For many of us, the most dangerous sins are not the ones that will get us excommunicated or bring public shame on our families. They are the sort that we can carry right into church without anyone noticing.
Friends are unconcerned. Our small group sees no problem. Even we assure ourselves that we have kept our feet from every forbidden tree in God’s garden. All the while, we have forgotten that often, the serpent’s subtlest temptations are not to pluck the fruit God has forbidden, but to crave the fruit he has given. We have closed our grip around the good gifts of God, and slowly, even imperceptibly, have become unable to let go.
We should not be surprised if we trick even ourselves. Like all sin, this idolatry is deceitful (Ephesians 4:22) — especially because it so easily wears the mask of virtue. We numb ourselves with entertainment in the name of rest. We grow too dependent on a friend in the name of fellowship. We control our children in the name of responsibility.
The result is a domesticated disobedience, a nearly invisible idolatry, a respectable rebellion — a spell that can be broken only by heeding Jesus’s blunt command to “be on your guard” (Luke 12:15).
Be On Your Guard
Jesus and the apostles never assume that any of us, even the born again, could live in the midst of God’s gifts without being on guard. Jesus gives his command in the context of money and possessions — good gifts that can become devouring idols (Luke 12:13–21). And, according to Paul, what’s true of wealth is true of all good things. When the Corinthians told him, “All things are lawful for me,” he replied, “But I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Given the chance, our flesh is ready to enslave us to any good thing: money, reputation, marriage, comfort, success, control, beauty, food, children, sleep, career, free time, friends.
Sometimes, God delivers us from such subtle idolatry by sending us into the wilderness: he removes his good gifts for a time to remind us that his “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). But what if he doesn’t? How do we remain on our guard in the land of plenty?
Scripture gives us dozens of ways to be on our guard. Before we look at four of them, it bears mentioning that the goal is never to permanently distance ourselves from God’s gifts, as if holiness keeps creation at arm’s length. Our goal, rather, is to raise up some fences around God’s gifts so that we might, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, “give room for good things to run wild” (Orthodoxy, 9).
1. Come awake to the danger.
The battle against idolatrous desires begins with coming awake to the danger. Many of us have already fled into our fortresses and bolted the door against bad things: sexual immorality, lying, angry outbursts, gossip. But we have not realized — or we need to remember — that sin has already infiltrated the fortress, hidden under the cover of good things.
Perhaps some of us feel like saying, “But what’s so bad about having a good marriage? Or my kids’ safety? Or enough money? Or some downtime?” The answer is nothing. Used rightly, each of these gifts is an ally to our joy in God, not an enemy. They are part of the very good God spoke over Eden, wonders sprung from the joy of the triune God, designed for our delight (Genesis 1:31).
Where, then, does the danger come from? Not from God’s gifts, but from our flesh, that defeated foe who still finds a way to whisper in our ear. The day is coming when the angels of God “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin . . . and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:41–42). Until then, the devilish suggestion to grasp for God’s gifts remains with us. The enemy is always inside the gates, because it is always inside our chests. So, Jesus tells us, “Be on your guard.”
2. Pay attention to your emotions.
We would be wrong, however, to interpret “Be on your guard” to mean, “Lock yourself away in the cellars of your soul, and don’t come back out till you’ve found every idol.” Some of us are tempted to become little Hezekiahs, hunting our hearts for every high place and pillar (2 Kings 18:4). The search often goes awry, and we end up inverting the famous counsel of Robert Murray McCheyne: “For every look at Christ,” we say, “take ten looks at yourself.”
David Powlison writes, “Our renegade desires are not so ‘inward’ as to call for intense introspection” (“Revisiting Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” 41). Although these desires often hide in the cellar, they can’t help but show their faces from time to time — often in distorted emotions.
Our emotions are never just givens; they are ambassadors of the heart, sent to tell us what’s happening there. Negative emotions like worry, anger, and sorrow tell us that something we care about is under attack. Sometimes, of course, we feel negative emotions for the right reasons: we are angry because injustice is happening; we are sorrowful because a close relationship has ended.
But much of the time, our negative emotions reveal that one of our idols is under fire: we are angry because someone has crossed our desires for control; we are sorrowful because we have lost someone who had given our lives meaning. When I drove to work a few days ago in a little palace of self-pity, the emotion was uncovering an enemy: my desire for comfort had gone rogue. No longer a gift to be received with thanks, it had become a right to be expected.
Positive emotions, too, can raise warning flags. The world is filled with happy idolaters, people like the rich fool who kept his joy in bigger barns (Luke 12:16–20). Sometimes, our deepest problem is not that we are anxious, sorrowful, or fearful, but that we are incredibly happy for all the wrong reasons.
From time to time, we need to query our emotions before giving them a room in our hearts — especially emotions that visit quite often. We need to ask ourselves, “Why am I irritable right now? Why am I worried? Why am I so happy?” Often, such questions will lead us to an idol that has been pulling the levers of our heart for too long.
3. Gauge your spiritual desires.
When we enjoy God’s gifts as he created us to, they will not compete with Christ for our affections; they will take us in hand and, like a godly friend, say, “Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1). God made us to wrap our arms around a spouse, or fill our stomachs with food, or feel a thunderstorm shake the ground, and say, “These are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him!” (Job 26:14).
But when an idol eclipses the light of God’s face, spiritual desires limp. Bible reading becomes a formal affair. Spontaneous prayer dries up. Fellowship feels less urgent. We would do well to heed the advice of McCheyne, who was more jealous to guard his spiritual desires than most: “Brethren, if you are ever so much taken up with any enjoyment that it takes away your love for prayer or your Bible, . . . then you are abusing this world” (“Time Is Short”).
Left unchecked, innocent enjoyments become thorns, ready to choke out our spiritual desires (Mark 4:18–19). If we find that a hobby, friendship, or form of entertainment is keeping us from God’s word, or from our knees, something radical needs to change.
4. Occasionally ask, ‘What if God takes it away?’
Perhaps no test helps us discern hidden idolatry more than occasionally looking at our most precious earthly gifts, and asking ourselves, “What if God takes it away?”
We should not expect to consider this question with an unruffled heart. The thought of losing a spouse, a child, a dear friend, or a lifelong dream should stir up waves within us. Mature godliness does not create stoic detachment from this world; it creates real lament arising from real anguish directed to the real God. He who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3) will not reproach us when sorrow’s deep waters rise up to our necks.
The test is this: Will we, as far as we know ourselves, resolve to bless the Lord rather than curse him, even if the worst comes (Job 1:21)? Will we believe that God’s mercies will be new with the sunrise, no matter how dark the midnight (Lamentations 3:22–23)? Will we still say, though tears be our food, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)?
“What if God takes it away?” is not a question to ask every day. Most days, we should hold God’s gifts in hand, thank him from the depths of us, and keep what ifs outside the door. Only every now and then should we subject ourselves to such introspection, and always with the aim of recalibrating our hearts so that we might throw ourselves back into the enjoyment of his gifts.
Keep Christ In
The four strategies above are all defensive — ways of climbing up into the watchtower to keep guard over our soul. Such battle plans, though necessary, are never sufficient. Unless we fill our souls with light, we will sweep the floors only to welcome more darkness (Matthew 12:43–45).
A.W. Tozer reminds us, “The best way to keep the enemy out is to keep Christ in” (Tozer on the Holy Spirit, 27). Our struggles with wayward desires arise chiefly because we have kept Christ outside the door. But when Christ is the host, all the guests take their places and get along famously. The best way to protect our souls, then, is not merely to keep idolatry out, but to keep Christ in.
For the sake of our souls, we must seek him. No matter how long ago we heard his “Follow me,” there is more of Christ to be had. More of his beauty to be seen. More of his wisdom to be admired. More of his power to be feared. More of his friendship to be enjoyed. More of his grace to be treasured. More of his comfort to be felt. More of his authority to be hailed. More of his worth to be confessed.
When Christ is in, the gifts of God will not compete with him. Every one of them will bow its knee before his throne, and bid us to go further up, and further in, to him.