It’s one thing to understand the category of idolatry, but quite another to isolate what deities you worship. It’s the difference between knowing what a steak is and actually tasting a perfectly grilled morsel of meat melting on your tongue. Today we take the first step in diagnosing idolatry.
I’m a sucker for the occasional B-movie escapism. Replete with a low budget, painful dialogue, and a severely undefined story arc, it can be the perfect silliness for a Friday evening. Enter Anaconda. As only 1997 could deliver, the film chronicles a documentary crew headed into the jungle to shoot footage on a mysterious Indian tribe. On their way, they pick up a stranded man who then takes the team hostage on his quest to capture the world’s largest and deadliest snake: a record-breaking green Anaconda.
The thrust of the storyline in one sentence (spoiler alert!) is: people scanning the crest of the river to determine where this deadly snake might be. That’s it. You can imagine the dialogue: “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!”
I’ve been thinking lately about the ways we pursue happiness and my drifted to Anaconda. Though most of us wouldn’t articulate it this way, we stroll through our human existence, scanning the surface of our hearts until we find what we think we are looking for. Our time, our energy, our attention, and even our money is devoted to a quest of self-assurance and self-significance.
The Great Hunt
We want to be loved. We want to belong. We want to make a difference. We want to feel important. And we’ll look endlessly until we have found something we think might satisfy us—much like the documentary crew looking for what lies at the crest of the river. But the fruit of our self-salvation projects lie at the surface of a greater hunt in our lives.
Want happiness? It’s important to identify what is at the surface of our hopes and desires. In order for us to find real satisfaction, we must start here. We must ask, “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!” The Bible calls this self-diagnosis idol detection (1 Cor. 10:14). Today, we are discussing step one of this self-diagnosis: unearthing those idols that lie on the surface.
Many times these idols are easily discernible, because they are on the surface but there’s always deeper root idols. You can identify them by listening to your prayers. What do you ask God forgiveness for? Maybe it’s an anger problem. Maybe it’s an issue with lust. Maybe you have bitterness in your heart towards another.
While it is good to ask God to cleanse you of unrighteousness, prayer is the first leg in the race to kill your idols. Anger, lust, and bitterness are exterior sins indicating deeper root sins. These are branch idols. You can see them easily but the root sins are what’s actually feeding them.
Hunting for Your Idols
Here are some questions as you look for your surface idols.
- Do I need to be esteemed by people?
- Do I demand order in my world?
- Do I compare myself favorably to others?
- Am I angry or defeated if things are not accomplished immediately?
- Do I have to be the center of my family life, my job, or my church?
- Do I dictate that people must submit to me?
- Do I think my opinions are all-wise and correct?
- Do I do whatever pleases me?
- Is my appearance—whether religiously or physically—ultimate?
- Do I desire to be accountable to no one?
- Do I have to win at everything?
If you notice, these questions require a sense of self-awareness. Tim Keller says that one way you can identify your surface idols is by looking at your most uncontrollable emotions
Just like a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is rolling, look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong . . . when you ‘pull your emotions up by the root,’ as it were, you will often find your idols clinging to them.
So what are your surface idols? Look at where the water is rolling on the crest of your heart and you will locate them. It’s an essential first step to reversing the fatal attraction of idolatry in our lives.
Next time, we will look at why we can’t stop at just identifying our surface idols if we want to find true significance and happiness. To find real peace and contentment in life, there is something that lurks beneath the surface that we must address because our surface sins are only symptoms of much deeper sins.
Brad Andrews is a husband of one, a father of seven, and an advocate for grace. He serves as pastor for preaching, vision, and missional leadership at Mercyview in Tulsa, OK. He blogs at graceuntamed.com and his articles can also be found on Gospel-Centered Discipleship and Grace For Sinners. He served as a religion columnist for the former Urban Tulsa Weekly and was also one of the ten framers of The Missional Manifesto, alongside Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, Eric Mason, J.D. Greear, Dan Kimball, Linda Berquist, Craig Ott, and Philip Nation.