Idolatry - Ep. 6

As we wrap up our season focusing on the dangers and pitfalls of idolatry, you've now got enough knowledge and tools to go into battle. But there's something I'm concerned about.

Because everything we’ve covered so far can leave you in a strange spot. Track along with this. If ____ (whatever it is that captures the attention and affection of your heart —> your idol) causes idolatry, and idolatry is bad, then I should never have that thing in my life. So if for you that’s fitness, or the gym, or social media, or relationships, and if that’s what drives you towards idolatry, then the logic would say to stay away from _____.  Right? Should we just separate from anything that could cause us to be drawn to evil?

This isn’t a new line of thought, but one that could lead to many unhealthy patterns in thought and in life. It’s called the doctrine of separatism. 

Separatism says that to be holy, to pursue Jesus, I have to separate myself from anything in the world. And when I associate with anything in the world, I'm sinning. It goes on to say that anything that brings you happiness is potentially evil. 

It’s easy to slide in to this line of thinking, isn’t it? If I can make an idol out of the gym, I should never go to the gym.

Let me remind you though, that idolatry isn’t as simple as saying this is black or white, good or evil. Idolatry is rooted in your heart, not just your actions.

Let’s see what Jesus has to say in addressing separatism.

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” John 17:14-19 NIV

Jesus prayed that God wouldn't just separate us from the world, but that while we live in the world we'd be protected from the devil. That we'd be sanctified by the Scriptures. He's sending us out into the world...that we'd be sanctified (made holy) and that we'd sanctify others (help grow others towards holiness) as we go.

Be in the world, but not of the world. 

This is such a key distinction. Be in the world: live in it, enjoy it, and soak it up. It's for our good.  James, the brother of Jesus, tells us this: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1:17) Everything good is for our enjoyment.

Just don't be of the world. Don't find your identity here. Don't waste your life here. Don't let it control and shape how you think, how you operate, how you live. Don't let it determine right and wrong. Only Jesus can do that.

In fact, don't find your identity in anything you do or don't do. There's this amazing parable  known as the parable of the prodigal son. The parable begins by introducing three characters: two sons and their father. The younger son demands his share of his father’s estate, his inheritance, immediately. In effect, he tells his dad, “I’d rather you were dead and I could have my money, but since you’re not dead, give my my money anyway.” Even 2000 years removed from this story, you know you're not supposed to do that. But the father gives it to him.

Shocking nobody, as this son runs off, he squanders the wealth “in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Finding himself broke, hungry, thirsty, and without a plan (also in the midst of a severe famine), he hires himself out to a pig farmer. Seeing firsthand that the pigs were eating better than him, he decides to return to his father and beg to be allowed to serve as a hired servant on the estate.

Then, Luke 15:20-24 says this:

“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Meanwhile, the older son (remember him?) had been diligently and consistently and faithfully working in the fields for his dad. And seeing his dad celebrate the return of his little rebel brother, he was mad, and refused to join the party being thrown for his little brother who'd returned home. His father pleaded with his older son to try to understand his joy over the return of what he had lost. It was like his youngest son had been dead and was alive again. He had been lost and now was found! The story concludes with the father pleading with the oldest son.

It's easy for us to see this story about being about the prodigal son, the one who was lost and returned home. But I believe it's primarily about the older brother. 

Jesus was speaking to us. Those of us who have fought against our idols, had some victories, and are tempted to now see ourselves as better, more worthy of God's love, more worthy of a seat at the table, than those who live differently. Jesus was pleading with the audience he was sharing this story with to stop trusting in their own works. Stop trusting in their own obedience, and their own victories. Oh how quickly we slide from being the prodigal who's returned home to becoming the older brother who's angry that our younger brothers are being celebrated even though we've been working for years at this.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Unless we see ourselves as unworthy, we cannot possibly fall on the grace of God. Unless we realize that we are spiritually destitute, we will never be saved. It is only the needy who reach out for help or saving.

So as you fight, don't simply separate yourself from everything in the world. Live. But don't let your idols live and control you. And when you get a little victory, don't believe it was by your effort that you've earned God's favor. Remember that your salvation is by grace alone.

So here you go. One last time, a recap of our 3-step process.

  1. Identify the idol in your life. Why do you chase it, and what are you feeding it with?
  2. Confess this to God, to others, and ask for accountability.  Ask others to help you see these idols before they become an issue.
  3. Replace the idol, the habit, the value, with something that honors Jesus.

Let’s keep fighting!


Pastor Ben Reed
Ben Reed is a Pastor at Mission Community Church just outside of Phoenix, AZ. He and his wife have three kids. He is the author of the book, Starting Small, and blogs at Ben is also a runner, a Cross-fitter, and an avid coffee drinker.


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