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Gods at War Student Edition
By Kyle Idleman
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Kyle Idleman
All rights reserved.
idolatry is the issue
Imagine a man who has been coughing constantly. This cough keeps him up half of the night and interrupts any conversation he has that lasts more than a minute. The cough is so unrelenting that he goes to the doctor.
The doctor runs some tests.
Now imagine the doctor knows how tough the news will be to handle. So he doesn't tell his patient about the cancer. Instead, he writes a prescription for some strong cough medicine and tells the man that he should feel better soon. The man is delighted with this prognosis. And sure enough, he sleeps much better that night. The cough syrup seems to have solved his problem.
Meanwhile, very quietly, the cancer eats away at his body. At my church, I talk to people every week who are "coughing."
They come to me and share their struggles.
They unload their frustrations.
They express their discouragement.
They display their hurts.
They confess their sins.
When I talk to people, they point to what they believe is the problem. In their minds, they've nailed it. They can't stop coughing. But here's what I've discovered: They're talking about a symptom rather than the true illness—the true issue—which is always idolatry.
CASE STUDY 1: No Big Deal
She's a young woman who grew up in our church. Her family wants me to meet and talk with her. They're concerned because she's about to move in with her boyfriend, who isn't a Christian. This ought to be a fun one.
I call her twice and leave messages, but she doesn't return my call. The third time she picks up. She knows why I'm calling and tries to laugh it off.
"I can't believe my parents are making such a big deal out of this," she says with a nervous laugh. I can picture her rolling her eyes. In her mind this whole thing is a "mild cough" and nothing to worry about.
"Well, I appreciate your talking to me for a few minutes. But I have to ask, do you think it's possible that you've got this backward?"
"What do you mean?"
"That instead of making a big deal out of nothing, it could be that you're making nothing out of a big deal?"
More nervous laughter. "It's not a big deal," she says again.
"Do you mind my telling you why I think it is?"
She sighs deeply and proceeds to give me her prediction of all the reasons she thinks I'll produce.
I interrupt her with a question. "Have you thought about how much moving in together is going to cost you?"
"You mean the cost of the apartment?"
"No, I'm not necessarily talking about money. I mean the way your family feels about it, and the pressure you're getting from them. That's a kind of price, right?"
"Yeah, I guess it is, but that's their problem."
"And what is this going to cost your future marriage?"
"I don't even know if we're going to get married," she responds.
"I'm not necessarily talking about your getting married to him, because statistically speaking, you most likely won't."
She understands what I'm getting at, but I push it a bit further. "How much is this going to cost your future husband? What price will he have to pay for this decision?" She has to stop and consider that one.
I continue to count the ways that this decision is a big deal, because it's costing her more than she knows.
"So here's what I suggest. If you're willing to pay a price, then this must be pretty important to you. It must be a fairly big deal if you're willing to go through all of this."
I take her silence for reflection, and I finally get to my point. "When I see the sacrifices you are willing to make, and the fact that you are willing to ignore what God has to say about all this, it seems to me that you've turned this relationship into a god."
"What do you mean by that?"
"A god is what we sacrifice for and what we pursue. From where I sit, you have God on one side saying one thing, and your boyfriend on the other side saying something else. And you're choosing your boyfriend over God. The Bible calls that idolatry, and it's actually a pretty big deal."
No nervous laughter this time. "I've never thought about it like that," she says.
CASE STUDY 2: The Secret Struggle
He comes in maybe five or ten minutes late.
He had asked if we could talk for a few minutes, and I suggested meeting for coffee. But he wanted to meet someplace "a little more private." So we decided on my office. He arrives and pauses in the doorway, as if still not sure he wants to keep this appointment.
"Come on in." I smile and motion toward a seat.
He answers my smile with a very brief one. He sits, and his body language is all about reluctance. He wraps his arms around each other, lightly massaging his right elbow. He hasn't told me what this meeting is about, but I know. The conversation I'm about to have has become very familiar.
I ask him a few mundane questions about his life, where he's from, anything to break the ice and create a more relaxed setting.
When we've done that for a couple of minutes, he finally broaches his subject. I can tell it takes all the courage he can summon to release his long-held secret.
"I ... um ... I think I'm addicted to pornography, or something," he stammers.
He looks at his shoes.
"Okay. Well, you're not the first person to walk in here, sit in that seat, and say those words. How long has this been a struggle?"
He tells his story, starting when he was twelve years old and saw certain images with the guys. Pictures that disturbed him at first. Pictures that lodged in his mind, that wouldn't go away, that started calling to him. Pictures he can perfectly visualize all these years later. He talks about his hatred of the Internet. He describes the web as if it were his mortal enemy.
"It's so easy," he says. "Any kind of picture, any kind of video is at your fingertips. Just like that. Instant gratification, whenever you feel the slightest urge."
He speaks with the weary tones of a slave, of a prisoner who has given up on escape plans.
"What am I supposed to do," he says, "unplug the computer? I'm dependent on the Internet like everyone else. I need it for everything. Even if I just used my smartphone, I can pull up those images there. Turn on the television, and there are a million suggestions. Am I supposed to just watch the Disney Channel?"
He says he had no idea what pornography would do to his life, particularly his relationships. He seems to understand, at least to some degree, how it has changed the way he views and interacts with women.
"Thing is," he says, "you think it's just an itch. That's all. An itch. But it never goes away, and you have to scratch. Well, you have to scratch harder and deeper as time goes by. You know what I mean?"
There is silence. I'm sure he's expecting me to give the same advice he's heard for so many years: Put a filter on your Internet browser. Find an accountability partner. Redirect your eyes. All helpful suggestions, but I know he's tried them all multiple times. Otherwise he wouldn't be sitting in front of me.
What I know is that there is an idol that must be dethroned, and until that happens he will suffer. He won't enjoy intimacy in relationships. He will struggle to have any real connection with God.
"You think what you have is a lust problem, but what you really have is a worship problem. The question you have to answer each day is, Will I worship God or will I worship sex?"
He doesn't verbalize it, but the expression on his face says, "I've never thought about it like that."
What Lies Beneath
Idolatry isn't just one of many sins. It's the one great sin that all others come from. So if you start scratching at whatever struggle you're dealing with, eventually you'll find a false god underneath. Until that god is dethroned, and the Lord God takes his rightful place, you will not have victory.
Idolatry isn't an issue; it is the issue. All roads lead to the dusty, overlooked concept of false gods. Deal with life on the glossy outer layers, and you might never see it. But scratch a little beneath the surface, and you begin to see that it's always there. There are a hundred million different symptoms, but the issue is always idolatry.
That's why, when Moses stood on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God, the first one was, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2–3).
When God issued this command during the time of Moses, the people were familiar with a lot of other gods. God's people had spent more than four hundred years in Egypt as slaves. Egypt was crowded with gods. They had taken over the neighborhood—literally. The Egyptians had local gods for every district. Egypt was the Baskin-Robbins of gods. You could pick and choose the flavors you wanted.
The Bible has a different standard. When we hear God say, "You will have no other gods before me," we think of it as a hierarchy: God is always in first place. But there are no places. God isn't interested in competing against others or being first among many.
God will not be part of any hierarchy.
He wasn't saying "before me" as in "ahead of me." A better understanding of the Hebrew word translated "before me" is "in my presence."
God declines to step inside the octagon; he is the ultimate fighting champion. He is not interested in competing in a reality TV show; he is the ultimate reality. Life doesn't work properly until every other "contestant" sitting around the boardroom of your heart is fired.
There are no partial gods, no honorary gods, no interim gods, no assistants to the regional gods.
God isn't saying this because he is insecure, but because it's the way of truth in this universe. Only one God created it. Only one God designed it, and only one God knows how it works. He is the only God who can help us, direct us, satisfy us, save us.
As the events unfold in Exodus 20, the one true God has had it with the imitation and substitute gods. So God tells the nation of Israel to break up the band of gods. Send them packing. All other god activity is cancelled. He makes sure the people understand that he is the one and only. He is the Lord God.
You may be thinking, Thanks for the history lesson, but that was a long time ago. Today, the problem doesn't appear to be that people worship many gods; it's that they don't worship any god.
Yet my guess is that our list of gods is longer than theirs. Just because we call them by different names doesn't change what they are. We may not have the god of knowledge, the god of agriculture, the god of sex, or the god of the hunt. But we do have GPAs, cars, pornography, and sports. If it walks like an idol, and quacks like an idol, it's probably ...
You can call it a cough instead of calling it cancer, but that doesn't make it any less deadly.
One of our problems in identifying today's gods is that their identities not only lack the usual trappings of religion; they are also things that often aren't even wrong. Is God against pleasure? Sex? Money? Popularity?
These things are not immoral. They are morally neutral—and sometimes even commendable— until they become something else. It could be friendships or the pursuit of getting into your dream college. It could be a worthy cause. You could even be feeding the hungry and healing the sick. All of those are good things.
The problem is that the instant something takes the place of God, the moment it becomes an end in itself rather than something to lay at God's throne, it becomes an idol. When someone or something replaces the Lord God in the position of glory in our lives, then that person or thing by definition has become our god.
So to identify some gods, look at what you are chasing. Another way to identify the gods at war in your life is to look at what you create.
Remember your commandments. First: no other gods.
Second: no making other gods to worship.
The profound wisdom of that second commandment is that anything in the world can be hammered into an idol, and therefore can be a false god. It's DIY idolatry: choose from our handy assortment of gods, mix and match, create your own.
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the people waiting below whined because it was taking so long. Moses had left his brother, Aaron, in charge, and the people began clamoring for a god to lead them. They gathered everyone's gold, put it on the fire, and made a golden calf to worship. A little bit ironic, don't you think? The very moment God was telling Moses about having no other gods before him, the people were down below rigging up a god.
Later in the Bible is a reflection on what these people did: "The people made a calf at Mount Sinai; they bowed before an image made of gold. They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating bull" (Psalm 106:19–20, NLT).
That's not a good trade. They traded the Creator God for a god of their own creation.
Are we really any different? We replace God with statues of our own creation.
The latest smartphone technology that keeps us from feeling left out.
Clothes that get us into the right clique.
Grades that push us higher up the class rankings.
A team that wins the championship.
A body that is toned and fit.
We work hard at molding and creating our golden calves.
I already hear what you're thinking: "You could say that about anything. You could take any issue, anything someone devoted anything to, and make it out to be idolatry."
Anything at all can become an idol once it becomes a substitute for God in our lives.
To describe the concept more clearly, anything that becomes the purpose or driving force of your life probably points back to idolatry of some kind. Think about what you have pursued and created, and ask yourself, Why?
If you have "hot button" issues that tend to get you upset, why?
If you plan to go shopping this weekend even though you have a closetful of clothes, why?
If you spend countless hours fixing up your car and redecorating your room, why?
To think of these things as forms of idolatry, we need to use new imagery. Discard the idea of golden cows and multi-armed figurines. Even, just for a moment, strip away the whole idea of idolatry as an item on a ten-point list of don'ts.
This next exercise may seem a bit weird, but stick with me. I want you to reimagine idolatry as a tree.
See it in your mind: one of those great oak trees that seem older than time itself, one with impressive branches reaching out in every direction. And down below the surface, deep roots dig in and anchor it into place.
Imagine this tree of idolatry with many branches, each with something tied to it.
From one of the branches dangles a pot of gold.
Another branch grows entertainment all kinds. Xboxes (or, if you prefer, a PS4), tablets, computers, and every kind of technology imaginable seem to sprout from a different section of that branch.
Another branch widens into a flat, round ending, and when you move closer, you can see that it is really a mirror that shows an idealized reflection of yourself.
Yet another branch is carved with beautiful craftsmanship. You follow its sinuous lines and realize it is the image of two human figures, entwined in a sensuous embrace.
One branch has, as fruit, different sets of keys—one set to a sports car, another to your own apartment after graduation.
Quite a peculiar tree. It has many other branches, each one with a curious item attached to it.
Here's the point: Idolatry is the tree from which our sins and struggles grow. Idolatry is always the issue. It's the trunk of the tree, and all other problems are just branches.CHAPTER 2
the battleground of the gods
How would you feel if your entire Internet search history was posted for the world to see?
That's what America Online did. Remember this company? It's still around. But when the World Wide Web began to intertwine the earth, it was the first big search engine. Then a number of years ago, America Online released, to the public, the Internet search history of 650,000 of its network users. The company was trying to demonstrate its vast reach among consumers.
So if you typed "NFL football scores" into a browser window, it was now a matter of public record.
Already you're saying, "What were they thinking?" But the fact is, AOL had taken certain precautions. No real names were used—only user numbers. So it wasn't Bob down the street, but an anonymous "User #545354," who was checking to see if the Green Bay Packers won.
The problem was that the precautions weren't strong enough. The New York Times quickly demonstrated how it was possible to select a user number and put a name to it.
How could they do that? It was actually pretty simple. Let's say User #545354 searched for "transmission problems 2002 Chevy Camaro." This wouldn't tell us much on its own, but AOL also revealed thousands of other searches by the same user. Given enough information it wasn't too difficult to look at the searches and match them up to a specific person.
Excerpted from Gods at War Student Edition by Kyle Idleman. Copyright © 2014 Kyle Idleman. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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