By / Sep 22

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. AW Tozer came up with that, not me. Posed as a question, Tozer’s statement is especially revelatory. If Mr. Tozer were to have asked, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?”, the answer, if not restrained by self-deception, would tell you a lot about yourself. And potentially, how much of yourself is in love with a lie. 

What we think about God and what we believe about God don’t always resemble one another, although we’d like them to. We want to look in the mirror and see the same face, but the fallenness of everything means that there are invisible contradictions everywhere. We will say that God is holy, but there are little gods we may or may not have given a name to that have earned that attribution by our misplaced faith in them. I say this because when you interrogate the why behind our various forms of idol worship, the language used describes a holy thing, and the expectation of the worshipper sounds like faith.

Making our gods

An Old Testament illustration of this happened at the bottom of a mountain. God’s people, deluded by impatience, irked that Moses was still at the top of it with Yahweh, asked Aaron to make them gods. The first evidence that their hope was an unholy one was made plain by their own words: “Make” and “gods.” The two words should’ve gotten caught in their throat followed by a cough or some bodily reaction to show how ridiculous they were being. A real god can’t be made; a real god makes. He is uncreated and therefore sustained by no one except Himself. His life is His, not borrowed or given through some other means. He is as unlimited as the sky is wide. The same blue one He made without heaven’s help. 

Idolatry always involves an exchange. It is a magician’s act in which the holy is traded for the profane. The unique for the common. The transcendent for the earthly. The Creator for the creature. Exchanging the truth about God for a lie, as Paul puts it, leads to creaturely worship, glorying in a made thing (Rom. 1:25). Made things treated as a god or idols aren’t holy in and of themselves. They all lack that transcendental value and moral purity that God possesses in Himself. Which is interesting to think about really. How in our quest for an invented god, we’re always compelled to worship someone or something that exists just like we do with the futile expectation that they’ll succeed in being able to give us what is beyond their reach. 

The limits of our idols

Idols are also local and limited. How did Israel expect a golden calf to guide them if it couldn’t move on its own? It could only go as far as a few humans were willing to take it. Them going with it, instead of it going before them. As it went, with their help, it also couldn’t foresee what was ahead of them, not simply in terms of direction, but also time.

Even though their god couldn’t be more than what it was, and even though it, ignorant of the future, couldn’t know what was to come, Israel still decided to give the calf credit for what happened before its birth. About their golden bull they proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4) Coopting God’s testimony about Himself, they ascribed the Lord’s words and works to a crafted thing that couldn’t even save itself from the soon-to-come desecration of its handmade body. 

We should never expect an unholy thing that was made with our bare hands to be sovereign enough or powerful enough to save us from anything when an idol’s entire existence is dependent on whoever it is that brought them to life.

A god with no life could not notice you in your room, listen to the quiet suffering stuck in your chest, and comprehend it as pain. An idol can’t speak so they can neither rebuke or comfort when the time calls for it. And if our idols are mere men, they may have eyes to see and mouths to speak to the issues of your heart, but what they say and what they see will always be narrow compared to God, who doesn’t need to call you to know how you are. An idol’s lifelessness makes it ignorant and incapable of serving anyone by way of salvation. To hope in anything that has been made to deliver, whether it’s sex, a relationship, a job, money, an identity, alcohol, or whatever is to become as ignorant as the idol itself. “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save” (Is. 45:20). 

Idols are powerless because they are not holy

Whether you have recognized it or not, I’ve tried to make the point, maybe too subtle to be seen, that their unprofitability is rooted in their unholiness. Their failure to be God. To be transcendent. Different. To exist in the way we need them to. As a living being, able to see, hear, act, and think. Powerful enough to overcome every power and problem that the world has either inherited or borrowed. Every idol is a created thing. For Israel it was a calf without a name, but eventually Baal, Asheroth, or Molech (2 Kings 21:3; Judges 2:10-23; Jer. 32:35, Lev. 18:21).  

I don’t know your idols by name. You might, and the God you’ve exchanged it for certainly does, but know that who or whatever it is, it will fail you forever. I don’t say that to shame you, but to come for and against the lies that brought your own golden calf into being. It was manufactured on purpose and eventually trusted to be and do what it can’t. Whatever that thing might be, it too is local. Your needs transcend places, and God forbid you must wait to buy, or call, or fly, or walk to, or knock the door of a person, place, or thing to get hope or peace or joy. When God, who is both in heaven and in you is already there, where you are, with Himself to give. In Him is life, and ain’t we all needy of it? Of Him? Not only for salvation but also satisfaction. 

Idols function as a kind of “savior.” A manufactured messiah made to fill the empty parts within. But if a made thing didn’t make you, then it surely can’t make you whole. Watch and pray that your hope doesn’t look to the high places as rescue (Num. 33:52; Lev. 26:30). Instead, look to the hills from where your holy help comes (Ps. 121:1-2), for any other hope is an unholy one.  

Whenever we trust anything other than the holy God to save us from all our fears, doubts, and anxieties, satisfy our deepest longings, and provide our every need, we have trusted in an unholy god to be what it never will. To say that God is holy is to say that God is God and there is no other God besides Him, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1 Sam. 2:2). And if He is the only God, then Elijah’s words to Israel ring true for us today: “… How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kg. 18:21). What point was Elijah trying to make by appealing to the true nature of Yahweh and Baal as the motivating factor for which one should be followed? It’s that if a being is indeed God, then He is not only deserving of the exclusivity of our worship, but He is also the only one sufficient for our needs.  

This excerpt is adapted from the recently published book from B&H, Holier than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him

By / Mar 29

For many of us around the country, the sound of birds chirping in the air, the warmth of the sun on our skin and daylight well into the evening means two things: spring is here and summer is coming! I think winter has to be a product of the fall (I’m kidding!). But I am a huge fan of warmth. I’m also a fan of vacations. Growing up, however, my family was rarely in a financial position that enabled us to take a traditional vacation. For example, we never took a trip to the beach. Our vacations consisted of road trips to granny’s house, which was one hour away, or a trip to a family reunion once in a blue moon. Only recently have I begun to take traditional vacations on a regular basis.

As I was considering the new luxury I now enjoy, I realized that if I don’t place a guard on my heart, I could begin to think that this privilege is actually a right. And without that guard, it would be easy to make this gift into an idol. This might be a temptation already for many of us. As you look to the summer and long for a vacation, do you find yourself angry or struggling with discontentment because you are unable to take one? And if you’re taking a vacation, do you find yourself bragging, skirting work responsibilities or even overspending to get that “dream” vacation? Whatever your struggle or position, you may be suffering, similar to many of us, from ill-placed treasures.

In his book The Treasure Principle, Randy Alcorn outlines the temptation to place our treasures in the wrong location:

God promises us generous heavenly rewards, in a magnificent New Heaven and New Earth, no longer under the curse and no longer suffering (Revelation 21:1-6). We’ll forever be with the person we were made for, in a place made for us. Nevertheless, many Christians dread the thought of leaving this world.  Why? Because so many have stored up their treasures on earth, not in heaven.”

We know that our end on this earth is sure. We won’t bring one item with us to the grave. I know this is true and, yet, it’s easy for my heart to become consumed by the things of this world.  I can think that I need material items or must have time at the beach. It can be a fight to remember that real joy doesn’t come from the things I obtain or a long-awaited week of rest. Rather, true joy comes from the treasure of Christ. I long to have my heart and treasure aligned with the things of Christ—“for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).  Jesus is the ultimate treasure and our only true rest.

Jesus, telling the parable of the rich fool, reminds us again of the foolishness of storing up treasures on earth. He warns us, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’’ (Luke 12:15). The parable goes on to tell of a landowner who produced many crops, tears down his barn because it was too small to store all the crops, builds a new one and then relaxes with all of his accumulated goods. The problem that Jesus was revealing in this parable wasn’t that the man had treasure. Wealth isn’t a sin. The problem was that he was storing up all of these treasures for himself (v. 21). The trouble was he wasn’t thinking outwardly about others nor was he concerned about God. His treasure was ill-placed. He was storing up treasure on earth.

If we’re honest with ourselves, when our hearts crave and long for a possession—it’s not often that the possession could serve or be for someone else. But what if the rich fool would have grown his crops, built his new barn and provided a portion for the poor? What if, instead of saying to his soul, “You have ample goods,” he would have thanked the Lord and acknowledged that all good things come from him? His treasure was in his possessions on earth, and his pride kept him from acknowledging the Giver.

God does give us good things. He provides homes, food, health, leisure activities and much more. He doesn’t promise wealth, but he does promise to provide all we need for life and godliness. What a generous and awesome God we serve. We can delight in the gift and the Giver, knowing that all is his and we can’t bring anything with us once we are gone. We can guard against making these things into idols. Only God deserves our worship and full delight. When faced with the choice to store up treasures on earth or in heaven, we can make the hard—but better—choice to pursue the greater treasure.

By / Oct 28

When I hear someone say, “War Eagle,” or see someone wearing Auburn sports gear I almost reflexively feel obligated to respond, “Roll Tide!” In fact, it seems like a duty, a moral responsibility even.

Years ago, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru and LSU alum, James Carville was asked by the Wall Street Journal to explain the fanatical devotion of legions of fans who never took a step inside a classroom at the schools they follow. He quipped, “Half the people in that stadium can’t spell LSU. It doesn’t matter. They identify with it. It’s culturally such a big deal.”

As a son of Alabama, the heart of Dixie, and the buckle of the SEC football belt, I would suggest this is one of those rare occasions when James Carville was understated. To call football in the South culturally a big deal is akin to saying the Grand Canyon is a big hole.

I am an unabashed football fan, but I do not write this article as a fan—rather, as a Christian pastor and a seminary professor. This discussion of football fandom begs the question, is this good or bad? My answer is an unequivocal yes. It all depends on whether sports are summed up in Christ or abstracted from him.  

Forward-looking rootedness

There is a sense in which affinity group allegiance to a particular sports team, especially when geographically based, is simply a cultural manifestation of the importance of place and rootedness. Our transient, globalized culture often feels awkward about our rootedness, but we must remember that when the cosmic Lord came in human flesh he was known, even by demons, as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 1:24). Some saw his rootedness in an ordinary family and a modest town as a liability (John 1:46, 6:42, 7:27). But Jesus was from somewhere, and it mattered. The same is true for us.

Our rootedness in this fallen world should serve our longing for rootedness in the world to come (Heb. 11:16). We have already had the opportunity to experience family, fellowship, camaraderie, love, and place, however imperfectly. To act as though we come from nowhere is a prideful commentary on our understanding of the past as well as the future.

We all long to be a part of a community, an entity greater than the individual, and one that will help provide a sense of belonging, identity and unity. These longings are only ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his unshakable kingdom community, the church. Nevertheless, it is most natural that these longings be reflected in limited but genuine ways in our lives.

Sum up all things in Christ

Many years ago at a pastor’s conference I attended, someone asked, pastor and theologian Sinclair Ferguson if he had one piece of advice to offer about parenting what would it be? His response, the best I can remember it, was something like,

Based on who is in this room I would suggest you tie more than one string to your children. Teach them about God, teach them the Bible, but also have other interests with them as well. If you are into sports then connect with them through sports. If you're into construction then connect with them through construction. Use those interests to connect with them, and teach them about God through those as well.

His admonition has always stuck with me. I would guess that his comments reflected a failure he had witnessed among pastors and seminarians to teach their children to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

A seminary professor recently commented to me, “Football is not necessary, so why waste time on it — time that could be better spent advancing the gospel?” The comment represents a tragically false secular/sacred dichotomy. The gospel transforms every category and every activity in the believer's life. Too many Christians have been led to believe that outside of directly sharing the gospel the rest of life amounts to twiddling our thumbs and waiting for eternity.

This kind of compartmentalized understanding of Christian living renders admiring beautiful art, spending time reading an engrossing novel, or watching ballet-like choreography meet brute force in a football game as wasting time. It represents a woeful and inadequate expression of the Christian worldview.

I consider sports to be a competitive manifestation of the performing arts, capable of displaying truth, beauty and goodness. Abraham Kuyper’s dictum should shape our interest in sports, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'”

Idolatry: Enjoyment gone wrong

Herein lies a pervasive problem. It is not only those who consider sports a waste of time who sever it from Christian living, far too often, those Christians who enjoy athletics do the same. Our responsibility is to take every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5) — including sports. In many ways sport fandom and team loyalty is a lot like patriotism for one's country. To despise one's country is an act of rebellion against the providence of God but to blindly idolize one's country is an act of rebellion of another sort. Patriotism, rightly understood in a Christian worldview, is a natural recognition of God’s good providence and his sovereignty in determining our place, rootedness and story. We come from somewhere, and we are a part of a family line whose sacrifices in generations past have shaped our story. Our country and our families are not ultimate, but they are important, and showing them honor is a way we honor Christ (1 Pet. 2:13-17).

For many of us, our cultural story, our family story, includes allegiance to certain sports teams. I don't have to sit around and wonder how I became an Alabama football fan or Atlanta Braves fan. I am both because my father cheered wholeheartedly for both. My mother made special meals on big game days, and we celebrated the victories of the teams with which we identified. It is a part of my story, my place.

Finding idolatrous excesses in the devotion to a particular sports team is not difficult, tragically, even among professing Christians. In my home state, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has been connected to incarceration, divorce, violence, and recently, the poisoning of majestic trees that were a part of one of the grandest traditions in college football. For such people, allegiance to a favorite team is not enjoyment of God’s good gift of athletics, or a cultural identity marker but an obvious idol.

Most who read this article will never contemplate such atrocious acts; however, idolatry that is more subtle is no less an act of rebellion. If a man cannot delight in God with thanksgiving for a hard fought contest when his team loses, he is perverting God's good gift of athletics, and teaching those around him to do the same. Christian father, if you cannot root like crazy with your children for your favorite team — only to see them lose — and afterward laugh and play in the yard with your kids, you have a problem; it's called idolatry.

Modeling self-sacrifice and self-discipline

The apostle Paul seizes the metaphor of sports as a key image to explain Christian living because success in athletics demands purposeful self-sacrifice and requires self-discipline for a cause greater than the individual (Heb. 12:1-2). A Christian approach to sports as a spectator is to be inspired by the honed physical gifts and the determination of those who participate on behalf of his or her favorite team.

Christians should be challenged to offer a similar purposeful, sacrificial devotion and discipline in their vocation and endeavors. How many Christian fathers rigorously critique the job performance, dedication, and work ethic of the coach of their favorite team while simultaneously complaining about their job and excusing their own lack of work ethic and dedication?

Where this is happening, the love of sports has become detached from the Christian life and transformed into a barrier rather than a bridge to worshipping Christ. Fans watch and enjoy the beauty, effort and action the contest brings out in its participants. Christian fans should be challenged to agonize in similar fashion for the glory of Christ in their own vocation (Col. 3:17).

The Christian with a rightly ordered, Christ-centered worldview is uniquely in a position to enjoy athletic competition as a good gift from God, and his or her sports loyalties as a demonstration of our providential rootedness in time, place, family and community. Of course, we can make an idol out of country, family or allegiance to our favorite sports team. But the gospel does not obliterate these cultural connections. It reinterprets them in light of the gospel story and our responsibility to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33, 1 Cor. 2:2).

I'm thankful that I was taught as a child to say “Roll Tide,” but believe it or not, I'm equally thankful that others say, “War Eagle.” But, I am most thankful that — whether we are Aggies or Longhorns, Cats or Cardinals, Buckeyes or Wolverines, Ducks or Beavers — in Christ we all say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

By / Feb 10

“Mine!” is a declaration with which most parents are all too familiar. Parents often respond to fighting over toys and possessions by becoming referees and sorting out what happened in order to decide the fair way to proceed. The parent becomes an investigator to find out the facts of the incident: Whose toy is it? Who had the toy first? Did they know the other wanted to play with it? Were they actually playing with it or just keeping it from the other child? Don’t they want to play with their sibling’s toys sometimes? Can’t y’all just be kind to each other?

A gospel opportunity

The answer to the final question is an emphatic “No!” The “Mine!” problem is not simply an isolated behavioral glitch. It is a worldview problem that has behavioral implications. The parental battle in this situation is not to coax the child into being a bit nicer; it is a gospel opportunity to call them to repent of idolatry. When the parent adopts the posture of referee, he or she is actually reinforcing the child’s existing self-referential categories that are the problem—not the solution. When parents permit an attitude of entitlement about toys and possessions, they are discipling their children in an entitlement worldview.

What is the alternative? Could the gospel reshape our response to the “Mine!” problem? An entitlement attitude is the manifestation of self-justifying pride, and we know according to the Scripture, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov. 3:34, James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5). Our hope is found in humility, thankfulness and grace, not in our own idolatrous self-determination about what we deserve. In fact, prideful self-determination is the root of both the rebellious angelic fall and the fall of humanity (Gen. 3; Is. 14). A parent should respond to “Mine!” with intentionality to create categories that help make the gospel intelligible.

An example of intentionality

Judi and I have eight children between the ages of three and eighteen years old. At some point, when our oldest was fairly young, we decided on how we would address the “Mine!” problem. Our plan was to teach our children that nothing in our house was theirs. They were not owners of anything, so “Mine!” was a nonsensical assertion. My wife and I bought the house, furniture, clothes, food, toys, and everything else, so they owned nothing though they had been freely given a great many things to enjoy. Even gifts from grandparents and other people ultimately belong to my wife and I because, apart from a place to store and care for them, our children would be unable to keep them.

We believe our children need to perceive themselves as stewards of an abundance of things given to them for theirs and the common familial good, but they are owners of nothing. Any time we hear “Mine!” there is no need for investigation or lengthy recounting of the facts, we simply say, “Whose is it?” to which the replay is “Daddy and Mommy’s.” If the problem persists at all, my wife and I take our toy (or whatever it is) and remove it, which sometimes means immediately disposing of the item in the garbage can.

A new worldview category

The items we provide to the household and receive into the household are there to create harmony and not division. As parents, we have the responsibility to oversee the possessions and make sure they are used to an appropriate end. Our goal is to create new categories for how our children view the world and not simply temporal behavioral change. If a child knows their parents have entrusted them to be a family steward of something, on what ground would they see it as something for their exclusive use? Or as Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

To some parents, this strategy will seem harsh at first glance, and if they are lording their ownership over their children as if they are begrudgingly allowing them to be stewards over possessions—it is. However, if the parents’ goal is to shape a worldview that makes gospel categories more intelligible, then they should be eager and glad-hearted givers to their children. It should be obvious to our children that, though their parents will not allow them to act as though they own toys and other possessions simply for their own purposes and selfish ends, their parents delight in providing them things to use and enjoy. Where this stewardship is understood, children become thankful and content with what they are given.

Thankfulness and humility will not grow in the toxic soil of entitlement. The battle is fought in the simple activities of daily life together. One of the rules in our house is that, with a family of ten, we do not allow special orders at the restaurant drive-thru. Simply ordering twenty double cheeseburgers with no other specifications is quick, easy and cheap. One day I was ordering at a fast food restaurant, and I knew one of my children really enjoyed a particular specialty burger, so I just decided to get it for him as a special treat on that day. When I brought it home and he saw it, he said, “Wow! Thanks, I was not expecting that.” Exactly. If he had felt entitled to the specialty burger, he would not have been thankful for it.

Addressing the “Mine!” problem properly helps create categories for your children to understand how you order your family life differently as followers of Christ. Parents should tell their children that they, too, are stewards and not owners of God’s blessings, and that fact shapes how they steward their resources as well. The family home should be seen as God’s gift for the purpose of showing hospitality to others. The family vehicle should not been seen simply as a tool to help the family get around but a tool to serve others. In so doing, the household reflects the body of Christ, “the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).

The church is a community birthed by grace “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9). What a joy it would be if your children read about the church, “And all who believed were together and they had all things in common . . . distributing the proceeds to all as any had need” (Acts 2:43-44), and the first thing they think about is your home.