Just before our local government restricted our movements, we got new windows for our home. They had been ordered for weeks, but with the knowledge we had by then of COVID-19, I waited a couple of weeks before cleaning them, just in case one of the installers had the virus. As I wiped them, I noticed how easy the double-paned windows made it to see which dirt was outside and what was inside.
It reminded me that too often we Christians focus on what’s outside. We think that if we can get the culture to clean itself up, that our nation will be blessed. But in fact, God focused on his people’s sins in both the Old and New Testaments. So, I’ve been wondering if God might want to use this pandemic to point out what needs to get clean on our side of things–in my own heart and in our American church culture.
God uses all things to get our attention and grow us more like Jesus, especially when we become deaf to his voice. And yes, American Christians can be deaf to God when his voice conflicts with our personal and cultural idols. (And I know this because God continues to point out my own deafness.)
I’m hearing 2 Chronicles 4:14 quoted a lot these days: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.”
And yet, of the many recent calls for prayer that I’ve heard, the aspect of the repentance of God’s people is absent. If sin is mentioned, it focuses on the sins of those on the outside of the church. And yet the verse clearly says, “If MY people will turn.” Maybe God’s good intention in this virus is to open our ears and move us to repentance.
I recognize that I have a great opportunity right now to give time I could spend enjoying my comfort and privilege to listen well to God’s voice and then grieve over the world’s suffering and my own sins instead.
What is God showing me? He’s pointing out my privilege and the need to have open hands and heart to give to those less fortunate. He’s reminding me that the source of my selfish and un-Christlike thoughts, words and actions is my idolatry. Having recently taught Romans 1, I can’t ignore the truth that trusting in people and institutions instead of him is our core sin. If I want to align my thoughts and actions with God’s, I have to trash those idols.
Tim Keller defines an idol as “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” (Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, xix).
The first part of the definition is often the only one I ever hear. But I personally deal more often with the third part of the definition— trusting an idol instead of God to give me what I want. And most often that idol is self. I trust my judgment, wisdom and ideas.
Keller’s book provides some great questions to help us discover the idols we serve (Keller, xxiv):
- “What do we enjoy imagining? What are our fondest dreams? We look to our idols to love us, to provide us with value and a sense of beauty, significance, and worth.”
- “What do we fear the most? What if we lost it would make life not worth living? We make ‘sacrifices’ to appease and please our gods, who we believe will protect us. We look to our idols to provide us with a sense of confidence and safety.”
- “What makes us uncontrollably angry, anxious, or despondent? What racks us with guilt we can’t shake? Idols control us, since we feel we must have them or life is meaningless.”
Idols are often hard to see, especially when they’re part of our culture, whether it’s the American or church culture. After all, we usually suffer from the same blindness as our friends. (My various circles tend to worship nationalism, security, comfort, sports, certain theological perspectives, people-pleasing, and self.) But to anyone who genuinely wants to see, God will give sight.
It’s amazing how many of our American idols have been lost or proven useless right now: sports, portfolios, jobs, success, medical science, political leaders, busyness, control and national power. Even our children (very common idols) can’t provide us with status and respect when they’re stuck at home instead of excelling at school or in sports or through the arts.
This pandemic is a God-given opportunity to clean out our personal and cultural idols.
Let’s follow Daniel’s lead when he prayed for his people’s restoration to their homeland: “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled . . . . All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. . . . All this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth.” (Read the entire prayer in Daniel 9:1-19.)
Just as Daniel confessed the sins of God’s people, so should we. If we want God to move, let’s look to ourselves as God’s people and repent. Let’s clean inside before trying to clean what’s outside. The only way to permanently remove an idol is to replace it with a greater love, a greater purpose, and a greater power.
Let’s restore God to the throne of our hearts and serve him alone. This is our opportunity.