Friday, June 15, 2007

Fallen Idol

In answer to a couple of emails I recently received:


The answer depends, in part, on whether you’re asking an intellectual question or an existential question.

Are you asking about the theology of sin? Anthony Hoekema has several chapters on this topic in his book Created in God’s Image.

Likewise, Tom Schreiner discusses the subject extensively (see index and table of contents in his book on Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ.

And, from a more pastoral perspective, there is the first chapter of J. C. Ryle’s book on Holiness.

Or are you asking an existential question in terms of how you internalize the theology of sin?

Because, in this life, our knowledge of God, while pervasive, is somewhat oblique, the idea of sinning against God tends to be a bit abstract. Something we may grasp at a cerebral level, but not identify with at an emotional level.

It also depends on our persona experience with sin. Some converts to the faith have a strong sense of the power of sin because they were once enslaved to destructive, compulsive-behaviors

Likewise, some converts to the faith have a strong sense of the guilt of sin because they have gravely wronged people very dear to them.

However, even if that is not your experience, human beings have been endowed with a capacity to imaginatively empathize with the situation of others. This is why we find fiction so appealing, whether in film, TV, or literature. So it’s possible to analogize from the experience of others to sinning against God.

Imagine if your dad was a hopeless alcoholic. You would certainly appreciate the power of sin, even if you yourself were not a hard drinker.

Imagine, further, if you were raised by your big brother. Your father was too drunk too much of the time to be a father. So your brother had to take up the slack. He became your guide and guardian.

And suppose, despite everything your older brother had done for you, there came a day when you betrayed him. Suppose you were using drugs. They were in your possession.

While you and your brother were driving, suppose you were stopped by the police. Maybe for some minor traffic infraction. Or maybe at a random checkpoint to catch drunk drivers.

In your fear and panic, you plant the drugs on your brother. So he is the one who's arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned instead of you.

Or, to vary the illustration, say you had a falling out with your supplier. As a result, there’s a drive by shooting in which you survive, but your brother is killed. And all because of you. Because of your illicit habit.

Imagine the guilt you would feel! Then consider how much more we owe to God than we do to any human mentor or parent.

That should help to give you and me a sense of sin’s ingratitude and gravitas.


There's no firm answer to this question, and one reason is that it's not necessarily the right question to ask.

1. As you know, idolatry has a very specific meaning in Scripture. It's tied up with polytheism.

Preachers often use idolatry as a metaphor. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this generic application, but it's a mistake to read the application back into a passage like Ps 16, as if that's what the Bible is talking about.

2. Another problem with the speaker's position is that it's feelings-oriented. How do you feel about God in relation to "worldly" things?

But, of course, we have little direct control over our feelings. And there's no way to quantify our feelings. How much is too much? How much is too little?

It confronts the Christian with an impossible task.

3. There are many different ways to experience God in this life. Through nature and natural, common grace goods. Through the Bible and other means of grace, like prayer, hymnody, Christian fellowship.

But these are all indirect. In this life we don't get to know Jesus the way the disciples got to know Jesus.

By contrast, we can get to know other people directly (friends, family members).

It's unnatural to suppose that we can feel the same way about a person we've never but, but only read about, than we can about a person we can actually see and hear, hug, live with, or do things with. That's just the way that human nature is wired.

I'd add that God has also be present in the people he's given to us. The people he's brought into our lives.

Some people are emblems of his grace. Embodiments of grace.

4. Instead of trying to focus on our feelings, which is an effect of something else, we should focus on the cause. We should cultivate a spirit of thankfulness. Thank God throughout the day for the many blessings he brings our way. That's one way of finding God's presence in our lives. Even keep a spiritual diary or daily journal, since we tend to forget from one day to the next the many, sometimes unexpected, ways we've been blessed.

And we should apply ourselves to the means of grace, like prayer, Bible-reading, hymnody, devotional reading, Christian fellowship.

And we should also enjoy the good things of life. That's a way of thanking God.

Gratitude doesn't exist in a vacuum. One needs to cultivate a life-experience that gives us reason to be grateful.

That also helps to tide us over during the dry seasons in the walk of faith.

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