My small group just started a discussion of Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, by Tim Keller. I'll post on it each week we discuss it, which will only be every other week. Last Thursday night we met to discuss the introduction, which in itself was very good.
Keller helps us see idolatry from several different perspectives. Most of us think of little (or big) statues when we think of idols. Certainly that is one type of idolatry, but it is not the only kind of idolatry. Israel was certainly guilty of worshiping idols at certain points in their history - the golden calf, fertility gods, etc. However, even at a time in Israel's history when literal idols made of wood and stone had been put away, God still chastised their leaders saying, "these men have taken their idols into their hearts." Neither forms of idolatry were particular to the Old Testament period either. There was a temptation to turn from worshiping the invisible God to worshiping more tangible (and manageable gods). Look at Acts 17:16, Romans 1:22, 1 Cor. 12:2, and the imperative to 'keep yourselves from idols' (1 John 5:21). Literal idols can still be stumbling blocks for believers, maybe not currently in the west, but certainly in other periods and in other parts of the world. Still, we in the modern west must be on guard against idolatry, for as Paul reminds us, there are more subtle idols we may fall prey to (see Colossians 3:5).
While we usually steer clear of worshiping little statues, we need to think long and hard about the 'idols of our hearts'. Remember Calvin's words, "the human heart is an idol factory.' Keller defines idols as 1) goods things and turning them into ultimate things, 2) something we cannot live without, 3) a God alternative, 4) 'anything more important to you than God', 5) "whatever you look at and say in your heart, 'if i have that, then I'll feel my life has meaning...'". Keller reminds us that ancient deities were 'bloodthirsty and hard to appease'. Modern 'counterfeit gods' are the same. Alexis de Tocqueville described America saying that there is 'a strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants ... in the midst of abundance." Why so melancholy? His explanation is that we, as a nation, pursue satisfaction in "the incomplete joys of this world [which] will never satisfy the human heart." Case and point: remember the slew of suicides in the wake of the most recent financial meltdown! People who place ultimate importance on things that are not God fall into despair when those things are taken away. Many people suffer sorrow at such times, but those who rely on God have an 'ultimate' to fall back on. Those whose 'ultimate' is stripped away fall into deep despair.
How do we know if we have allowed ourselves to set up counterfeit gods in our hearts? Ask, are their things you love more than God? What do you daydream about? What do you enjoy imagining? What are your fondest dreams? Those things, even if you don't possess them yet, can become idols. On the other hand, ask what it is you trust more than God. What do your nightmares look like? What do you fear the most? It's possible what what you fear loosing the most is what has become your god (kids, respect, financial security, etc). Finally, what do you obey instead of God? If the boss asks you to do something immoral, will you? If your desires run contrary to the will of God, do you obey them? If so, it's quite possible that there is a counterfeit god lurking in the corner of your heart.
Keller closes the introduction by reminding us of the great opportunity we now have. We are briefly experiencing a 'disenchantment' with the typical gods of our age, especially the security of wealth. That provides us with the opportunity to speak of the God who can lead us out of despair or to recommit ourselves to fidelity to the true God.