I was asked to teach an intensive course at a seminary, three eight-hour days of presentation. During the first hour my agenda was to introduce the idea that we are all idolaters. I began by saying, “One hundred percent of your pastoral counseling will involve identifying and confronting idols.” Immediately the push back began: “Idolatry is a primitive idea”; “People don’t have idols; they have issues.” As long as we ignore what the Bible says about the human heart and what God desires from his people, we will raise these same objections. The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
The root of idolatry is pride. Isaiah described Lucifer’s rebellion as he ceased to worship because he wanted to be worshiped:
“You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” (Isa. 14:13–14).
In James, pride is seen as a heart condition that God resists. The posture appropriate to approaching God is one of humility:
Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:5–7, 10)
Pride is seen as detestable to God precisely because it steals from God’s glory and his preeminence. Pride is rebellion, but it is much more than rebellion against God’s authority. Pride is self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. A proud heart sees itself as central and God as the one who must find his place of orbit in the proud heart’s universe. While few people who call themselves Christians would admit to such a self-centered worldview, I find my weeks filled with people with questions and comments such as these:
- How can God be loving and let this bad thing happen to me?
- I can’t believe in a God who let’s bad things happen.
- I don’t care what the Bible says; this is what I want.
- I have been praying for a Christian husband, and if God wanted me to marry one, then he would have provided one.
- If God is against homosexuality, why did he create me this way?
- If God wanted me to stay married, he should have told that to my cheating spouse.
Look beyond the content of those objections to the underlying conviction of those who are making them. The objectors believe they have rights and God has the responsibility to work within those rights. To their way of thinking, God can’t love and also do something the objector can’t understand, nor can God call for behavior that is inconvenient or politically incorrect. They believe that God has no right to ask them to opt for grace and forgive another when they have a “biblical” right to hurt someone who has hurt them.
A couple of things need to be pointed out. First, the idea that God is accountable to us for his behavior, or at least for explanations for acting as he does, skews our real place with God. At best, it makes him our peer, and in that vein he should give us a reasonable explanation. When I talk to people who are angry at God for what he has done or is allowing to happen, I often hear them say, “All I want to know is why.” I have asked several of them, “Really? What if his explanation didn’t satisfy you, and you were convinced he could achieve the same end without doing or allowing what has angered you?” At that point, they often realize that they really want more than a why; they want a why that satisfies them and that makes God accountable to them.
Second, the concept of creature and creator gives God a trump card. He really does get to design his world, his creations, and his story for his own glory. Anything that attempts to compete with that is an idol. Pride paints us into corner between self-centeredness and idolatry.
Jesus already raised the bar from adultery to a heart of lust and from murder of a brother to anger. So how is it we continue to smuggle sin and knock-off versions of righteousness into lives and community in the name of Christianity? It has to have something to do with who or what we are worshiping. When self is at the center, things that feel good or right, emotional places of consolation or insulation, or distractions and attractions don’t seem that bad. But when God is the center, when the God of the universe comes into your soul, living quarters become tight, and there just isn’t any room for things that don’t exalt the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This is an excerpt adapted from Bill Clem’s recent book, Disciple: Getting Your Identity from Jesus.
Bill Clem is a pastor for Ballard Campus of Mars Hill Church, based out of Seattle, and is on the global campus network team spearheading spiritual formation.