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Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Secular Christmas: Its Absurdities and Antidote

Many of us are struck this time of year by all the attempts of the unbelieving culture to celebrate Christmas without making any acknowledgement of Jesus.  Every time unbelievers say, “Christmas,” they say His name - Christ - but what they truly desire is all the trappings of the holiday without the Person.  

The holiday exists as a celebration of the birth of the Son of God come into the world to redeem sinners by His perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection.  All the darkness of the human experience is a result of sin’s separating man from God, which culminates in man’s eternity under His omnipotent wrath.  Christ came to remedy that horror with the result that the one who has faith in Him is reconciled to God, will eventually be rid of all sin’s horrible effects, and will spend eternity with Him in paradise.  The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the only reason to truly rejoice in this broken world.

Yet, for the vast majority of people, Jesus is an uncomfortable, unspoken detail of the holiday that they are eager to leave obscured.  This leads to a host of seasonal absurdities that are a secular Christmas:  

There is the meaningless tradition of gift-giving.  According to an annual survey by MagnifyMoney, people who added Christmas debt last year did so to an average tune of $1,054.  That’s right - they added over a thousand dollars in debt celebrating a holiday they have absolutely no reason to celebrate.  And what is the reason for giving gifts on December 25?  The believer can answer this question, “we do this to commemorate the fact that God loved us and gave us His Son.”  But those who desire a Christ-less Christmas can give no answer but, “we just do.” 

There is the hollow well-wishing of joy and “cheer.”  Are people more happy this time of year?  Perhaps, but it’s temporary and illogical.  Christmas for many is like an emotional and mental vacation from their problems.  It’s a time-out from reality.  For these few days, the secular world pretends there is a reason to be happy.  But for those headed for a literal, eternal hell, what is there to be joyful about?  Read the chronicles of the Old Testament of the people steeped in sin, separated from the God who made them (Judges 2).  Read about the people drunk on their rebellion and the spiritual blindness it caused them (Jeremiah 44).  This isn’t joy; it’s delusion.  The sorrows of those who run after another god will multiply (Psa 16:4).  The irony is as thick as black darkness - they wish joy to one another, while ignoring the only true source of it.

There is the pervasive admonition to “make the world a better place.”  This is a hallmark of the season.  Based upon the typical secular Christmas lyrics, I’m guessing this means just being kinder to one another.  Let’s be better people.  But that’s just the problem, isn’t it?  We can’t be better people.  Man is the reason the world is so terrible.  For all our attempts at self-reform, we end up right back where we started - hating God and hating one another (Rom 1:30; Titus 3:3).  The only one who can make the world a better place is the One who came to rid it of sinners - the Christ of Christmas (1 Tim 1:15; Rev 20:13-15).

We may scratch our heads about all this - and even become embittered against our secular culture for denying Christ His due.  But if we follow the theology and storyline of Scripture, we will find a better understanding of the problem and a more productive response.  There is a reason people celebrate Christmas - clinging to all the trappings of joy and attempting some transcendent meaning - while rejecting the real reason for the holiday: this is what man has always done and all that man can do in his lostness on God’s earth.  And the appropriate response of believers should be to herald all the more His coming, dying, and living again.

The fallen man is trapped by his own sinful heart in an absurd position.  He owes his existence to a God whose existence he is determined to deny (Gen 1:26; Psa 14:1).  While following after his own desires and worshiping created things, he cannot but depend upon his Creator for the air he breathes, the food he eats, all the biological processes that sustain him, and the grace that allows him to remain anywhere other than hell (Rom 1:18-21; Psa 104).  In his self-professed wisdom, he is a fool (Rom 1:22).  He wants meaning and joy and life, but without God.  Yet, God - from whom he is estranged by his sin - is the only One who can give him these things (Psa 16:11).  His only hope to be saved from this pitiful state is to believe on Jesus Christ.  However, because he is dead in trespasses and sins, he is incapable of seeing the truth (Eph 2:1-3; Joshua 24:19).  

His eyes must be opened.  And how does this happen?  Blind eyes are opened by the proclamation of the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17).  

So…may our response to the absurdity of a secular Christmas NOT be mere lamentation, but proclamation of the very Christ the world would just as soon ignore.  Compassion should move us to be more overt in the Christ-centeredness of our Christmas celebrations and conversations.  Many of us deplore the Christ-less shape of Christmas around us.  But are we willing to boldly proclaim Him into that darkness?  He is the only One who can dispel it!  


Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Prosperity of the Wicked and the Righteous in Psalm 73

In Sunday’s message, “The Exile’s Privilege,” we considered the temptation to envy the relative ease with which many in the world skate through life, a temptation depicted in numerous psalms. These psalms address a question that you may have pondered: what benefit is there in being faithful to the Lord if the ungodly are so clearly rewarded in this life? I would like to walk through one such psalm with you, drawing out some of the truths we heard from 1 Peter 1:10-12

Psalm 73 begins with the writer exhibiting a right attitude toward the issue at hand:

1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.  This is the conclusion to which he was led by God’s help. It is the right answer to the question above. What benefit is there to remaining faithful to God? God’s goodness. God is good to the pure in heart. 

Then the psalmist starts at the beginning, showing how close he came to falling into the trap of thinking wrongly about God:

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  What clarity regarding the real issue! At the heart of this question is the sin of envy. “My feet almost stumbled”— stumbling in the OT is a perilous falling into sin, usually indicating a pattern or lifestyle. Falling into wrong thinking on this issue is perilous because it can lead one to give up and embrace the lifestyle of the wicked for its apparent rewards. 

Next, he describes the prosperity of the wicked:

4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. 10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. 11 And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.  It seems inexplicable to the psalmist that the wicked would not only be able to engage in ungodly behavior, but even blaspheme (vv9-11) and suffer no obvious consequences (vv5, 12). 

So the psalmist voices his temptation in words that many of us may recognize from our own hearts:

13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14 For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.  “They do whatever they want and even provoke God, but life only gets easier for them; I’ve walked uprightly and pursued holiness only to suffer for it.”  So dangerous is that phrase, “all in vain.”  That phrase and the next verse show just how close the psalmist came to stumbling:

15 If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed the generation of your children.  He recognizes that if he had made these thoughts his confession—that is, the truth by which he lived his life—he would have not only walked away from the faith, but he would have damaged the faith of others, i.e., “betrayed the generation of your children.”  So, how was he rescued from edge of this cliff?

16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.  This shows the psalmist taking one crucial step in the right direction— the same step that many of us need to take today in response to a host of unique circumstances perplexing us: He despaired of his own ability to make sense of what seemed like injustice, and he turned to the only One able to help him think rightly about these things.  The result? Then he understood the truth about the wicked, which he explains in the coming verses:

18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.  The world has one thing that the believer does not and would never want: the wrath of God!  They are without God in the world in this life and face His eternal wrath in the next. What a fearful thing to be “despised” by God!  

By contrast, the psalmist then describes his own standing before God:

21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. 23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.  The psalmist was ungodly in his attitude toward the Lord.  “I was like a beast toward you” shows that his disposition toward God was just as arrogant as the wicked he formerly envied.  Yet he is a recipient of the most precious thing in existence—the grace of God.  Unlike the wicked of the world, the believer does not receive what he deserves, but what he does not deserve—God’s love and presence.

This realization leads him to exult:

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.  Remember the first verse of the psalm? Truly God is good to Israel…  The psalmist is led to see that God’s goodness toward His own takes the form of something far more valuable than worldly ease and wealth.  About what does he rejoice in these final verses—material things and relief from trials?  No.  He exults that he has God.  God is good to His own in that He gives them Himself.  

Vv16-17 are the pivot: But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.  God was gracious to the psalmist not only by helping him to see the situation more clearly, but by changing what he valued.  God helped the psalmist to see that what he had was far more valuable than anything afforded by the world.  

It is the greatest of riches to know and have God in Christ.  It is the greatest eternal poverty to be without Him now and to know only His wrath after death.  Let us not stumble by envying the wicked.  With the psalmist let our song be, My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Idolatry and Spiritual Warfare

Earlier in this series, I made a comment, which I’d like to develop a bit in this article: “Idolatry, at its foundation is demonic.”  That is a strong assertion.  Let’s consider that and it’s implications for how we should deal with idolatry. 

The Bible certainly treats idols themselves as inanimate, powerless objects.  They “are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good” (Jer. 10:5).

However, behind idol worship is the influence of evil spirits, or demons.  Indeed, numerous texts indicate that idol worship is actually the worship of demons themselves.  

So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. (Lev. 17:7)

They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known… (Deut. 32:17)

They served their idols, which became a snare to them.  They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (Ps. 106:36-37)

…what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Cor. 10:20)

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk… (Rev. 9:20)

These passages should cause us to recognize what is really going on in our fight against idolatry.  This is not merely dehabituation and rehabituation.  It is spiritual warfare.  As Paul teaches in Eph 2:1-3, there is a triumvirate of influences leading us away from fidelity to the one true God: our own depravity, the world, and “the prince of the power of the air.”  

In some Christian circles, particularly those most turned off by charismatic excesses, believers focus mostly on fighting the flesh and the world.  This avenue of dealing with idolatry typically entails “putting off” and “putting on” and avoiding the tempting situations that the world so eagerly supplies (Eph 4:20-24).  Certainly, this is necessary, but it doesn’t go far enough.  It fails to recognize the intelligent enemy involved.

Idols do not merely represent habits that divert our attention from the Lord.  The passages above would indicate that regardless of what they look like, idols are tools used by a cunning foe to lead us away from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.  Therefore, we are not just dealing with bad habits, but an intentional enemy.  Dealing with them, therefore, will require more than breaking a bad habit and creating a new one.  It will require a warfare mentality and resisting not just the flesh, but the devil.

Aren’t we commanded to do this?  James 4 is a classic text used in biblical counseling circles to get to the heart of quarreling.  It addresses the selfish motives of our flesh - you desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel…  It also addresses the influence of the world in this struggle.  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  There we have the fight against the flesh and the world.  However, James doesn’t stop there.  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

Yet, some disregard the call to any kind of spiritual warfare, casting it into a trash can labeled “the devil made me do it.”  We should be thankful the NT authors don’t do that.  The NT is much more balanced.  We can fight against the devil in our struggle with sin without blaming him for our sin.  

James and Paul and Peter and the others have much to say about spiritual warfare, which is essential in our fight against idolatry.  James would have us see in the passage above that we must draw near to God.  That is, we must enjoy fellowship with Him in all the ways we talk about so frequently (Word, prayer, Body).  Part of this fellowship, according to James, includes mourning and weeping over sin (James 4:9) - agreeing with God about our sin, rather than agreeing with the devil about our sin.  

Paul would have us to know that prayer is a powerful offensive weapon of our warfare.  Most of the armor in Eph 6:10ff, is defensive in nature and it all relates to gospel truth - essential to our fight.  We must preach the gospel to ourselves in this fight and use that truth to stand firm in the faith.  But there is an offensive weapon - the Word of Spirit - likened to a sword, attached to a participial phrase, “praying at all times in the Spirit…”  We are to receive the Word of the Spirit (an offensive weapon), praying at all times in the Spirit.  It’s possible that one way we wield this weapon is by praying the Word.  We pray in the Spirit the Word of the Spirit.  

How might we use this weapon against our foe in the fight against idolatry?  We could pray imprecatory psalms against the enemy.  “For behold, your enemies make an uproar; those who hate you have raised their heads.  …As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so may you pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane!” (Ps. 83:2, 14-15)  Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! (Ps. 35:1)  

We could also pray the truths of the gospel.  That though there was a record of debt against us, Christ canceled it on the cross and disarmed all demonic powers.  “Lord, let this reality be born out in my fight against idolatry.  Let not my enemies triumph over me.” (Col 2:14-15; Psa 41:11). 

Much more could be written here, but at the very least, let’s not consider idolatry a matter of defeating bad habits.  It will entail putting off ungodly behavior, putting on godly alternatives, and avoiding the worlds enticements.  But there is more.  It entails spiritual warfare.  

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Recommendation: We Become What We Worship

 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.
 (Psa 115:4-8)

What is one of the greatest dangers of worshiping false gods? We become like them.  That is, we become spiritually blind, deaf, and dumb.  What the psalmist makes explicit in Psalm 115 is assumed and implied all over Scripture: we take on the characteristics of what we worship. If we worship idols, we become like them.  If we worship Christ, we become like Him.

This was the main idea of the most recent article in our blog series on idolatry.  It is also the main theme explored in a book I recommended there: Gregory K. Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.  Beale is a biblical scholar currently serving as Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  The title of the book reveals his thesis in paraphrased form.  He asserts that we become what we worship, that is, “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration” (16). 

Beale explores this idea beginning in Isaiah 6:9-10: And he said, "Go, and say to this people: "'Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.'  Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."  He argues that having eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and hearts that do not understand—represents a judgment for idolatry.  In other words, the judgment for worshiping idols is becoming like them.

He then takes this theme and shows its presence in numerous places throughout the Bible, including the golden calf narrative in Exodus 32 and the Pharisees’ worship of tradition in Matthew 13.  Throughout, he is faithful to allow the Biblical text to speak without forcing his thesis onto the Word. 

But the value of this book goes beyond its faithfulness to the text.  In the latter portion of the book, Beale applies this biblical truth to everyday life.  There may not be any of us at Providence who bow down to literal idols, but undoubtedly there are things in our lives that fit the definition Beale derives from Scripture: “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon for ultimate security” (17).  If we love and worship the world, we will become more like the world.  If we worship the god of pleasure, we will become more hedonistic.  Beale challenges readers to search their own hearts, to turn from whatever idols they are worshiping, and worship Christ alone.

This is an excellent book that is very faithful to Scripture.  Many of its passages are deep, but unlike many scholarly writings out there, it does not require a PhD to understand.  If you are interested in study that will broaden your understanding of a critically important doctrine and spur you on to greater fidelity to the Lord, I highly recommend this one.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

HUGE Weekend Events - Don't Miss Anything!

Just a few important reminders about a very big weekend!
  1. Cyclebar Orphan Care Fundraiser -  Saturday, Nov 17, 11:15am
       7306 Yankee Road, Liberty Township, Ohio 45044

Cyclebar is a premium, indoor cycling facility.  We’ll be taking a one-hour ride, led by our very own Amber Clay.  It’s only $25 and 100% of the proceeds go to the PBF Orphan Care fund, helping bring orphans home to adoptive families at PBF.  

This is going to be a blast!  No exercise experience is required, which is good news for me because I’ve got no cardio!  Just click the link above to register.  Let’s ride! 

2. Orphan Sunday Message - Sunday, Nov 18, 9:00 & 10:45

The message on Sunday morning, from Hosea 14:1-3, will focus on our adoption by God through the atoning work of Christ.  If you have any unsaved friends or those who are adopted or have adopted, please invite them to church Sunday morning.  The message will take their experience of adoption and relate it to the gospel.  I know of at least one unsaved person in this category who will attend Sunday morning.  Please be praying for the gospel to bring spiritual orphans home! 

3. City Barbecue Orphan Care Fundraiser - Sunday, Nov 18, all day
    7706 Voice of America Centre Dr, West Chester, Ohio 45069

City Barbecue is donating 25% of all proceeds to the PBF Orphan Care fund.  This is an all-day fundraiser.  You can go there after church for lunch.  You can go for dinner just before the Orphan Care celebration that evening.  You can go for a snack after the Orphan Care celebration.  OR, if you’re like Aaron Harrison, you can go all three times.  The later you go in the day, the more likely you are to see Aaron passed out in a booth - barbecue coma!

Here’s the important detail - the funds are only donated to the Orphan Care fund if you take the appropriate barcode with you to the cashier when you pay.  We’ve passed these out in recent weeks.  They’ll be available again on Sunday morning.

4. PBF Orphan Care Ministry Celebration - Sunday, Nov 18, 5:30-7:00pm

This is our annual gathering to praise God for all that He has done and is doing at PBF to bring orphans home.  MUCH important information will be shared about upcoming events, including one major evangelistic opportunity taking place in the Spring.  We’ll hear from our adoptive families - those who have recently brought children home and those who are in the process.  

Since this ministry began, we've seen great things happen on Orphan Sunday.  Two years ago on Orphan Sunday, we heard how the Lord had moved the Odels to consider adoption.  That same year, the Joneses were moved to complete their paperwork for an international adoption.  One year later on Orphan Sunday, we had Odel adoptee #1 with us in the flesh, the Joneses heard that they had been approved for their international adoption, and the Watsons were moved to adopt a child.  As I write this, the Odels are preparing for #2, the Watsons’ adopted son is in their home, and the Joneses are meeting their adopted son for the first time TODAY.  Prior to this, we were blessed by the example of those we might call the pioneers - people like the Robsons and the Clays - so that we are seeing something like a culture of adoption take place at Providence.  All along the way, the Lord has moved others in the congregation to help in myriad ways, some of which we’ll hear about Sunday night.

The Lord has routinely chosen to change lives at PBF on Orphan Care Sunday.  We’ve come to expect it.  What will He do this year?  

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Idolatrous Lusts - They Re-make Us In Their Image

Thus far, we’ve seen that idolatrous lusts darken our minds and blind us to the source of blessing and calamity.  Another broad theme in the Bible is that idolatrous lusts re-make us in the image of our idol.  

Re-make is the appropriate verb since in the beginning God created us in his image (Gen 1:26-27).  Even in our fallen state, we bear the image of our Creator God, however imperfectly.  

The pleasure of our malevolent enemy is to adulterate everything that God has made, putting his perverted spin on the Lord’s good work.  Thus, the bible describe idols as having a transforming influence on us.  They re-make us in their image.  The more they claim our affections and devotion, the more we resemble them and the less we resemble God.  As Greg Beale argues in his book by the same name, we become like what we worship.  Consider these texts:

But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved.  (Hos. 9:10)

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.  They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.  Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.  (Ps. 115:4-8)

Thus says the LORD: "What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?  (Jer. 2:5)

They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them.  (2 Ki. 17:15)

Even in God’s frequent description of Israel as a “stiff-necked” people, this concept is communicated.  That phrase is almost always used in association with the people’s worship of the golden calf (Exo 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deut 9:6, 13).  The idea is that the Israelites were like a rebellious calf, resisting its master.

Again, we should not think that the effects of idolatry are unique to the people who worship physical statues.  The characteristics mentioned in several of the passages above are metaphors for spiritual blindness, deafness, insensitivity.  It appears that idols make us insensitive to the things of the Lord.  

If you think about your own history, you’ll see this is the case.  Isn’t it true that when other things claim your highest devotion/affection, you are least sensitive to the things of the Lord?  Isn’t it true that when you are most taken with the things of the world, you are least interested in spiritual things?  This should be terrifying to those who know just how badly we need Him as we navigate life in this broken world.

We can be certain - idols are not idle; they are constantly moving on us.  If we are not killing our lust for them, we are becoming like them.  

Conversely, Paul teaches in Romans 8:29 that God’s gracious plan is to transform those who belong to Him into the image of His Son, in a sense, to restore the image of God marred by the Fall.  Those of us who have been bought by the blood of Jesus should be disturbed by the thought of our being transformed into the image of an idol rather than into the image of Christ.  

The good news is that this principle - we become like what we worship - works both ways.  Thus, we should conscientiously set our minds and affections on Him to the end that we would be come like Him (Rom 12:1-2; Phil 3:7-11; Col 3:1-5; Heb 12:1-3; 1 Pet 2:4-5).  Overcoming idolatry is never just about getting rid of an idol.  There must be an accompanying growth in our worship of Jesus, a reordering or right ordering of our affections, so that He is in His rightful place in our minds and hearts.  Taking the fight to the enemy means taking our affections to Jesus by availing ourselves of the means He’s given: word, prayer, and the Body of Christ.

Next time: a broader case for idolatry as the domain of demons.


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Idolatrous Lusts - They Blind Us to the Source of Blessing and Calamity

Why do we chase after false gods?  Indulge in idolatrous lusts?  Overindulge in non-sinful activities?  (An idol can be even a non-sinful activity that becomes equal to or more important than God in our attention, desire, devotion, and choices.)  Why do we habitually engage in overtly sinful ones?  It must be the case that we believe we receive some personal benefit from it and that the benefit outweighs any trouble that may arise. 

This belief - that idolatry can do us good - is itself an effect of idolatrous lust.  Last week, we began to consider the influence of idolatrous lusts, particularly how they affect our thinking.  Today we consider how they confuse us regarding the sources of both blessing and trouble in our lives.

The Lord told His people that if they were faithful to Him, worshiping Him alone, they would be blessed; if they were unfaithful, engaging in idolatry, they would be cursed (Deut 11:26-32; 29:1-30:20).  Joy and freedom come from worshiping Jesus alone (Psa 16:1-3; 5-11).  Trouble and sorrow inevitably find those who chase false gods (Psa 16:4).

Idolatrous lust blinds us to these truths.  In fact, idolatrous lust flips these truths on their heads so that we believe the opposite of what the Bible teaches regarding worship and the source of blessing and joy, calamity and sorrow.  Consequently, we may view our idols as the source of our blessings, when in reality they are the reason for our calamity.   

Just a couple of examples from the prophets.  Hosea wrote of Israel: For she said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ (Hos. 2:5b)

Israel engaged in the false worship of the nations around her so that the false gods would give rain, bless the crops, grow the herds, increase the vineyards, etc.  When these blessings happened, the Israelites attributed it to the power of the false gods, who they themselves had made (14:3). 

But where did these blessings actually come from?  The One from whom all good things come: she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.  (Hos. 2:8)  God graciously gave what Israel did not deserve - land and the fruit of the land.  But because Israel was blinded to the source, she was also prevented from enjoying the greatest blessing of all, knowing God (2:20; 4:1, 6; 6:3).

That was Israel.  A theme of Hosea is the exhortation for the Southern kingdom, Judah, to learn from her obstinate Northern sister, Israel.  Did she learn?  Not according to Jeremiah.

When Jeremiah called the people of Judah to return to monogamous worship of the Lord, they replied, "As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you.  But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster.  But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”  (Jer. 44:16-18)

Important to note is that this is during the exile.  In other words, Judah interpreted the exile and its aftermath to be a result of failing to continue in their false worship!  “Everything was great for us when we worshiped the queen of heaven.  Since we stopped, all this bad stuff has happened to us.  So we’re going to go back to worshiping her instead of Yahweh.”  Astounding.  

But Jeremiah set them straight:  "As for the offerings that you offered in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, you and your fathers, your kings and your officials, and the people of the land, did not the LORD remember them? Did it not come into his mind?  The LORD could no longer bear your evil deeds and the abominations that you committed. Therefore your land has become a desolation and a waste and a curse, without inhabitant, as it is this day.  It is because you made offerings and because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey the voice of the LORD or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his testimonies that this disaster has happened to you, as at this day.  (Jer. 44:21-23)

Judah’s idolatry led to their purging from the land.  Yet, she was so blinded by idolatrous lust that she thought the opposite - worship of Yahweh alone led to her losing the land.  In reality, her idolatry brought judgment upon her.  Had she remained faith to the Lord, she would have remained in the land forever, enjoying all the blessings promised.

It’s tempting to relegate these things to the ancient past and to limit the application to false worship of little statues, but this is pertinent to us.  So writes Paul, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come…Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:11,14).

We, too, become convinced that good things happen to us when we engage in false worship.  These “good things” can be the idols themselves - material things, money, position, entertainment.  Or they could be the immediate endorphin rush of sensual pleasures associated with a particular idol - the thrill of looking at explicit images, the warmth of a gluttonous binge, or the buzz that comes with a certain quantity of an alcoholic beverage.  

Think about how these “good things” may convince us that they are improving our lives.  When we indulge in them, our problems seem smaller, our self-perception improves, we “enjoy” life more, and anxiety fades.  But when we try to be faithful to the Lord in these areas, abstaining from sinful activities and enjoying lawful activities only in moderation, these “benefits” seem to fade.  Worse, when these things become so essential to our temporal happiness, we may even begin to see God as an enemy of sorts, trying to take our good things away.

The truth is that every truly good thing is a gift from God (James 1:17) and the highest pleasure comes from fellowship with Him (Psa 16:10-11).  

Additionally, the false worship that we believe is improving our lives will actually ruin them.  Isaiah warns us, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isa. 5:20).  Sin destroys.  Idolatrous lust sears the conscience, leading us further and further away from the Lord.  If you find yourself attributing benefits to something you know to be sinful, you are already showing signs that it has effected your thinking.  It has sold you a lie.  This shouldn’t surprise us - the enemy is the father of lies (John 8:44) and repeatedly idols themselves are called “lies” (Psa 40:4; Isa 28:15, 17; 44:20; Jer 13:25; 16:19-20; Amos 2:4; Rom 1:25).

We must remain firmly attached to the truth, by: (1) renewing our minds daily by the Word of God (Rom 12:2; Heb 4:12); (2) submitting to close relationships with other believers who may be much better able to discern the lies we are believing (Eccl 4:12; 2 Tim 2:22); and (3) praying for discernment: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!  (Ps. 139:23-24). 

Know for certain that when you flirt with idolatrous lusts, you take in lies.  They will typically include lies intended to lead you closer to darkness and away from light, closer to misery and away from joy, further into idolatry and away from the Lord.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Idolatrous Lusts: They Darken Our Minds

My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore.  (Hosea 4:12) 

I’d like to do a short series on the issue of idolatry, answering the question, “what does idolatrous lust do to us?”  The prophets in particular have much to say about this.  Idolatry is not a problem relegated to the past.  The New Testament says to believers in Jesus, “flee from idolatry” and “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Cor 10:14; 1 John 5:21).  So, it behooves us to keep in mind the dangers and effects of the idols that call to us.

And idol is anything that is equal to or more important than God in our attention, desire, devotion, and choices.  It doesn’t have to be a statue of wood or metal, as in the Old Testament.  An idolatrous lust is our desire for that idol.  With that in mind, the first effect we can expect when we give in to an idolatrous lust is…

Our ability to think clearly is inhibited.  That is, idolatrous lust darkens our minds so that we behave in ways that we would not otherwise.  In this way, idols humiliate us.  Or more appropriately, they move us to humiliate ourselves.

The passage above in Hosea 4 demonstrates that at the heart of our idolatry is a propensity for unfaithfulness.  Speaking of the people of Israel, the prophet writes, “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray.”  In Hosea, unfaithfulness to God is depicted as spiritual adultery or whoredom.  The natural human disposition is to reject worshiping the creator in favor of worshiping created things (Rom 1:25).  When we give in to this lust, it causes us to do ridiculous things, like what is described in the first part of Hosea 4:12: My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles

An idol, which is nothing more than a piece of wood, made perhaps from the same piece of wood as a walking stick, is trusted to give the worshiper counsel.  Pure nonsense.  But it makes perfect sense to the one who has given himself over to false worship.  This phenomenon is what Paul describes in Romans 1:21 and Ephesians 4:18  - “They became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened…” and  “they are darkened in their understanding…”  False worship destroys a person’s ability to think and act sensibly.  

Other prophets also show the absurdity of idolatry.  Isaiah depicts a carpenter cutting down a tree: Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!" And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isa. 44:16-17)  The same piece of wood is fuel for a fire and a god called upon for salvation.  The idolator doesn’t even see how silly it is!

Jeremiah also writes about the delusion of idol worship, noting that these objects of worship “are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” (Jer. 10:5)  This behavior seems perfectly reasonable to the false worshiper; it is the height of foolishness to those watching.  Such silliness is self-humiliation (Isa 44:9-11).

It’s easy for us to marvel at such blindness in others.  It’s much more difficult to spot these things in our own thinking.  Is it possible that our thinking also becomes darkened in our lust for idols?  Do we engage in ridiculous behavior as a result?  The answer to both questions must be “yes.”  Idolatrous lust, when entertained, by nature darkens the mind and moves us to act in ways contrary to sound wisdom.  Idolatry, at its foundation is demonic (Lev 17:7; Deut 32:17; Isa 106:37; 1 Cor 10:20; Rev 9:20).  Therefore, it can never be benign.  When we engage in it, we can be certain our thinking and actions are affected.  And just as if we were falling down before a piece of wood, we humiliate ourselves.

Just a few signs that our thinking has been darkened by idolatrous lust:

  • The moral commands of Scripture seem unreasonable to us (Gen 3:1)
  • Social and political issues are more important to us than spiritual ones (Col 3:1-2)
  • We love the things of the world (1 John 2:15)
  • We are consumed with sensual pleasures, rather than with Christ (1 Cor 10:1-12)
  • We have a sense of hopelessness and lack of peace (Eph 1:18; Phil 4:7)
  • We have a general disinterest in the Word (Matt 4:4; Acts 17:11)

We simply cannot think and live rightly while engaging in false worship.  The antidote is to constantly grow in our worship of the Lord Jesus Christ by enjoying fellowship with Him in the Word, prayer, and meaningful one-anothering with other believers.  If we are not growing in our worship of Jesus, we are growing in our worship of something else.  Our minds are either becoming more filled with the light of Christ, or the darkness of idolatrous lust.

Next time: we become like what we worship.