Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Idolatry

Idolatry is a powerful chain in the lives of many believers.  I am not talking about images of wood or stone.  I am talking about the place in our lives where we run to receive what only God can give.  I am talking about that place where we put our “functional trust”.

If the word “idol” sounds strange to you in this context, let me pose some questions to help us identify our “idols”.  What is that thing, that when you have it in your life, you feel fulfilled?  Or what is that thing, that when it is absent, you feel unsettled and discontent?  Or what is that thing, that when you have Jesus + ______ , all is right in your world?

Pastor Eric Hoffman writes, “Idolatry begins when we put something else where only God belongs.  When we say that God is not enough or His ways are not what I am going to follow, we are consciously putting our hope, trust, security, and identity into a created thing.”  Later, Eric asks, “Where are you putting your functional trust?”

On an intellectual or theological level, we know the danger of idols.  But on a practical or functional level, in our daily living, what or who are we trusting in?  Where are we looking for proof of our value and worth?  What are we driven to protect at all costs so that we can project a positive image?

This topic is an expansive one so I will only give it a broad overview in this post.  But here are some categories of idols to get us thinking about our own situation.

The idol of power.  Are you driven to and find your satisfaction in success, winning, gaining influence?  Do you fear humiliation or lack of respect?  Maybe power is an idol.

The idol of approval.  Do you seek affirmation, love, relationships, at all costs?  Is rejection your greatest fear?  Maybe approval is an idol for you.  This is very much a challenge for me.

A few weeks ago, I represented our neighborhood at a city council meeting to speak against further development at the end of our street.  I thought my presentation went well, but the highlight was as I went back to my seat, I received an outpouring of gestures of support and thanks from our neighbors in attendance.  Since we had not made much of a connection with some of them yet, I remember this clear thought in my head, “I think they like me.”  Why was that approval so important to me?  The approval idol in me needed their reassurance to be satisfied.

The idol of comfort.  Is your highest goal your own comfort, privacy, freedom, lack of stress?  Are your greatest fears wrapped around demands, stress, pain, or loss?  Maybe comfort or its variations of pleasure, health, materialism, and recreation are idols in your life.

The idol of control.  Are you driven by self-discipline, certainty, standards being kept?  Is uncertainty and things beyond your control your greatest fear?  Is security in your finances, your career, your family an idol in front of you?

These ideas have barely scratched the surface, but I hope they give you an idea of what I am referring to in the topic of idols.  What created thing are we placing our functional trust in?

The answer to idolatry is to place our intellectual, our heartfelt, and our functional trust in Jesus Christ.  Look at how the apostle John relates our abiding in Christ to freedom from idols.  “And we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.  This is the true God and eternal life.  Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (I Jn 5:20-21).

What John is saying in these verses is this:  “We are in the true God and in His Son.  Our abiding, our identity, our purpose, our provision, our comfort, our security, our approval, and our power are all wrapped up in our connection to God and to His Son Jesus.  We know that He is the true God, and we are in Him.  Jesus + nothing is what we need.  And this truth is part of the eternal life that we are already experiencing.  Now, in light of these facts, guard yourselves from idols.”

In light of knowing and abiding in the One who is true, do not accept a counterfeit.  Do not accept a cheap imitation.  Do not accept a substitute for the real thing.  That is what idols are; counterfeits, imitations, substitutes.  Life in Christ offers freedom.  Idols enslave.  They never come through on what they promise.  And our pursuit of them keeps us from being secure in the grace of God’s leadership in our lives.

Throw off the chain of the idols in your life.  Ask God to reveal what things are enslaving you.  What idols are you chasing after that keep you from being present, that keep you from being available to serve the people and situations God has placed in front of you?  God has called you to a life of living free; and identifying and confessing the “lesser” things we depend on is the first step to freedom from our chains.  Lift up your eyes to the only One who is worthy of our trust, the Lord Jesus Christ who leads our lives.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Selfish Ambition

One of the great freedoms Christ promises us in the New Testament is the freedom from ourselves; the freedom from our selfish ambition.  The Bible makes clear that selfish ambition is at the root of so many of our sins.  “If you have envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and lie against the truth.  This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16).

Could selfish ambition be the foundation for “every evil practice”?  It often forms the foundation or motivation for our evil actions.  The apostle Paul encourages us to lay aside selfish ambition as a motivating force.  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty conceit” (Phil 2:3).  Is that kind of “nothingness” regarding selfish ambition even possible?

As with all things pertaining to living the Christian life, we have been freed from the dominion of sin as our master.  This includes freedom from selfish ambition.  This freedom was accomplished by our being united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom 6:4-7).  But learning to live into that promise, that spiritual reality, is a process.

Yes, you have the power to overcome your selfishness.  And the positive replacement for it is found in the rest of Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.”  Humility is the answer to selfish ambition.  And by virtue of your new life in Christ, you have this humility inside.  The question is how to put this humility into action.

The interesting thing about selfish ambition is that only you know how deep it goes.  The Bible teaches that even preaching can be done out of selfishness.  “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife…proclaiming Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives” (Phil 1:15,17).  Because selfish ambition is a motivation more than an action, you cannot always tell how deep my selfishness goes.  But I know.  And God knows.

Engage with God’s promise and God’s power to overcome what is really our greatest and last enemy; ourselves.  Set yourself free from selfish ambition by practicing humility of mind.  We do this in many ways.  Not having to win every discussion or disagreement.  Stopping to hear one another’s thoughts, intentions, and opinions.  Looking out for the interests of others by celebrating the successes of our brothers and sisters and by honoring the gifts they bring to the table.  Practicing hospitality by allowing others to be served and thinking of their needs first.  Thanking those who have been hospitable and generous to us.  Using our freedom to serve others, setting aside our own plans when an urgent and sincere need arises.  Being generous, as God is generous to us.  And the list in Scripture for how to put your humility into action goes on and on.

You have been set free from your slavery to sin by Christ’s death and resurrection.  And you have been set free from selfish ambition as your primary driver or motivation.  God has given you the power and the Spirit to break the chain.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Worry

Just as the peace of Christ is the antidote for the chain of fear, the joy of the Lord is the antidote for the chain of worry.  Much like fear, worry is so often colored by this anxious age we live in.  The list of things to worry about is almost endless.  But into this milieu, the call of the New Testament is, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!”  (Phil 4:4).

Or, as Karl Barth has written, “It is astonishing how many references there are in the Old and New Testaments to delight, joy, bliss, exultation, merry-making, and rejoicing; and how emphatically these are demanded from the Book of Psalms to the Letter to the Philippians.”  Yes, throughout the Scriptures we are urged to live joy-filled lives.

Our fundamental, foundational stance as a believer is to be one of joy.  Our serious, melancholy pessimism should be the exception.  Yes, those empathetic emotions are real.  And there is a time for grief over our struggles; and those of our families, our communities, our churches, and our world.  But underlying our concern is a bedrock of joy given to us by the Father.

Did you know that you have already been given the incredible gift of joy?  It is not something you have to strive for.  It is not something you have to work for.  It is not something you have to earn.  You already have it inside.  How?  Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22).  When you embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, you were given the Holy Spirit to live inside you.  You did not earn it; it is pure gift from God.

And by virtue of this gift – by virtue of His Spirit living inside you – you already possess all of the Spirit’s fruit.  In the natural world, a fruit tree can only produce the fruit of its DNA.  It cannot produce any other fruit.  Likewise, you were ordained to produce the fruit of the new Spirit that lives inside and one of those fruits – already there by virtue of your spiritual DNA – is joy.

It may seem like a subtle distinction, but the key to experiencing that joy is to recognize it is already in there and then proceeding to unwrap it at every opportunity rather than seeing it as a character quality that we must strive to attain.  It’s already in there!

Can I encourage you to throw off the chain of worry?  There are many more aspects to breaking this chain in terms of our faith in God’s goodness, His sovereignty, His love, and so much more.  But for today, our focus is on the joy that He plants inside.  Rejoice in the gift of joy that He has given to you.

Is there a time to ponder the sobering reality of evil in the world?  Yes, there is.  But the underlying reality of a joy-filled life is a constant theme throughout the Scriptures.  And it is a reality that has been beautifully summarized by English author G. K. Chesterton, “A person is fully human when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.  Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.  Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of the Imposter Syndrome

Have you heard of the “imposter syndrome”?  It is a term coined by psychologists in the late 1970s to describe high-achieving individuals who were marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.  It is really another chain of fear.  Let me describe how this fear manifests itself in our spiritual life.

Depending on the church you grew up in, your family of origin dynamic, or even your present day experience in a community of believers, we generally develop some standard in our lives that we feel we must live up to in order to be accepted by the community.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I like standards.  I like encouraging each other to pursue holiness.  There is nothing wrong with helping each other move forward into a maturing Christian life.

The subtle way this can go awry is when we rely on keeping the standard as the basis for our acceptance with God and our community.  We so often put the cart before the horse.  Even if we don’t say it out loud, our attitude is, “You keep the standard, you arrive at some level of righteous living, and we will accept you.”  But true spiritual community is just the other way around.

True Jesus-following community starts with, “I will shower you with love, acceptance, and forgiveness no matter where you are in your Christian walk.  And because I love you, I will invest my friendship with you in ways that help both of us move toward Christian maturity.”  The love and acceptance come first.

This kind of community frees us from the fear of the impostor syndrome.  When we rely on others’ opinions of us for our spiritual self-worth, we live in fear of “being discovered”.  We live in fear of those around us finding out we are not all we were cracked up to be.  We have flaws. We have besetting sins.  We have personality disorders.  We are not perfect.

But when your opinion about yourself comes from what God has already done for you through His grace, then this is what you learn.  You are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted, and complete in Christ.  And the sheer beauty of grace is that we are not any of those things because we deserved it or earned it by our merit.  No, we are all of those things because God gave them to us.  Just receiving and not earning is such a freeing experience.

You are loved because God loves you.  You are forgiven because God forgave you.  You are pleasing to God because He made you righteous.  You are acceptable to God because He paid the price for your sins.  Nothing else is required to gain His acceptance.  Christ already paid the price.  And you are complete in Christ.

So dismantle the chain of the fear of being “found out”.  The more I discover about you and the more you discover about me will be the building blocks to a friendship that moves both of us forward into experiencing all that Christ promised in a life set free.

Living Free – Throwing Off the Chain of Fear

Another chain that shackles our living free experience is the chain of fear.  We live in an anxious age.  I honestly don’t know when in my lifetime I have felt such angst about every single topic that comes up in conversation or in the news.  Think about these issues; marriage, family life, health, immigration, the well-being of children, politics, clean water, violence, climate change … and we could go on and on.

We all have ideas of how to respond to these political and social issues and it discourages us when the answers we see in the world around us show not only a pervasive immorality, but an outright complete lack of common sense.  Instead of moral or even common sense solutions, we are bombarded by extreme positions, moral confusion, complete dysfunction, scarcity, and intimidation by those in power.  It stirs up fear.

Into this confusion and anxiety, Jesus says, “Do not fear, do not be anxious.”  And He gives us this promise, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).  The antidote to fear is the peace of Christ.  The answer to fear is courage; the courage to trust His constant presence and ultimate power to make things right.  The remedy for fear is our faith in the promises of God.

“And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  Christ’s promise and Christ’s presence drive out fear.  We sometimes struggle to experience that presence today because to be honest it is not always easy to sense the Holy Spirit inside.  It is a little bit of a mysterious connection.  It requires us to stretch our faith muscles and believe what we cannot see.  But in the world to come, when our present world has been overcome for good, we will see and grasp God’s presence in the most real way possible.

But until then, we have the promise that Christ has now, in the present tense, overcome the world.  And through our connection to Christ, as our Savior and Brother, we can overcome the world, and the fear that comes with it.  It is not a physical victory – our personal world and the larger world may still be falling apart around us – but we are promised a spiritual victory of experiencing the peace of Christ inside.

So throw off the chain of fear.  Do not allow yourself to become immobilized by the sheer volume of moral confusion in our world.  Love, serve, and encourage those Christ has brought into your life.  Demonstrate to those around you what a life set free looks like; a life set free from fear, worry, and anxiety.  Because despite all the pompous declarations of the world – and political or social victories they celebrate – deep inside, the peace of Christ is the desire of every heart.