This week on the Ask Pastor John podcast we are joined by guest Dr. Richard Lints, who serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the main campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, north of Boston. Dr. Lints is also the author of a fascinating book that releases this winter, titled Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion. It is published in Don Carson’s series New Studies in Biblical Theology. It’s one of the better ones in the series, in my opinion.
And Dr. Lints, of course you know, biblically, we become like what we behold. That is a biblical paradigm in Scripture we see in Psalm 115:4–8, Romans 1:18–27, Romans 12:1–2, Colossians 3:10, and 2 Corinthians 3:18. It’s all over the place. Negatively, this is called idolatry. To start, can you summarize the Bible’s explanation of idolatry and how idols shape us and change the core of our identity?
It is a great question to start with, because our attention, especially of late, has been to think about the way in which that dynamic of our identity is formed negatively — that is, the way in which our desires are drawn to certain objects, which, in turn, shape us. That is the core dynamic of idolatry. But it is also the core dynamic of worship. It is the same experience but flipped upside down.
And, of course, the Scriptures start not with what is wrong, but with what we are created for. So worship is also the experience of becoming like what we behold — like what we desire in the positive sense of that word. We are created to reflect God, to behold God. So idolatry is kind of turning that dynamic upside down. But it is still a pretty natural dynamic in all of us. We still find our identity outside of ourselves. We don’t find out who we are by looking inside.
Honoring What’s Not Ultimate
Idolatry is the honoring of things as ultimate that are not ultimate, and which, therefore, reshape us after their own image. And some key questions for us as we wrestle with our own idolatries are simply the questions, Where does our hope lie? What do we think gives us significance? What do we really at heart desire to become?
And so, though it is an incredibly personal matter that is of the human heart to wrestle with, it is also very much a communal question because it lies outside of ourselves. It is not simply an individual decision. And therein lies the complexity of idolatry — idolatry in any age. We are going to talk a lot about our modern idolatries in this conversation, but we need to be reminded that idolatry is not peculiar to our age, but it is present in every age. It just happens that we have different kinds of idols today than we had in earlier times.
Identity in Relationship
So fill that out a little more: for good or ill, we never find our identity by ourselves, in ourselves.
The way in which we have been created really has to do with this fundamental, biblical conviction that we are reflectors: we are images, we are mirrors, if you will. And so that whole metaphor of the human being that reflects its environment, reflects its context, reflects its idols, reflects its God, is absolutely core from the beginning to the end of the canon.
And so in the beginning, ordinarily, what we call worship — worshiping God faithfully, truly — is also a matter of our identity. That is what we are created for. That is who we are. And so it is not a matter of discovering that critical dynamic of identity; it is a matter of coming to grips with it, realizing that our identity is part of that (I don’t want to call it an equation) but part of the dynamic between ourselves and the world outside of us. And so there are lots of implications on that.
It is no accident that we are not created as simply individuals, but we are always individuals in a relationship. Relationships remind us that identity lies outside of us in this community, and, of course, the fundamental relationship is with God. But there are obviously lots of other relationships that take place.
Our Truest Context
And I think the mythology of the early part of the twentieth century — and it still resonates to some extent in our time — is that the individual in isolation is who they really are. And we recognize that that really is a myth. We find ourselves in community; that is, we find ourselves in the reflections of the context that we are in, rather than simply in the privacy of our own internal, introspective thoughts.
As the adage goes: We are not who we think we are. We are not who other people think we are. We are often who we think other people think we are. There is that dynamic of recognizing ourselves when we recognize others.
And of course, the core character in the plot, in this novel of ours, in this great story, is God. God is personal. God is relational. We find ourselves in relationship, ultimately, to him, and that is the missing dynamic in our own contemporary experience of being defined by our context. We forget that the mega context, the actual context of our lives, is God.