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EMPTY PROMISESThe Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You're Believing
By Pete Wilson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Pete Wilson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDECEPTIVELY GOOD
I've been given an incredible gift.
In fact, I've actually been given 13,790 gifts. That's how many days of life I've been given to date.
Out of these thirteen-thousand-plus days I've been given, some have been challenging, some depressing, some adventurous. A few I wouldn't mind living over and over and over. I'm not sure I can actually pick an all-time favorite, but I sure have had some memorable ones.
There was the day I was born. That was a good day (I'm told).
The day I learned to walk was pretty good too.
The day I fell in love for the first time—who could ever forget that one?
The day I got my driver's license was definitely good for me. (I bet it was a scary day for my parents.)
The day I got married was a big one, and the days my wife, Brandi, gave birth to each of our three sons and I held them in my arms for the first time—unforgettable.
Then there are the days like one I experienced recently while on vacation with my family in Florida. Brandi and I sat on the beach with our feet in the sand, discussing our dreams for the future. With every word that came out of our mouths, we realized just how blessed we are. As we talked and dreamed together in the sun, we watched our three boys, who are now nine, six, and four, leaping over the ocean waves without a care in the world. A few hours later, we all sat on the beach together and watched that golden sun seem to drop into the ocean.
That day will be etched into my mind for a lifetime, not necessarily for what we did, but for how I felt. So many of my deep desires for purpose, worth, significance, acceptance, security, love, and beauty were met. For a brief few hours, it seemed like the perfect day.
Sadly, it didn't last.
Because right in there with those wonderful, good, blessed days, there have been plenty of days when I struggled with a nagging or even painful sense of wanting ... more. When who I am and what I have just didn't seem like enough.
Do you ever feel that way? I believe we all do at one time or another. Some things just seem to be consistent among most people I encounter on this earth.
We enjoy how it feels when the wind blows across our faces.
We root for the underdog.
We love how it feels to win, and we don't like being told what to do.
We're awestruck when we see sights like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, or a bright red tree in the middle of autumn.
We love hearing the laughter of a small child.
We are disgusted by the contents of a chicken nugget, but we still eat them once in a while. (Well, maybe that one is just me.)
And beyond that, I believe most of us have a deep longing to feel certain things.
Twenty-one days after you were conceived, a tiny little electrical impulse stimulated your heart muscle. It was so faint it could hardly be detected, but it was in fact the very first beat of your heart. From that moment, you've been on a journey, and there are certain things your soul longs for on this journey. Whether you've realized it or not, your life is shaped by your search for them. You're designed to throw your energy and your respect toward whatever you believe can provide you with what you desire:
This is true for every one of us. We all long for more of something in our lives. We all treasure something or someone above our everyday experience. We all give our devotion to somebody or something. These impulses are a part of our DNAs, etched in our natures, as normal and natural as breathing. I believe they have been placed inside our souls by our Creator God.
Simply put, we are a people wired to worship. The question isn't, "Do we worship?" The question is, "Who (or what) do we worship?"
I believe the yearning for more that haunts us all exists to ultimately lead us to the person of Jesus Christ. That drive to worship is designed to impel us into proper relationship with the One who can fulfill our deepest desires.
This is showing my cards a bit early, but I'm convinced that only through Jesus will we ultimately discover our souls' contentment. Yes, we may encounter good days or even the occasional perfect day. But our longing souls will never discover true satisfaction until we turn to him. And whenever we attempt to find fulfillment elsewhere, we open ourselves up to a world of futility and frustration.
THE IDOL FACTORY
On my first trip to Kolkata, India, I visited a temple called the Kali Temple. Thousands of Hindus in Kolkata line up every day to pray to the goddess Kali. They worship her, hoping to gain power, victory, and healing in certain areas of their lives.
Some of the ways they worship astounded me. Not that many years ago, child sacrifices were common. Today, a hundred to a hundred fifty goats are sacrificed daily at the Kali Temple. A pool just outside the temple is believed to have healing powers. People pay to have their families and friends lowered into the murky, stagnant waters. There is also a tree with red ribbons hanging all over it. When I asked about the tree, I learned that women pay money to buy these red strings and then tie them to the tree, praying that Kali will allow them to have children.
I walked away with a supreme sense of sadness and darkness. How could a group of people be lured into such a ridiculous lie? How could they not see that this was just an elaborate moneymaking scheme for a handful of greedy priests?
But do you know what is equally ridiculous? You and I believing that a little more money is going to make us happy. You and I believing that moving up one more position at work is going to give us value. You and I believing that if we could just get a particular person to love us, we would have security.
Idols, in other words, aren't found just in pagan temples.
You see, I'm not really concerned that we are going to worship a tree. The real problem in our culture is not the making of physical idols—what some call external idolatry. What we have to guard against in our culture is internal idolatry. Ezekiel 14:3 describes this: "These men have set up idols in their hearts."
What is an idol? Traditionally we define it as anything that is more important to us than God. But I find that people shrug that definition off too readily. It's easy to fool ourselves into thinking that nothing is more important to us than God.
So let's define it like this: idolatry is when I look to something that does not have God's power to give me what only God has the power and authority to give.
It's when we take good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turn to them in the hope that they'll provide what only God can provide.
It's when we buy into the empty promise that such things can give us the significance, security, safety, and fulfillment we crave.
It's when we feel a God-given appetite and try to fill it with something that isn't God.
John Calvin famously said, "The human heart is a perpetual factory of idols." I agree. When I look back on my own life, I see a distinct pattern of depending on trivial things to give me what only God can give me. And the results aren't pretty.
If I'm really honest with you, there are nights after the lights go out and the noise in my life dissipates that I lie there in bed acutely aware of an inner emptiness. And while I have moments and even days of what seem to be deep satisfaction or soothing peace, those feelings evaporate quickly. I run and run after them, but they seem as fleeting as a disappearing sun, and then once again that gnawing inner emptiness is back.
Have you felt it too—that unquenchable longing that tempts you to sacrifice everything you have and everything you are to be a little more beautiful, a little richer, a little more powerful and successful, a little more secure or in control, a little more loved—all in this futile attempt to heal the inner emptiness? It's so easy to fall into the trap of "if only":
If I owned this, I would feel worthy.
If I achieved that, I would feel significant.
If I had what they have, I would be content.
If I made a little more money, I would finally be satisfied.
If I got that promotion, I would feel valued.
If I could only get that person to love me, I would have security.
But sooner or later we discover the heartbreaking truth that no matter how beautiful or rich or powerful we become, it's never enough.
C. S. Lewis wrote,
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.
We can sacrifice everything for these promises, but they will just leave us wanting, longing, used, and empty. We'll never find what we need in an idol.
Unfortunately, that doesn't stop us from trying.
THE WAITING ROOMS OF LIFE
Scripture is full of examples of our constant need to grab at almost anything to try and fill our deep, built-in longings for worth, significance, acceptance, love, and beauty. One of the first and greatest examples is found in Exodus 32.
At this point, God had just set his chosen people, the Israelites, free from over four hundred years of captivity to the Egyptians. They were finally on their way to living the life God had designed for them to live. But there was a problem. Things weren't moving as fast as they would've liked, and they were getting restless. Their leader, Moses, was absent, and their impatience drove them to take things into their own hands.
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain [Moses was on Mt. Sinai for nearly six weeks], they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." (v. 1)
I think it's important to point out the catalyst for what happened next. The instigating factor was having to wait.
Don't you hate waiting? Most of us do. Waiting has never been a popular pastime, and our culture makes it worse. We live in a day of fast this and instant that, and having to wait for anything is a big frustration. We've started to believe that faster is always better. We've become seduced by such words as instant and easy. We've become quickaholics, dependent on getting what we want when we want it.
Why do we hate waiting so much? There are many reasons, but I think one of the biggest is that waiting makes us feel helpless and powerless. Lewis Smedes described it like this: "As creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for, we wait in darkness for a flame we cannot light. We wait in fear for a happy ending that we cannot write. We wait for a 'not yet' that feels like a 'not ever.'"
As you probably know, Moses was away receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Apparently, he was away much longer than the children of Israel expected him to be. They were feeling frustrated, vulnerable, and helpless in the wilderness. So in his absence, they decided they wanted a different god to worship.
When you think about it, it's amazing how quickly this idol response set in. Just three months before, God had delivered them from four hundred years of captivity. He had provided
freedom when they were captive;
deliverance when they were pursued;
food (manna) when they were hungry;
water (from a rock) when they were thirsty;
guidance from a cloud during the day;
guidance from a pillar of fire at night.
And it wasn't enough. None of it was enough for them to continue worshipping the God who had done all this. Instead, they decided to build an idol, a golden calf, and worship the calf instead.
Why did they do this? I suspect it was because God was making them wait, and the children of Israel couldn't stand the waiting. This is important to note because, apparently, when the need for hurry meets the desire for control, it becomes really easy to start worshipping someone and something other than our Creator God.
Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." (vv. 2–4)
When Moses walked down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and saw what was happening, he became so furious that he tossed the two tablets that God had just etched on his behalf off the side of the mountain.
As I'm sure you can remember, the very first commandment was, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3).
The very first law of the most famous moral code in the history of the world has to do with the trap of idolatry. God warns his people not to worship other gods. Don't expect anything other than God to give what only God can give.
Why such prominence for this command? I think it's because God knew something not only about the children of Israel but about me and about you.
He knows about the inner emptiness inside of us. He knows about that ache that haunts every one of us. He knows this longing for purpose, worth, significance, acceptance, security, love, and beauty pulsates through our veins, and we will stop at nothing (including building our own golden calves) to fulfill those longings.
He knows, remember, because he put those longings there to direct us to him. And he gave us that commandment to spare us from the heartache of empty promises.
Furthermore, I think this commandment had prominence because it's almost impossible for us to follow and obey the other nine if we break this first one.
"You shall have no other gods before me."
Just think about it: your response to those eight words influences every facet of your life. Idolatry isn't simply a sin. It's what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart.
I've made it a practice to look into others' eyes. The person who passes me in the grocery story aisle, the person behind the counter at the gas station, the person who rushes by me on the street.
Do you know what I see most often? Is it life, joy, love, vibrancy?
No, most often what I see is exhaustion.
Just look at the people around you, the people you live with, work with, or do life with. You'll see it too. They're exhausted, depleted, lacking. They may look like they have it all together, but under it all they're falling apart.
The church I've been blessed to pastor for the past nine years includes plenty of singles. I was never really a single adult. I started dating Brandi when I was nineteen, and we were married at twenty-one. So I basically transitioned from being a teenager to being married. But having spent a lot of time with single adults, I know they face a tremendous amount of pressure.
I recently began meeting with a young woman by the name of Kara who is fairly involved with our church. I don't know her exact age, but I would guess she's about twenty-seven. And when she showed up for our first appointment, it was instantly clear to me that she had been through some kind of hell. You could see the pain on her face.
Kara started telling me that a guy she had been dating for the past few months had just called things off with her. She was distraught about their breakup. Through her tears she just kept saying, "I'm so tired of this. I'm so tired of this. Why can't I find someone to care for me? Why can't I find a relationship like everyone else? Why do I keep making the same mistakes over and over? I'm so tired of this."
Over several appointments together, we started to talk a little more in depth about why Kara felt she needed a man. It wasn't just that she was lonely. To her, having a boyfriend gave her not only a sense of worth but also a certain status. It made her feel like somebody. The trouble was, Kara couldn't seem to find what she wanted so desperately.
Over the past two years, she had been through no fewer than a dozen guys. None of these relationships had worked out the way she desired, despite her attempts to become everything those men wanted her to become. She dressed to please them, arranged her schedule around them, deferred to their wishes. She also had sex with most of these men, which only made her feel more used, guilty, and betrayed.
I remember looking at her at one point and saying, "Kara, I don't think you were designed to give yourself away the way you do. And while you were designed for community and companionship—we all are—I don't think you were designed to find your purpose and worth in some guy. There may be numerous reasons you don't feel like you're thriving right now in your life, but have you considered your real problem might be idolatry—that you're looking to a man to give you what only God can give you?"
It's no surprise that Kara was feeling exhausted. Because that's the thing about idolatry—it will plumb wear you out. Idols don't have the capacity to breathe life back into you, so all they do is take and take and take.
In the same way the women in India were giving what little money they had in hope of getting pregnant, only to be left feeling robbed, you're going to give of your money, your time and your energies, your heart and your passions, hoping one of your idols may finally deliver.
But since idolatry is expecting something other than God to give you what only God can give, you end up having to depend on yourself and your own efforts to produce something only God can produce. In essence, you're playing God, and that's exhausting.
To further complicate the issue, so many of the idols—the empty promises—in our culture today involve performance. Performance is also very exhausting. Think about your own life. Are you tired of
trying to keep the perfect house?
striving to have the perfect marriage?
looking like you have it all together?
feeling the pressure to look like you just walked out of a magazine?
struggling to raise perfect kids who excel academically and socially and can crush a T-ball over the fence?
working to make more money than everyone else in your circle?
attempting to climb the ladder faster than the guy who's right on your heels?
Are you weary of all the empty promises that leave you longing and aching for more? This performance-driven lifestyle is just another form of idolatry, and it will eventually leave you exhausted, bitter, and ready to give up.
But I want you to read these powerful and healing words of Jesus. As your eyes scan them, I pray your heart will absorb them. Jesus said,
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28–30)
Excerpted from EMPTY PROMISES by Pete Wilson Copyright © 2012 by Pete Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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