God’s intention is to restore believers in Christ and turn them into new people. “If anyone is in Christ,” the Scripture says, “he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” As Christians, it is our job to cooperate with this new creation vision for our lives.

Our motivation for embracing newness of life in Jesus is quite different than moralistic motivation. Religious moralists obey God’s rules to feel morally straight and morally superior, and also to earn applause from God, from others, and even from themselves. Christians, on the other hand, are able to obey God precisely because they don’t have to.

Let me explain that one.

If you are a Christian—that is, if you have anchored your trust in the perfect life and substitutionary death of Jesus on your behalf, then you need to know that God smiles over you before you lift a finger to do anything good. Christianity is different than moralism. In that unlike moralism, God’s embrace comes to us at the beginning of our journey versus at the end of our journey. He approves of us not because we are good people, but because Jesus was a truly good person in our stead. His moral straightness, his righteousness, and beauty have been laid upon us as a gift. That, and that alone, is the reason we obey . . . because it makes us want to obey. God does not decide to love us because we first loved him. No, we love God because he first loved us. That is biblical Christianity.

How idolatry works

Imagine you are a married woman and your husband tells you he wants to start dating around. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” he says. “I’m not saying that I want a divorce. You are extremely important to me. We have been through so much together. But I just think that my life would be more complete if I could also date some other women—play the field a little bit, you know?”

Absurd as this may sound, this is precisely what we do to God whenever we disobey him. Every act of disobedience flows from a desire for something or someone besides God to be our first love, our true north, our reason for being. Each of us has his/her own unique potential mistresses—whether money, power, cleanliness, control, relationships, material things, entertainment, or even a spouse or children. Whenever anything becomes more essential to us than God himself (by the way, anything is usually a good thing), it becomes an idol. According to God, our true and everlasting Husband, we become spiritual adulterers. An idol is any person or idea, any created thing that captures our deepest affections and loyalties and will—and in so doing steals our attention away from God. An idol is anything that becomes more precious to us than him. It’s not that we love the thing (whatever it is) too much. Rather, it’s that we love God too little in comparison to it.

Idolatry is the sin beneath every other sin

Idolatry is the root beneath all sin and beneath every choice we ever make to go our own way instead of following Jesus in faith and obedience. Sin, ultimately, is not a matter of behavior, but a matter of desire.

We always obey that which we desire the most.

When we desire something more than we desire God, we will obey that something if ever and whenever we are faced with a choice to obey God or to obey it. So this is what keeps us from being good in the purest sense. Our distorted over-desires escort us into the arms of adulterous lovers, pseudo-saviors, counterfeit Jesuses that put a spell on us and make them appear more life-giving than Jesus, our one true love.

How do we do this? Thanks to David Powlison and his insightful essay, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, there are several diagnostic questions that can help us effectively identify and name our specific spiritual mistresses:

  • What do I feel I cannot survive or function without? What do I feel I must have in order to enjoy life, be acceptable as a person, etc.? What are the things I am terrified of losing or obsessed about having?
  • Where do I spend my time and money with the least amount of effort? The things we give time and money to most effortlessly are absolutely the things that we worship and serve. They are the things that we believe in our hearts will give our lives the most meaning.
  • What do I think and talk about the most? Where do my thoughts go most quickly and most instinctively when I am alone in the car, when I awake, when I am alone in a quiet, undistracted place? As Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is your solitude.”
  • Which biblical commands am I most reluctant to obey? What do I treasure so much that, if it is threatened, I will disobey God to keep it? What is so essential to me that I will disobey God to get it?
  • What things anger me the most? What kinds of people, things, or circumstances irritate me the most, and what about these people, things, or circumstances give them this kind of power over me? What, if it happened, would strongly tempt me to curse God or push Him out of my life? (Remember Job’s wife. See Job 2:9)
  • How would I fill in the blank? I cannot and will not be happy unless.

Dismantling idols after they are identified

Idols are dismantled when they are first exposed and then replaced. Dismantling our idols requires that we labor in our study and meditation of Scripture to understand the many ways that Jesus fills our emptiness in a much more adequate, life-giving way than any Jesus-substitute we may be tempted to worship and serve. Replacing our spiritual mistresses means giving them a back seat to Jesus in our hearts and lives. Basically, every idol (and every sin) traces back to a self-salvation strategy. We use this strategy every time we attempt to replace something that only Jesus can provide, with a counterfeit. What does this mean for us?

It means that we must face head-on our own idols, and humbly admit exactly how the things we love more than Jesus will reduce us, empty us of ultimate meaning, and even destroy us. We must admit that our “over-desires” cannot bring us the lasting wholeness, happiness, or fulfillment (salvation!) we desire. Only Jesus can. Ironically, only when we love Jesus more than these things, we actually end up enjoying these things to a much fuller extent! As CS Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

When our love for Jesus exceeds our love for other things, we end up loving, cherishing, and enjoying these other things even more than we would if we had loved these other things more than we love Jesus. However, if we put the gifts in the place of the Giver, our enjoyment of the gifts ends up being spoiled. Why is this so? It is so because we are made in the image of God. The human soul is so magnificent that only God is big enough to fill it. As Pascal is famous for saying, “Only God is able to fill the God-shaped vacuum in the human heart.”

Be possessive of anything but God—a romantic interest, a career, a net worth, a life goal—and you will never possess that thing. Instead, it will eventually possess you. It will have you and it will hold you . . . around the neck! This is why we are much better off when we learn to pray like the Puritan who had nothing to his name but one piece of bread and a glass of water: “What? All of this and Jesus Christ too!”

Redirecting our deepest loves

Christian growth is about learning to see clearly that Jesus will fill our hearts in much more adequate and enduring ways than any Jesus-counterfeit ever will. Using Scripture, we must immerse our minds and stir our affections with the many ways in which Jesus delivers fully and truly on the specific promises—especially the promises that our specific idols falsely make to us. For example, if we thirst for approval, only the unwavering smile of God over us through Jesus can free us from enslavement to human approval. Or, if we hunger for secure provision, only the God’s sure promise to take care of us like he does the birds and the lilies can free us from our enslavement to money and things.

So what about you? What are your spiritual mistresses? How are they working out for you?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for his righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls.

Originally posted at www.scottsauls.com. Used with permission.