The Idols We Never Knew We Had: PART III – Love

“Love Conquers All” is one of those phrases that people think belongs to the Bible that doesn’t really belong to the Bible.  It belongs to a classical Roman poet by the name of Virgil, taken from book X of his Eclogues.  It was written nearly 100 years before any of the New Testament was recorded.  Like most powerful false beliefs, there is an element of truth in it.  But ultimately, no, human love cannot solve all of our problems.  Nonetheless, millions of us pursue it as though it has such power.

Many are controlled by the quest for romantic love.  Have you met the young woman who simply cannot stand to be single because her personal value is so wrapped up in her association to and acceptance from a man?  Have you met the woman who is so bitter and jaded regarding men that she has sworn them off altogether and will take any chance that she gets to tell you how they’re all “good for nothing”?  In different ways, both of these women show that their lives are controlled by the power of romantic love.  Have you heard of the man who is such a chicken when it comes to intimacy and so selfish when it comes to pleasure that his most desired way to interact with women is behind closed doors through pornography?  Have you met the man who has no desire to lead his family but idly sits back and sheepishly makes most decisions in his life simply with the goal of not upsetting his wife?  In different ways, both of these men are controlled by the power of romantic love.  I intentionally chose these examples so that you could see that not only on the extreme ends of aggressive dominance or passive neediness, but virtually everywhere in between, humans are inclined to do what they do so that they can somehow fill that gaping hole inside of them that seems to be crying out for intimacy and love.  As the irreverently insightful 21st century sociologist and pop diva Ke$ha has noted, many live by the motto “Your Love is My Drug.”  (think I probably just ruined the word “insightful”)

There is an edgy, painful Old Testament account that quite clearly shows the futility of holding up romantic love as the answer to your problems.  It is found in Genesis 29.  Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, has stolen the birthright of his brother Esau.  Why would he do such a thing, stealing from his brother by deceiving his father?  Jacob wanted a piece of his father that his father wouldn’t give him….love.  Isaac had favored Esau, the older, more manly of the two sons.  The Bible says that “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Gen 25:28) Jacob thought that if he could only get that birthright, then maybe he could quiet the inner demons that had convinced him he was unworthy of his father’s love and therefore worthless.  So he got the birthright by any means necessary.  And now his older brother was furious.  Fearing the vengeance of Esau, Jacob fled from his home in Beersheba to the location of his Uncle Laban in Paddan Aram.

When Jacob got to Paddan Aram, he went to the region’s local watering hole (apparently the place where desperate singles went looking for companionship even then).   While at the well, Jacob, for the first time, laid his eyes on the woman that he’d fall head over heals for, Laban’s daughter Rachel.  This was the woman, so he thought, that would fill the void inside of him left by the absence of his father’s love.  Just look at the reaction he has at first meeting: “When Jacob saw Rachel…(he) kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.” (Gen 29:10-11)  He’s lovesick.  He must have her.

Jacob goes to work for his Uncle Laban as a shepherd.  Laban recognizes that even though Jacob is his family, he still deserves to be paid, so he asks Jacob what his price for labor is.  Jacob responds, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”  (Gen 29:18)  Just so we’re clear here, in ancient cultures, this type of bride-price dowry would have been fairly customary.  However, this specific amount was enormous.  It’s obvious that Jacob wants Rachel and wants her badly.  And Laban knows it.

Upon completion of his seven years of labor, Jacob goes to Laban and demands marriage to Rachel.  But look at his language.  He sounds like an addict in need of a fix, which wasn’t that far from the truth.  He says, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”  (Gen 29:21)  Bible commentators will tell you that the words that Jacob speaks here are unusually coarse and carnal, but that should be obvious.  Remember, he’s basically saying to Rachel’s father, “I need to have sex with your daughter right now!” 

Laban agreed to make the wedding happen.  They celebrated a grand feast, complete with ample adult beverages.  At that time, brides were veiled until the consummation of the marriage.  So, perhaps with the combination of a veil, the dim night light, and a couple too many drinks, Jacob failed to recognize that Uncle Laban had pulled the old switcheroo on him – he had substituted his older daughter Leah in the wedding ceremony for the one Jacob had loved, Rachel.  And in the morning light, Jacob was just now realizing that he had spent his first night with his wife, but his wife was not Rachel.

It’s worth noting the Bible’s comparison between the two daughters of Laban.  Genesis 29:17 says that “Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”  Scholars have debated exactly what it meant that Leah’s eyes were “weak.”  The Hebrew is a bit vague to us.  Some have suggested that perhaps she had bad eyesight.  But if that was the case, the text would likely say that Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had very strong eyes.  No, the contrast here is between Rachel’s tremendous beauty and Leah’s “weak eyes,” which leads us to assume that the phrase “weak eyes” is describing Leah as having an unattractive appearance.  Perhaps she had crossed eyes.  It’s hard to say.  Nonetheless, what’s abundantly apparent is that Rachel is a hottie and Leah is unfortunately a nottie.  Jacob had fallen for Rachel and become obsessed with possessing her because of her great beauty.

Understandably, Jacob is furious to find out that Laban had duped him into taking the wrong daughter as his bride.  He confronted Laban about it.  Laban offered up a lame excuse about how it’s not customary in his land to give away the younger daughter before the older daughter.  So, Laban is to blame for being shady.  However, Jacob shares the blame here as well for letting his hormones and obsession blind his good judgment.  When he’d first asked Laban to marry Rachel, Laban never actually said “Yes.”  He said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man.  Stay here with me.” (Gen 29:19)  That’s it.  Jacob perhaps would have picked up on Laban’s nondescript answer and overall shadiness about the situation had he not been so obsessed with making a good thing (Rachel’s beauty) the ultimate thing (an idol) that he thought could cure his inner hurt.

By the way, if you’re wondering, men still try to do this with female beauty today as well.  Old men dump their wives in favor of younger women because they think such romantic love will make them young again.  Young men try to sleep with as many women as possible, dumping each after a few encounters, simply because they’re trying to use such “romance” to validate their own prowess and power.  Sleazy, right?  Jacob using female beauty to try to solve his problems was a little sleazy.  In that sense, men today are a little sleazy as well.  But the truth is that every man who thinks that he can validate himself through sex, thinks he’s going to bed with Rachel, but wakes up realizing it’s Leah.  What I mean is this – many men think that sleeping with a hot chick sounds like a good idea at the time, but the next morning, the guilt, regret, shame, and the weight of long-term emotional damage to two lives sets in.  In general, romantic love & unbridled passion, if it truly is your god, will not solve your problems, it will destroy your life.

I don’t mean for this analogy to sound callous to Leah.  But we have to be honest about the situation.  Jacob didn’t truly love her.  God was sympathetic to Leah about this as well, which is why he opened her womb while he closed Rachel’s. You see, the story continues as Jacob worked another seven years for Laban to receive Rachel as his wife, creating the most awkward of marital situations – two wives competing for their husband’s affection.  In fact, in the next chapter of Genesis, the two women trade “who gets to sleep with Jacob” that night for some mandrakes – what kind of messed up life is this!  (Interestingly, both women valued these mandrakes so much because in ancient cultures, mandrakes were viewed as both an aphrodisiac, which Leah thought might help Jacob become more attracted to her, and as a fertility boost, which Rachel thought might help her conceive, causing Jacob to appreciate her more).  Both were absolutely desperate for his love.

Obviously crushed by Jacob’s rejection of her in favor of her sister’s beauty, Leah rejoices when she first becomes pregnant by Jacob.  Look at what she says, “It is because the LORD has seen my misery.  Surely my husband will love me now.” (Gen 29:32)  You see, romantic love controlled her life as much as it had controlled Jacob’s.  She had a void inside of her that was caused by someone who was supposed to love her (her husband) not loving her.  And now her desire for children is for all the wrong reasons.  Leah becomes pregnant twice more with the hope that it will force Jacob to love her.  Finally, when she conceives her fourth son, Leah gets it.  Leah, who has reached rock bottom in trying to make romantic love answer her life problems, has a fourth son named Judah, and she says about him, “This time I will praise the LORD.”  (Gen 29:35).  After all this time, Leah now discovered that only the LORD can truly fill the void for love inside of us.  Romance cannot.  And if we believe all the Hugh Grant movies and Celine Dion anthems that tell us it can, then romantic love has become an idol for us, and it will be a curse in our lives, not a blessing.

Romantic, physical, intimate love is a beautiful thing.  When used properly, it is seen as the great blessing from God that it is.  I’m not suggesting otherwise.  But it’s not the greatest thing.

The only one who can truly fill the inner void left by those who didn’t love us as they should have is Jesus.  And fascinatingly, in the godly sense, Jesus descended from heaven, and in the worldly sense, he descended from the womb of…..Leah.  Yes, he was the scepter who would come through her son Judah (Isaiah 49:10).  No one knew rejection of earthly love like he did.  Physical romance was not even part of his life, because the bride that he’d be coming back for was his Church.  And yet he suffered and died to pay for all of the times we’ve mistakenly thought that human love would conquer all.

For those who have lived a single and celibate life, heaven holds an intimacy for you that far surpasses any moments of pleasure from this world.

For those who have been unloved by those who should have loved you, heaven holds for you a feeling of absolute completion, satisfaction, and unity that the missed love of your father, mother, ex-husband, ex-wife, ex-boyfriend, or ex-girlfriend never could have offered you anyway.

And for all of us, in this lifetime, sometimes, by God’s grace through the relationships that God blesses us with, we catch glimpses of what love really is.  In heaven, we’ll know it so well that we can’t help but praise the LORD.

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The Idols We Never Knew We Had: PART II – Success

We all want to win. We all want validation in life.  Why?

Who hasn’t played a board game or party game with a supposed grown-up who, when they perform poorly, whine, complain, and pout like a baby?  Subtly, loss communicates to this person that he/she just didn’t learn enough in this life to be considered “smart.”  We’ve played softball with the middle-aged guy who takes things WAY too seriously and is an embarrassment to everyone there.  Subtly, loss communicates to this guy that he’s slowing down and deteriorating and maybe never was quite as good as he thought, that (at least in his own mind) he’s a loser and maybe always has been a loser.  Now this is desire for success in its most simplistic and childish form, but more complex forms are very real in many of our lives.

Every human assumes success should be part of their world.  Perhaps this is a holdover from Creation, where prosperity, abundance, and satisfaction were the norm.  But, with the world’s collapse into sin, it’s no longer the case.  We really have a hard time believing that in this world, the evil ultimately outweighs the good.  But it’s true.  That’s why we all eventually die.  That’s also why God eventually will destroy this planet.  The only reason he preserves it for now is for the sake of his people, whom Scripture calls the “salt (i.e. preservative) of the earth” (Matt 5:13).

The notion of unsuccessful existence is a struggle for all people, including God’s children.  Our Gospel lesson this week in worship is from Matthew 16:21-26.  Here Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for suggesting that he’s going to soon have to suffer and die for the world, at the hands of the world.  The text says, “Peter took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”  Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matt 16:22-23)  Some have called Peter the first “prosperity theologian,”  one who believes that if we’re faithful enough we’ll naturally experience only triumph in this life, devoid of pain, suffering, and (as we see here in the case of Jesus) death.

The rest of Scripture, which Peter must have been ignoring when he made this statement, clearly indicates that in this world, faithfulness requires pain, suffering, and death.  Without adversity, how can we find out what we cling most tightly to?  In other words, what we most fervently run to in times of need is often a good indicator of what our functional “gods” might be, whether that’s the true God or others.

But why is success so vital to us?  We know we enjoy it, but why do some of us have to have it at seemingly any cost?  The truth is that we all want to know there is a reason that we’re on this planet taking up space and consuming its air.  Success indicates to us that we must be doing something right.  And maybe if we’re the best at something, then that is our place in this world.  Then we would have meaning.  Then we would have praise.  But you know who/what alone inherently has meaning?  Do you know who/what alone deserves true praise?  It’s God.  The worship of idols is ultimately part of our sinful and rebellious desire to become like God.  And to varying degrees and in various ways, we all have this idol.

I’ll share by way of personal confession.  My experience is that pastors are generally nice guys.  However, there are probably two different reasons why they’re so nice.  One is that they have come to know the warmth, love, forgiveness, and generosity of their Lord, and this leads them as God’s children, to reflect the love and light of Christ into the world.  Hopefully that’s the reason most of the time.  The second reason though, the less holy reason, is that they desperately want a successful ministry, and they know that probably requires kindness even when they’re not always feeling it.  If a pastor suggests that the longing and desperation for a successful, growing ministry is not a temptation, the man is a charlatan and a scoundrel and you should flee his church immediately.   Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh :).  But he’s a liar, so I’m okay calling him out on that.

You see, men often identify themselves and appraise their worth on the success of their work.  Pastors are no different.  If attendance is poor, offerings are low, and members are complaining, many pastors feel worthless.  We know our job is about proclaiming God’s Word, but doing that faithfully doesn’t always bring the success we want.  Look at the long list of the prophets of God in the Old Testament who were repeatedly rejected, whose ministries shrunk rather than grew, despite their faithfulness to the message of God.  At that critical moment the messenger of God needs to make a choice – what am I willing to sacrifice?  Shall I sacrifice the truth of God’s Word for external success?  Or shall I sacrifice my personal validation on earth (success) for the truth of God’s Word?

There’s a passage in Micah 2:11 which always now cracks me up as a pastor.  Micah says, “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ he would be just the prophet for this people!”  There’s a pretty easy way to have an externally successful ministry.  Just tell people what they want to hear.  “Yeah!  God has nothing but wine and beer and parties in store for you in this life if you just believe hard enough.”  Sure, people will wake up and make time in their busy schedules on the weekends to hear that message.  But it’s not the reality.

The point is, we all, including pastors, have to make choices about how important success is in our lives.  Success is a wonderful blessing from God, but if it becomes the ultimate goal of our lives, it’s an idol to be repented of, redeemed as a result of, and freed from.

We want to believe we can entirely control our success in life if we just push the right buttons.  If only we try hard enough, read enough books, make the right decisions and surround ourselves with the right people, then we can have success.  But do you see what you’ve done then when you take it to the extreme?  You’ve given (as a top priority) your time, energy, money, and heart to something that’s not God.  That means you’ve worshiped it.  A good thing has become the ultimate thing.  Success has become your idol.

More than anyone, Jesus recognized that worldly success should not be his god.  He was able to discern between the comfort/pleasure pursuits of man and the will of God.  He even consulted his Heavenly Father about it in prayer (Matt 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22;42; John 17).  And in the end, he chose the will of God.  And his choice saved us from all of the times we’ve chosen worldly success.

Thank the Lord for the successes he brings you in the midst of a lost and sinful world.  It means God has shown you his grace.  And because God has shown you the ultimate grace in the form of the sacrifice of Jesus his Son, you have eternal victory.  Your business can stay on top for a time.  You can be the most beautiful person in the world for a moment.  You can be the smartest or funniest person in the world for maybe one test or one joke.  Worldly success is elusive and fleeting.  Victory in Christ is free and lasts forever.  You tell me – which pursuit makes more sense?

The Idols We Never Knew We Had: PART I – Are we really idolaters?

We all worship.  We all worship something/someone every day.  Functionally, these are our gods.

Dr. Timothy Keller, one of the better selling Christian authors in America today, became well-known, in part, for his insights on idolatry.  His concise summary, that “an idol is when you take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing in your life” is spot on.  While many people think that idolatry is the primitive practice of behind-the-times Eastern cultures, the reality is that idolatry is as much or more an issue today in the Western world as it has ever been in any corner of the planet.  In fact, one could argue that the idolatry practiced today in the United States is more embarrassing and more dangerous than bowing down to little carved images because we don’t even realize we’re guilty of it.

Years before Keller, Martin Luther made a similar comment about idolatry when he said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.”  Whatever we daydream about, whatever we wake up in the night thinking about, whatever drives us to our emotional edges, these are good indicators of what our idols might be.  Whatever we give regular and generous offerings to in our lives, these are likely our false gods.  Our time, our energy, and our finances, our adoration and praise, and most intimately, our hearts, belong to these functional gods which we believe will satisfy us, make us whole, and in true Humpty Dumpty fashion, put the broken pieces of our lives back together.  This is worship.  We all worship.  The only difference is what/who we worship.

The original sociologist, Satan himself, crafty as ever and knowing the pride of the 21st century West, which possesses a refusal to bow to any overt gods, has transformed modern idolatry into a highly subtle and internalized practice.  While there are over 200 references to idolatry in Scripture, most refer to gold and silver images.  However, there is one passage in particular that I believe summarizes modern idolatry well.  In Ezekiel 14:2-4, God tells his prophet Ezekiel to say this to the elders of Israel…

“Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry.'”

My guess is that it’s very possible that the elders of Israel, upon hearing this message from Ezekiel, said, “What’s he talking about?  We’re not idolaters!  Check our tents.  We have no idols!”  The idolatry they were guilty of was idolatry “in their hearts.”  They had taken good gifts from God and found their own personal value, their strength, their identity, and their hope in such worldly blessings.  They assumed worldly good could fulfill the desire of their hearts and solve the problems of their mind.  They were wrong.  And so are we when we believe likewise.

So what are these invisible idols that rule our hearts?  The mature Christian knows that they exist.  The mature Christian accurately recognizes that lust for sexual immorality and the greed of wealth and materialism are common idols.  But Satan’s savvy is generally two steps ahead of even the mature Christian.  What about those idols we’re not fully aware of, those that are important, valuable, noble things in our lives that occasionally become more important, more valuable, and ultimate to us, to the detriment of our relationship with God?

Over the course of the next weeks we’ll take a look at some of the more prominent ones: success, love, sports, beauty, family, and even religion. We’re going to identify not only what the common subtle idols of the Christian are, but also why we cling to them, and how they can be destroyed in our lives.  I hope you can join me.