If you think about it, it is hard being an idol. It is a terrible burden, a crushing load of expectations. When we take a good thing and make it the most important thing, we begin expecting it to do for us what only God can do. Our idol is set up for the fall. It is unfair.
For instance, if we make our career an idol, we are demanding our career validate our worth and satisfy our God embedded hunger for significance. We are asking it to do something it can’t. The resulting emptiness often turns to bitterness and resentment—or apathetic detachment until retirement. It is why those most devoted to success are the least likely to enjoy it when it comes.
Sometimes people make an idol of their family or marriage. This is terrible. It is easy to get away with this kind of idolatry. After all, who is going to call you out for putting your family first? Nonetheless, it is cruel to expect from your spouse or family the purpose, joy, and unconditional love that only God can give. Our disappointments in our family can crush us if we have made it an idol—the source of all our worth. Spouses can drift or stumble spiritually—or much worse. Dreams for our kids can evaporate or turn to nightmares. Disappointment easily sours into anger and emotional desertion. We can end up destroying a good thing because it couldn’t be everything.
Even church can be an idol. Broken and insecure people come to church and discover, to their horror, it is full of other people who are broken and insecure. They may be progressing toward wholeness or stubbornly resisting; either way, they will fail to give us the perfect love only God gives. We will encounter some hypocrites, be criticized by some legalists, or tempted by some libertines. The loving Christian community we long for can easily become just one more dysfunctional family. Often when I encounter a bitter ex-Christian hurt by church, they will recite grievances against Christians and tell of their wounds. Almost none say, “Here is how God let me down and wounded me.” I often want to say, “You and God have a lot in common—you have both been wounded by his people.” If we refuse to make the church an idol, the wounds we receive there won’t destroy us, but instead become an invitation to the fellowship of his suffering.
My first title for this blog was a brief guide to enjoying life because when we refuse to make idols of the good things in our lives, we are set free to truly enjoy them. Sometimes I really enjoy teaching, about twice a month. If, however, I made my career my idol, I would begin to hate teaching. I walk away from the classroom feeling a failure too often for teaching to be my idol. Teaching can’t satisfy my desire to do something of lasting significance and value. Nothing lasts—it’s all dust in a Kansas wind. But I can delight in every “Aha!” moment a student has precisely because I have not unjustly expected teaching to give my life worth.
The same is true of money and possessions. A couple years ago Teckla and I saved up our money and bought a used Chevy Trailblazer with about 50,000 miles on it. I am 64 and still, haven’t, bought a new car. I had wanted a Toyota four-wheel drive, but they were about twice what we paid. If money and possessions were my idol, I would hate that I couldn’t afford a brand-new Toyota. I would hate my Trailblazer. But instead we love it. Yesterday we took it up some logging roads to cut our own Christmas tree. When we shift into four-wheel drive and head up rutted logging roads, Teckla and I look at each other saying triumphantly, “We have a Trailblazer because we are trailblazers.” Stupid? Of course, but it is an example of how not making things an idol frees us to enjoy their goodness.
Idolatry stops us from enjoying the good things of life. When we demand that good things do what only God can do, we fail to respond to their goodness with thanksgiving. Instead of celebrating what things are, we resent what they aren’t. We become blind to their goodness and see only the ways they disappointment us. When we worship only God, the good things in our lives become rightly ordered and thus thoroughly enjoyed. This ordering is especially important for relationships.
Because I don’t expect Teckla to be my source of purpose, worth, or joy, she is free to be who God has made her. She doesn’t have to be who I “need her” to be. And because I know Teckla has not made me an idol, I am free to be myself. I know her faith is anchored in a God who never fails and never forgets. Not having to be god frees me to grow in godliness.
I have not always recognized the first of the ten commandments as the door to enjoying life. Unconsciously, I have probably absorbed that distorted view that God is a killjoy and the commandments are given to keep us from enjoying life too much. But when we walk upstream to our source of unhappiness, we will almost always discover we have made some good thing the ultimate thing. When God is our one thing, all other things are fully enjoyed as expressions of His goodness.
Isaiah (46:7) points out that those who make idols have to carry their idols around. Idols become a “burden for the weary.” So not only does idolatry burden good things with unfair expectations, we burden ourselves with idolatry. A few verses later in Isaiah, God says to Israel, “I have made you and I will carry you.” It is not just the burden of sin that we are invited to lay down. When we lay down our idolatry of good things, we and the good things in our lives are set free. We can let God carry us.