You feel overwhelmed with all you have to do and all the people looking to you, and you have no idea when you’re ever going to get some relief. You’ve put yourself in a position of authority and respect, and you fear someone tearing that down, of bringing you down. People around you feel moved around as pawns in your game. They feel stepped on like rungs on your ladder. When those people don’t follow you, when they don’t respect you, you get upset. Really upset. Why do you live like this? Why do I? Scripture says it’s because we’re sinners. But to understand ourselves, to find a way out of it, we need to dig a bit deeper. I know this is what you want to think about on a Sunday morning, but as a kid, I constantly had ingrown toenails. I was from a small town, and come from a different era. What my mom would seriously do is dig them out with a knife. And it hurt like heck. I cried and screamed. The neighbors probably thought I was being tortured. It didn’t earn any approval with them, I’m sure. But let me tell you: it hurt less to get them out than it did to leave them in. Karis, we’ve got to go deeper. It hurts to dig into our hearts like this. But it hurts way less than leaving our hearts fixed on idols.
And that’s where our hearts naturally go - to idolatry. Look at 1 John chapter 5 with me. Look at verses 20 and 21.
1 John 5:20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
You might read that last verse of 1 John and ask, like many have, “Why does the book end like this? There hasn’t been talk of idolatry at all!” Now I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. For example, in chapter two, in verses 15-17, John warns against loving the things of this world. He warns against the “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” David Powlison has pointed out that the concept of sinful desire in the New Testament is equivalent to idolatry in the Old. It seems like John is summarizing the point of the book, as well as the point of all our problems.
In fact, a main thing John does in this letter is condemn false prophets who are dishonoring Jesus. They are preaching a false Christ. He then condemns their lack of obedience and love. Maybe all that bad stuff springs from idolatry. Maybe idolatry is at the root of all our trouble. Listen to David Powlison:
Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?
David’s question is for us: “Who or what ‘rules’ my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?” As John puts it, we must “keep [ourselves] from idols.” That’s because we were made to worship Jesus. We were created to trust Him and serve Him. But we’ve each gone our own way. Like the heretics in John’s day, we’ve run after false christs. That chief sin on the inside has led to all these other struggles on the outside. And we haven’t just blasphemed Jesus. We’ve made a mess of ourselves.
Many of you have heard of author David Foster Wallace. He got to the top of the literary world but later tragically committed suicide. But before that, he once addressed Kenyon College’s commencement with these words:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god . . . to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before [your loved ones] finally plant you. . . . Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. (David Foster Wallace)
East of Eden, this is our struggle. It’s our default setting. It’s only changed by a reformat, an interruption of grace. But if we don’t get a new start, we’re headed toward the pain and despair that Wallace expresses so well. We’re idolaters. Hear how Jack Miller defines it in Sonship:
An idol is anything we believe we need apart from Jesus to make us happy, satisfied, or fulfilled. An idol arises when we desire something more than we desire Jesus; when we fear things other than God; when we worship ourselves rather than Christ; when we put our trust in anything other than God; when we serve any other thing rather than Jesus. (Jack Miller)
I was hanging out with an old friend this week. He talked about a man who had been married to his wife for something like 50 years. He was expressing his disbelief, even disgust, that the guy had started dating someone else six months or so after she died. He said, “How could that have been genuine? Maybe he didn’t love her that much, after all.” My response I think surprised him: “Maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t love her enough. Maybe he loved her too much. All his heart was wrapped up in her. When she left, his identity left, too. And he had to replace her with something. So he found another wife.” That’s what idolatry looks like. We try to fill this hole inside with something else. And it never works. But Jesus offers us freedom.
Two Types of Idols
I’ve never had the privilege of going scuba diving. But I know things look quite a bit different as you plunge down deep. You get a completely different view than you do from the top. And some of what you see might freak you out, right? We’ve got to get off the banks, dive below the surface, and swim down deep. Behind spouse worship or compulsive shopping or porn addiction or chronic bullying are deep desires for something more, for something greater. Richard Keyes and others have argued that there are two layers of idols we need to recognize. Surface idols and source idols.
Surface idols are what we can see at the surface. Source idols are what you find when you really dive in. We’ve talked about four during this series. We’ve looked at control, comfort, and approval so far. Today, we’re going to take on power. We desperately seek after those four things. We try to find them in all of these other people, places, things, or experiences. But what we desperately need is the Lord.
You may have heard this already, but we had a number of our dudes camping out at Chick-fil-a this week for their chance at a free meal a week for a year. Most of them made it to the prize. Depending upon their idol, they probably approached it a bit differently. Those with control idols either studied the system and had all the rules perfectly figured out, or they were too responsible and focused to take a whole day off for that. Comfort idols were either too lazy to figure all that out or get out of bed, or the prospects of 52 chicken sandwiches hitting their bellies were too much to pass up. Approval idols were either too embarrassed to go through with the ordeal, or they were stocking up on coupons to impress their friends. Power idols were there the earliest, ready to dominate the competition, or, hacked off that they missed out, they’re already preparing for the next conquest.
That’s the idol we’re going to look at today - that of those who kick butt and take their chicken sandwiches and despise suckers who don’t. Underneath this longing for free fast-food you can even see a desire for something more. A surface idol - like food - is driven by something deeper, a source idol. Generally, it’s comfort. But it often goes alongside something else. Control, approval, or power.
The Quest for Power
You might not know this, but I’m a bit of a rage monster. You probably know, if you know my wife, that she’s intelligent, capable, and also, strong willed. If I don’t feel like I’m being heard, if I don’t feel like I’m being respected, then I get angry. And she is the most awesomest wife ever, but she really knows how to push my buttons. She can get a rise from me, easy. Plus, she came from a family that buried their emotions. They avoid conflict. She likes to build walls. I like to push through them. Not with my fists. But with my words. Why do I do this? What’s my deal? I like to be in charge. I need to be respected. I have a power problem. Let’s take a look at that source idol now.
This is our last message in the series. We’ve argued each of us wrestles primarily with one of these core idols. Our first week, we looked at control. People who struggle with this are the self-disciplined, organized ones. They’ll give up companionship and playing it by ear to maintain that. They can’t stand disorganization or surprises. They nit-pick and belittle those around them. They stress and worry much of the time. God is great!
Our second week, we looked at comfort. They want to be free of responsibilities and interruptions. They’ll give up fortune and glory to get that. They have no desire for burdens of any kind. Those around them feel ignored or used. They end up running around, pursuing pleasure, avoiding boredom. God is good!
Our third week, we looked at approval. These people live for relationships and the acceptance they get - or what they think they can get. They’ll give up their freedom to get them. They fear being rejected like nothing else. They’ll smother people trying to avoid that, but it often causes that. They avoid doing or saying anything hard - anything that might bring upon that rejection. God is glorious!
Today, we’re looking again at power. People who wrestle with this idol want success above everything. They want to lead and influence others. They want to win in the little things. They want to win in the big things. Perhaps their goal is not even to win. It’s just not to lose.
Notice what they’ll give up to get this. Again, idols must be served. They must be sacrificed to. They’ll pay for this power by taking on more burdens, more responsibilities than most people. But it’s worth it for them if they get to call the shots.
Catch what they fear the most, their greatest nightmare. If being successful and respected is their functional heaven, then being humiliated is their functional hell. I should say “our,” as this is again something I struggle personally with.
Those around them often feel used. They’re either vehicles to help them get what they want, or they’re obstacles that get in the way of what they want. They often don’t feel loved or appreciated or ministered to.
The problem emotion is anger. When people don’t do what they want, they often know nothing else but to blow up at them. This, of course, tends to alienate people more. And it works against the power they so desperately, idolatrously want.
Here’s the slogan for those who serve and love power: life only has meaning/I only have worth if I have power and influence over others.
If you find yourself only happy when you’re in charge, and you’re generally unable to submit to authority; if you’re not in charge of the room, you don’t know what to do, you might have a power idol.
If you’ve ever lost a board game and then thrown that game, or you haven’t spoken to your spouse for hours after you lost that game, you might have a power idol.
If you find yourself deceiving, manipulating, or bullying others to get them to do what you want, you might have a power idol.
If you’re always busting your butt but rarely breaking a smile, you might have a power idol.
If you dominate or interrupt most conversations or meetings, if you utilize a lot of verbal put downs or cut downs, you might have a power idol.
If you surround yourself with people in power but very seldom serve the powerless, you might have a power idol.
If everyone around you is a slacker, loser, idiot, or joke, you no doubt have a power idol.
If you’re either beating yourself up, or beating others up, you probably have a power idol.
If someone tells you you’re wrong, and you either sulk or go hulk, you might have a power idol.
If you find yourself having conversations about the shortcomings of others, you likely have a power idol.
If you find yourself paranoid that people are undermining you, if you find it hard to be vulnerable for fear they might exploit you, you might have a power idol.
If you often make statements that “mark your territory,” if you’ve ever said angrily, “I’m in charge here,” you might have a power idol.
If the end of you winning and ruling justifies the means of getting there, you definitely have a power idol.
If you secretly worry that you won’t measure up, that you won’t make the grade, you probably have a power idol.
This is certainly something I struggle with. Maybe you can’t get your head around this idol of power and how it differs from control. This could help. Organizations need visionary leaders and managerial leaders. Leaders who point the way, and leaders who make sure we get there. Those are the roles Rob and I play in our church. I’m the visionary leader. He’s the executive guy, the manager. We feel comfortable in our roles, but we both struggle with inner idolatry, for sure. Visionary leaders typically struggle more with power. Administrative leaders wrestle more with control. That’s Rob and me. And those idols of ours tend to slam up against each other on occasion. But, additionally, we both understand and struggle with the other idols enough that it can lead to a butting of heads.
I want to take the next hill. I want to take it now. I want to take three while we’re at it. I don’t want anyone to stop me. But Rob thinks about the practicals of what’s needed, of how it’s going to happen. He thinks more about the people involved. Sometimes to me, though, he can feel like the guy perpetually hitting the brakes. Not the “yes” man, but the “no” man. But I know deep down I need the dude. As a friend. But as a co-laborer. He’s my Samwise Gamgee who makes sure I, Frodo, don’t put on the ring when I’m acting like Gollum. He’s my Gandalf, who looks at Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo, and says, “I’m not trying to rob you. I’m trying to help you.” Many of you here I know wrestle with this idol, also. And I know it usually goes along with your strengths. But there’s something deeply wrong with it, and I want to turn to that now.
But before I get there, listen carefully. Not all power is bad. God’s isn’t. He is the Lord of the universe. He’s the Omnipotent One. And His leadership is always good. But He has also put in place earthly leaders. Government rulers and other human authorities are there by His will. Pastors lead churches. Husbands lead homes. That’s how God set things up. And that’s good.
The problem is when we try to try to seize power for ourselves and rely on our own strength. We all do this. That’s what Adam and Eve did in the garden, right? You misunderstand what happened there if you just think they just wanted to break the rules. Eating the fruit wasn’t the main problem. They wanted to make the rules. They wanted to be God. They wanted to show they could manage things on their own. Just like the serpent who led them astray. That was the problem.
And this is what we do today. We resist God’s authority. We lean on our strength. We try to prove ourselves to God. We try to prove ourselves to others. But the thought of us having any power outside of God is an illusion. The idea that we are strong enough in and of ourselves is insanity. Believing we can prove anything to God or anyone is foolish. And we end up hurting ourselves.
I want to look at this problem more closely as we think about the parable of the prodigal son Jesus tells in Luke 15. There a young man does the unthinkable. He goes to his dad and demands his inheritance. Basically, he says, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I want your money more than I want you.” But the father gives it to him. He takes the cash and runs off and spends it on sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Until he runs out and has to take a job as a farm hand. He wakes up when he finds himself eating alongside the pigs. He decides to return, pondering all the way home how his father will react. But his pop does a surprising thing. He runs to him and embraces him. He then throws a massive party for him.
Now some of you may identity with that younger brother. But there’s another character in the story. He’s actually the main character. The older brother can’t believe what just happened. And in his response we see what a person enslaved to power looks like. Chester in You Can Change lists four things we can learn from him.
First, see his restless anger. Verse 28 says that “he was angry and refused to go in” to the party. Chester says we can easily…
…view life as a contract between us and God: we do good works and in return he blesses us. When things go well, we’re filled with pride. But, when things go badly, either we blame ourselves (and feel guilty) or we blame God (and feel bitter). (Tim Chester)
Second, you see joyless duty. In verse 29, he says, “Look these many years I have served you.” This is what happens when see our relationship with God as a business transaction, as a contract. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do. God’s just giving us what we’ve deserved. That’s a recipe for a lack of joy.
Third, notice anxious performance. Again in verse 29, the older brother says, “I never disobeyed your command.” Hear Chester here:
The older brother wants people to know about his good works because he’s trying to prove himself. There are people trying to perform day after day: Christian leaders trying to preach a wonderful sermon every week, parents trying to produce lovely children, workers putting in long hours at work, all in a desperate attempt to prove themselves. And some weeks they may feel as if they’ve pulled it off. And other weeks it all seems fragile, as if it might shatter. And so they live in a constant state of stress and busyness, always striving to put in another great performance, always worried that the charade might crumble. (Tim Chester)
We try to prove ourselves to God, to others, to ourselves. It makes us miserable. Last, we see proud comparisons. Look at verse 30. “But this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes.” Sometimes when the kids are acting up, Amy will say, “Those are your kids.” That’s what he does here. He doesn’t call him his brother. He says, “This son of yours.” He disowns him. But he also condemns him for his conduct.
This is what we do, too. When we’re trying to prove ourselves, we inevitably find ourselves comparing ourselves to others, looking down on others, in order to feel better about ourselves. We want to outdo those around us. As Chester puts it, “We think of righteousness as a ladder and our position on the ladder is what matters.” And I’ll add, we’re all too ready to point out how much higher we are than them.
Here’s the picture of someone living for power: angry, anxious, joyless, judgmental. Is this you? What a miserable existence! But the bigger problem is what it says about God. He is the one who is all powerful. Next, to him, we’re no match. We could never hang with him or prove ourselves to Him. But there’s something else true about our God. And there we find the solution for our problem. There’s a remedy to this idol that sucks the life out of us.
Turn with me to Isaiah 46. In verses 8-13, we see this grand picture of God’s power. And the Lord says, in verse 9, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.”
In verses 1-2 and verses 5-7, Isaiah tears into these idols of Babylon that are tempting Israel. Listen to verses 1-2.
Is. 46:1 Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. 2 They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.
Bel and Nebo are the gods of Babylon. They’re father and son. Bel, or Ba’al, the god of the storm. Nebo, the god of science, math, and learning. But Bel isn’t controlling the weather. And Nebo and those who follow him aren’t too smart. Animals are lugging their statues around, and they can’t carry the burden. And those gods can’t save anyone anyhow.
Look at verses 5-7.
Is. 46:5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? 6 Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! 7 They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.
The Lord mocks his people for falling for such nonsense. Making a god from gold or silver? Falling down before that? But here’s the key thing to notice. “They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it.” These so-called “gods” are burdens they must carry around! They carry them. But the gods can’t move. They can’t answer. They can’t save.
But check out the glory in verses 3-4. Wedge these words into your heart. This is our God.
Is. 46:3 “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; 4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
The Lord says, “Listen to me.” From the cradle to the grave, I’ve carried you. I will keep carrying you. “I will bear.” I’ll carry the burden. That’s my job. And I “will save.” Friends, this is our God. He is a God of power. But He’s a God of grace. In all other religions, we carry the weight, we save ourselves. But the gospel is that God carries us. He rescues us. And that’s the most freeing thought in the world.
I can’t think of a better image to describe grace. He carries us. We’re his bride. He lovingly carries us over the threshold into the house. And then he carries us joyfully all over the house. Grace - which is karis in Greek - more specifically refers to God’s unmerited favor. We can’t earn our way into God’s house. We can’t keep ourselves there. This is the remedy for this quest for power. God is gracious, so we don’t have to prove ourselves. Let’s stop trying. It’s not just that we can’t prove ourselves. We can’t. It’s not just that we shouldn’t prove ourselves. We shouldn’t. But we don’t need to. We’re the adopted kid, who’s still acting like he’s being fostered, trying to win his parent’s favor. Let’s throw that burden down. Let’s trust in Him to save. Let’s rejoice.
I’m going to put before you the same truths I’ve given you each week. I want these to get worked into our brains and hearts. First, trust in this God who is gracious. This is who our God is. He won’t tolerate people running from His rule. He won’t let people do things in their own strength. He wants to give grace so that He gets the glory. He’s the one with all power. But He’s also the One who likes to give it to others. He lifts up the humble. He give strength to the weak. The mindset we should have is seen in Psalm 123:
Psa. 123:2 Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us.
The Lord wants us to submit to Him. He wants us to depend upon Him. Let’s trust this God who is gracious.
Second, believe this gracious God is your Father. The reality is that we haven’t proven anything but that we’re frail and fallen. But Jesus set aside His power. He hung powerless on a cross. He could have risen up and proved who He was, but He didn’t. He died for us. He took all the wrath for our rebellion on His shoulders.
Jesus also lived a perfect life. He never sinned. He did prove Himself, living the life Adam was intended to live, fully submitting to His Father, fully depending upon Him. If we trust in Him, that perfect life is given to us. This is justification by faith. We are declared right, proven. By His grace, but by means of faith. We open up our hands. We stretch them out to Him. He fills them.
For both of those reasons, we’re forgiven. Proven. But we also became part of the family. We deserve to be outside, looking in the window. But He’s invited us in, to sit, eat and drink, at His table - forever. He’s our Dad. We don’t have to prove ourselves to this Father. We don’t have to walk around on tiptoes for fear the balance will go down to zero. He offers a cross, not a ladder. Believe this gracious God is Your Father.
Third, trust He is better than your idols. Picture a teenager that leaves home angrily, trying to show His parents that he can make it on his own. He’s tough enough. He can do it without them. He does everything he can to prove that to them. But things aren’t as great as he thought. What a miserable existence, running around carrying this weight, trying to demonstrate that we’re awesome, when we have a Father who wants to graciously give us blessings at no cost.
If you offer a kid a nickel or a dime, they’ll almost always choose the nickel. It’s bigger. It seems better. But it’s not. Why do we keep choosing the way of frustration and pain? The path of submission to God and reliance upon the Lord is such an easier path. And it’s not a path to nowhere. Trust He is better than your idols.
Fourth, trust that He is bigger than your idols. Our typical response to our sin is to deal with it on the surface. I will stop being angry. I’ll try not to be so judgmental. I’ll stop working so hard. But we’ve go to go deeper. This is a cancer that’s deep within us. No bandaid or pill will work. We’ve got to tear out the lie that deceives and destroys. The lie that the strength rests in us. And we’ve got to replace it with truth. That God is a God of grace.
But God will work that in us by His grace. He wins our hearts at the beginning, as we open up our hands and call out to Him in faith. But He also keeps our hearts. He preserves them to the end. And by the same means. Faith. We’re justified by faith, at one time in history. We persevere by faith, as well, trusting in His gospel. Our Lord is big. He is good. If we’re His, we’ll overcome our idols. By His grace. In His power.
The Pathway to Change
So the purpose of this series has been to ask: what’s wrong with us? Why do we keep doing the things that we do? How can we find our way out? And here has been our answer. We must look at patterns in our lives, things we could call surface idols. We’ve then got to dig deeper to things that drive those things, what we could call source idols. And we’ve got to replace them with truths. And we must worship those truths.
Take a look at the slide on the screen. We wrongly interpret our world. We believe lies about God. We worship those lies. Our desires turn sinful. Interpreting and worshipping wrongly spill over into wrong emotions and behaviors. What we need is to look at things rightly, trusting in God’s word, believing what it says about God. We must desire Him, worship Him, serve and sacrifice for Him. Then right behavior and emotions will overflow. We must go inside out.
Friends, this is pretty simple, but never easy. It’s what we’ll spend the rest of our lives doing. Martin Luther’s first thesis he nailed on the Wittenberg door said this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That’s turning from the lies, from the idolatry, and running to the Father in faith. Repent and believe, Karis. Repent and believe. The remedy for the idol of power is God’s grace. Repent and believe in this gracious God.
I want to close with one last rhythm that reinforces that remedy. For control, I offered prayer. For comfort, I gave you fasting. For approval, I suggested evangelism. Today, for power, I give you service. Have a problem with power? Get down low and serve somebody. Don’t use people. Serve them.
So many people want to lead, but they’ve never shown a willingness to serve. And that reveals someone’s character. Some people don’t want to bide their time, doing the little things. But that shows his or her motives. Will they, as Darrin Patrick puts it, “Use people to get ministry done” or “use ministry to get people done?” Jesus is the Servant-King, and He wants servant leaders. He said, in fact, in Mark 9:35, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s how the Lord sees things. And that’s how He’ll change us. Through service. Keller has said, “The fastest way to be like Satan is to try to be God. The fastest way to be like God is to refuse to be God in your life.” Let’s rely on Him. In that, let’s be like Him, Karis.
I’ve also been giving you one thing each week to help you discern your idols. First, I suggested you ask your community around you. Second, I called you to look at your trials. Third, I said you should look at your fruit. Today, I encourage you to get in His word. Call out to Him by His Spirit. Ask Him to show you. He’ll answer.
And why you’re there, do the most important rhythm of all, one that applies to fighting each idol: meditate on the gospel of Jesus. Meditate on the promises of God. And let that push the idols out of your system. He is great. He is good. He is glorious. He is gracious. He is all these things for us in Jesus!
Some elders will be in the back. We’d love to pray for you as you consider these things. Karis, He is a God of grace. Stop trying to prove yourselves.