and take an even harder look at the gospel. In Jesus we will find riches so great that our idols will be shown to be the empty things they really are.
For reflection: What are the idols of your heart? When you’re angry, what aren’t you getting? When you’re anxious, what is threatened? When you’re despondent, what have you lost or failed at? When you obsess about something, what are you worshipping? When you give into sin, what are you setting your heart on? In what ways is God bigger and better than your idols?
Those who are reading Tim Chester's You Can Change along with me will have noticed that today's post is really just a summary of chapter 6. Coming up are a questionnaire to help you uncover your idols, and a more personal take on how chapters 5 & 6 of You Can Change affected me.
*these ideas and quotes are from Tim Chester's You Can Change p.77 & ch.6