When it comes to preaching on idols or idolatry, I sometimes ask the congregation to suggest idols that they think are issues in society today. The responses are usually reasonably predictable: money, sex, sport. Those are the things we good church people can often think of as idols. That’s not wrong – there are people for whom these things have assumed the wrong place in their lives. But I’ll be honest; I’ve yet to meet a Christian in the broadly evangelical church for whom sex is an idol; perhaps sexual purity, but that’s the subject of another post. I sometimes try and prod the conversation: what about family? marriage? church? Could they be idols?
It’s easy to care too much. Time was when an Arsenal result would affect my mood for a few days; my then girlfriend (now wife) would put her hand on my chest during a match and she’d be seriously worried about the speed of the heartbeat she felt. The truth is, supporting Arsenal is an important part of my identity; it was handed down at an early age from my mother. I have one of those romantic first memories of live football at Arsenal with my mother’s father that Nick Hornby would be proud of (1-1 with Watford, Charlie Nicholas missed a penalty but scored off the rebound, since you ask). It had become too important, though. So over time I learned (mostly) to put Arsenal in its right place in my life – something that’s important to me, that I enjoy and care about … but not a long-term mood-altering drug, like it had been.
Of course, one of the things about a mood-altering drug is that once we grow accustomed to life under its spell we can start to fear who we are without it. It becomes a way of protecting ourselves not only from the world, but from ourselves. One of the keys to healing the addictions we all live with is to allow ourselves to be OK with who we are – and to allow ourselves to be worked on by ourselves and others (and God) in a loving way that affirms us yet calls us on. At its heart, addiction to anything is about idolatry. We are dependent on something (or someone) flawed, that damages us in some way – rather than the God who works for our good in all things. Idolatry is putting something else where God should be in our lives.
What about me, then? Now I’ve got Arsenal more or less in its place (most of the time), what are my idols? For me – and I think for many of us in what is loosely, and rather self-importantly titled ‘full time (paid) ministry’ – I think it’s that last word. This doesn’t happen as an instantaneous decision; it’s not as if we make a model of our ministry out of melted down gold; it’s more subtle than that. As I’ve touched on before, evidence of ministry’s idolatrous place in our lives may be slipping out in the form of our over-the-top reaction to criticism or our extreme defensiveness or obsessive controlling. The ministry could be anything, really: (ordained) church leadership, youth work, speaking for justice, writing, preaching, church music (of any era) … The list could go on for a long time. We fall prey to the heresy that God needs us, that our ministry is in some way essential to Him; when in fact it’s a gift of grace which He longs for us to have as part of life in all its fulness, part of our grateful worship back to Him.
Defensiveness is a tricky part of this. I know what it’s like to be publicly accused of something that has no basis in fact. It’s hard to defend the accusation whilst not thinking ‘God needs me here, so I’d best defend this with everything I’ve got’. God doesn’t need me; He wants me. It’s hard to accept the reality that God knows what’s real when people are spreading (and worse, believing) untruths about you. If I react well in those situations, then I’ll confront what’s wrong and do what I need to do to deal with the situation – but I’ll be doing so in such a way that I’m not pretending God’s life depends on it. The Gospel has been around long enough, and God has coped with enough false accusations (against Jesus, for starters), to prove that in the long term His mission of love for the world will not be deflected if a few people believe the wrong thing about me.
How do I know the difference? The truth is that I often won’t; and that our motives and deeds are rarely so easily defined as all-good or all-bad. For me, part of it relates to words spoken over me – words meant with love. When I was waiting to hear if I’d been recommended for ordination in the Church of England my mother (for whom it was a dream to have a son ordained – because she never was ordained herself) said to me ‘I don’t know what you’ll do with yourself if you don’t get accepted’. That was over 20 years ago, and still it haunts me long after my mother’s death. My therapist and I have revisited it more than a few times. In darker moments, I still ask myself: if I lose all this, if it gets taken away from me because of the action of another or my deteriorating health … what will I do? What am I any good for? Then the defensiveness comes; then my God-given calling to ordained ministry has slipped into the place God should assume in my life. I’m holding on to my Isaac, rather than than the one who feely gave me Isaac in the first place.
God, this is a hard one. Another layer of the ‘God doesn’t need me, but He does want me’ dilemma. He can cope without me and you, but chooses not to. He doesn’t define me or you by our ministries or our gifts or our callings or our families or our relationships or our writings or our talks or our worship sets or organ voluntaries or coffee-making or speaking up for those who have no voice or financial responsibility or giving or … All of these matter; all of them we are invited to; commanded to do, perhaps (though maybe it’s less of a command than we often like to make it sound). God defines me and you first, and only, by our status as His children. The rest of it comes from that – and leads us, and in God’s grace others, back to that basic truth. We are children of a perfect father. If our ministries were for some reason taken from us overnight, God would still be our Father and Mother, perfect in all His ways and endless in Her love.
A fresh realisation of this for me came with our fostering (and planned adoption) of the children who have now been in our care for more than two and a half years. We started fostering, and planned to adopt, not because we need to have children; we didn’t. We simply felt it was what God was inviting us to. I didn’t need children in my life. But I find now that I do want them there; I rejoice in them, I thank God for them, they drive me to prayer and worship like little else I have ever encountered. It would be easy for them to become idols. I am invited to remember that as we have done for them, at some cost, God has done for me at immeasurable cost so that I could be adopted by Him. When that understanding is in its right place, all else flows as it should.