February 1, 2011
The two women met with the pastor for counseling, independently of one another, but with the same complaint. Each had one child, a teenage boy. Each had remote husbands, detached, not involved in the life of the family. Each woman came to the pastor with guns blaring, saying, “I can’t stand my husband. I’m ready to leave him. He is not treating my son the way he should, he is not invested in the boy’s life at all, and now my son is starting to have trouble in school, and in many other areas of life.” The pastor was a young minister at the time and had not counseled much, but he knew what the Bible taught about bitterness. He told each woman, “You need to learn how to forgive your husband. He is not doing the right thing, but neither are you with your reaction to him. Here’s what the Bible says about forgiveness.” One woman agreed and went home and worked on her heart and the marriage continued and improved. The other woman tried to forgive and she couldn’t. Many years later the pastor looked back on the situation and wondered, what was the difference? By this time in his ministry, the pastor had seen many examples of idolatry, which he defines as “taking a good thing and making it into an ultimate thing.” He had counseled many who had made food or entertainment or sports or family or even their church an idol. As he thought back to these two women who came to him with the same complaint about their husbands many years before, it occurred to him that idolatry was the issue. The one woman loved her child. The other woman almost worshipped her child. The woman who couldn’t forgive had said in her heart, “I have done nothing else in life, I don’t have a good marriage, but if my son grows up to be happy and successful and to love me, then I will have some meaning in my life.” And therefore, she could not possibly forgive her husband. She was not just angry, she was idolatrously angry. She had turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. She had turned her son into a real savior and his love into something more important even than the Savior’s love.
The pastor in the story is Tim Keller, who serves a church in New York City. As he talked about his latest book, “Counterfeit Gods,” Keller said it is important to recognize our idols by asking questions such as, “What does my mind naturally go to when it is in neutral and I am not hooked up to an iPod or glued to a TV?” The quiet mind will gravitate to what has captured the heart. Or, “What do I want so much that I cannot imagine life without it?” The idols of our heart will come into focus through honest examination.
How do we find freedom from idols? Psalm 107 says, “Then they cried out to the Lord … He brought them out of darkness … and broke their chains in pieces.” God has to do it. Keller talked about Thomas Chalmers’ famous sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” and encouraged believers to meditate on the cross. You cannot look at the cross and the sacrifice Jesus made for you there and at the same time cling to idols. Something has to go. As you see and savor Jesus Christ, the idols will begin to topple, though it may take time and patience until your heart is free. There’s nothing better than that.