On Idols and Grace

Backpackers

Photo Credit: Garry Knight

This past summer was a summer of voracious reading for me. I reviewed a few of the books that were helpful to me in a VIDEO a couple weeks ago, but there’s another I want to mention as well for a totally different reason. The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll. It’s hardly a new book, but it’s amazing. It singlehandedly helped me lay the foundation for a new theological perspective. Grace is a challenging concept for me. Maybe for you, too.

The lens of grace makes things look different. More colorful. Through this new lens, I’m re-evaluating a lot of theology I’ve been taught over the years. One thing I’ve thought a lot about is idolatry. Idolatry is talked about everywhere these days, have you noticed? We talk about it in church and online in Christian circles. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that we are all ‘idol factories’ who need to be on guard, vigilant to search our hearts for idolatry. I’ve been taught that living in Christian community means that we must be open to allowing others to tell us when they see idols in us, because we are blind to our own sin. While I know that there is some truth to this, living this way was crushing. Being reminded of my sin was a regular part of life and it kept me from serving God in the way I was called. 

Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit God has a lot to do with how we define idolatry in our modern Christian culture. In it, he defines an idol this way: [An idol is] anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. . . . If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.”

I don’t disagree with this definition of idolatry, but I do have a problem with the theology that sometimes follows it. The one that says that knowing our own idolatry, constantly thinking about it, on guard for it and searching for it in our own lives and in the lives of others is somehow more “holy”.  Grace does not live or flourish in that environment. The role of the Holy Spirit is diminished when we are constantly playing a game of spiritual whack-a-mole. Sometimes you’re the mole, and sometimes you’re the whacker. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting to be either.

Idolatry, is essentially the same as law. The intention of the law is to show us that we’ve missed the mark; we’ve failed, we can’t do it on our own no matter how hard we try. Acknowledging idolatry in our lives is the important first step to understanding God’s grace for us, which allows us to extend it to others. The problem lies when we get stuck there. When I am constantly shown my own sin, or it’s held against me by brothers and sisters, it puts the focus on me and takes my eyes off of Jesus. This leads to despair and hopelessness.

After my senior year of high school, I went on a short term mission trip to the Czech Republic. We were gone for 3 weeks and were only allowed a hiking backpack for packing. I did not own a hiking backpack. Buying one would have been a waste of money as I cannot, under any circumstance find enjoyment in the idea hiking in the middle of nowhere to sleep in a tent, far away from bathrooms and other divinely inspired forms of sanitation. So I borrowed one.

The backpack I borrowed was owned by my then-boyfriend/now-husband who DOES like those things, but is a good 12” taller and 80 pounds heavier than me. The backpack was ill-fitting. Too big and too heavy and could fit too much stuff for my small frame. It was funny at first, but the novelty wore off quickly. I came to dread having to walk around with that backpack.

Imagine with me that you are walking through your life while carrying a heavy, ill-fitting backpack full of all of your sin and idols. You’re having some new and exciting experiences with friends, so you don’t notice at first, but gradually you start feeling the pain. After some time, your feet are aching, your shoulders are burning and your back is killing you. You walk slower. You feel like crying, you’re getting desperate and hopeless. You are slowly but surely getting crushed under the weight of this pack.

Suddenly, just as you feel you cannot take one more step, someone offers to carry it for you. In a rush of gratefulness, you unbuckle the straps, lift it off of your weary shoulders and hand it over. Relief floods your body and you suddenly feel like you could run a mile! You look, adoringly at your savior with appreciation for removing that burden from you, and you fall into step beside him. You can stand straighter. You can enjoy the scenery. You start to notice people and take an interest in what they are doing. When you were carrying around that backpack, you didn’t notice. All you could think about was how much pain you were in and how desperate you were to get to your destination. You engage in your culture and in relationships now in ways you couldn’t before. You’re free.

Idolatry, that heavy, soul-crushing backpack is not the be-all, end-all. Grace is the be-all, end-all. Because of His great love for me and the grace He offers, the heavy load of idols and sin I carried around with me has been taken by Jesus. I don’t have to carry it any more. I am light and free. It’s so much easier to be who I am called to be without that heavy sack getting in my way! It’s so much easier to walk side-by-side with Jesus.

Religion however, does not like people with no heavy sacks. Free people make captive people uncomfortable. There is a constant sense of trying to hand those idols back.

“Keep an eye on this idol,” Religion says, “if you aren’t watching it, it might gain control of you!”

“Remember this? This is one of your favorites.”

“Oh, you behaved in this way? It must be because of that idol you have. Let me dig it out and remind you to prove my point.”

But let me tell you something; Jesus has offered to carry my load. I remember how heavy it was. I remember how painful it was to carry that mess around with me. I don’t want it back! Now that it’s out of my hands and off of my back, I do not need to worry about any of that controlling me again. Jesus has the control and I can trust him. If him and I need to talk about something in there, at the right time, we will sit down and he will show it to me. But he does not force me to carry it again because it is no longer mine to carry.

This is grace. Amazing Grace.  Grace makes us aware of the load we are carrying; the sin and the idols and the pain. Grace offers to remove it. Grace allows us to walk in freedom on the path that God lays out for us. When we walk in this freedom, we can more fully engage with those around us. We can offer them freedom instead of adding more weight to their backpacks.

We’ve already got the idols. We feel their weight cutting in to our shoulders every day. It is not some form of holiness to add more weight. Holiness is in the act of encouraging people to relinquish the weight over to Jesus. Holiness is telling people they don’t have to carry it. Holiness is reminding people that they are free.

 

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