In recent years there have been more than a trickle but less than a flood of books on the topic of idolatry. I’ve read books by Tim Keller and Elyse Fitzpatrick. There is a relatively new out by Brad Bigney called Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols (e-book too).
In some ways the subject of idols is under addressed (similar to the subject of the Trinity and Union with Christ). The Bible focuses on the topic a great deal. So I’m thankful for Bigney’s foray into this subject.
He is a pastor and biblical counselor. That shows through in his work. There are enough personal examples and stories (his and other people’s) to flesh it out for us, but not so many that you grow weary. I’m finding there is a fine balance to maintain in this matter.
He identifies the issue in chapter 1:
“To move toward idols is to move away from the gospel and the Savior that the gospel proclaims, so the problem is not peripheral- it is central. … When the gospel loses center stage, your spiritual immune system shuts down, leaving you susceptible to a myriad of spiritual illnesses.”
Because we are sinners, albeit justified sinners, we are still prone to wander. Or drift. We drift toward someone or something that is essentially a Christ-substitute. In other words, towards an idol.
We may see our struggles with sin, but fail to see the idols underneath that struggle. Think of it like addiction. Your addiction often leads to a host of other sins: deceit, sloth, theft, adultery or promiscuity and perhaps even murder. The addiction is driven by something however. If you don’t address that “something” you will just shift addictions. Many AA meetings are filled with people chain-smoking cigarettes and gulping coffee. When we don’t address the idol our sin patterns simply change instead of going away. We think we are more sanctified, but we really aren’t. We continue to be stuck spiritually.
Bigbey is honest. He’s not offering a cure-all. We will struggle with this problem the rest of our earthly lives precisely because, as Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. He also notes that God’s goal is not simply for you to sin less, but to make you like Jesus. Sometimes the process of changing our hearts means struggling with visible sins. He wants a Christ-conformed you, not a haughty person who simply obeys externally. In Jesus’ day they were often called Pharisees.
“Everything outside of Christ is saltwater, and it only leaves you thirstier than you were before.”
How do we see the carnage of idols? Bigney points us to the chaos in our relationships. This is what James does in his letter to the church. We tend to think other people are the problem and that if they will just go away all will be well. While there is an element of truth, we struggle with idols too and contribute to many of our relational conflicts. The conflicts are meant to help us see the idols. They are the visible manifestation of the unseen idol.
Bigney borrows quite a bit from David Powlison and Paul Tripp throughout the book but particularly from this section. That is not a bad thing. It is hard to improve on their work.
Idols also shape our identity. They alter our view of ourselves and the world. They are like fun house mirrors but we think we are seeing clearly and accurately.
“Your idolatry is bigger than just clinging to a few counterfeits. It includes taking on an identity replacement that leads to a sense of losing yourself.”
Bigney continues the diagnostics with a chapter on following the trail, looking at time, money and affections. Idols need to be fed and they consume those three things at an unhealthy rate. He then returns to the topic of chaos. This time it isn’t simply relational chaos but chaos with respect to time or money.
He returns to the heart, again, to warn us against following our hearts. While we are regenerate, and this affects every aspect, we are not fully and perfectly transformed. Therefore you heart can still lie to you and want the wrong things.
“Everybody is following his own heart and making a big, fat mess. Listening to your heart will lead you from one relationship to the next, and one job to the next, and one disaster to the next, with no end in sight. Guide your heart, guard it, but don’t dare follow it.”
Sticking with the heart, he wants to help us see where our hearts are most vulnerable. “Your heart is the compass that points to where you run under pressure.” Each of us has weaknesses. Satan knows them so you better know yours too.
After ten chapters of diagnostics and warnings, he moves into how God works to reorient us. He focuses on the means of grace, as he should. Even here there are warnings. We are to seek Christ in them, not just the doing of them to check them off our list. Our life is found in Christ, not in the reading, worship services etc. They point us to Him and we can find Him there but we too easily settle just for the externals. Daily reading? Check. Prayer time? Check. Weekly worship? Check.
We can do that and still be controlled by idols, particularly the idol of control (the need to be in control of your circumstances). We also need to be in fellowship with Christ’s people. They help us spot our sins and idols if we are in meaningful & biblical community (not simply a country club). Together we seek to submit ourselves to God (as seen in James 4).
Bottom line: … this was a good book. At times I found it inconsistent. There were excellent chapters and some that didn’t have much red ink underlining things. Could be a me thing. The bulk of the book is spent on explaining why they are a problem and how to diagnose them in your life. He did loop around some of those things a few times. I wanted him to develop the means of restoration more thoroughly, particularly union with Christ. Unlike Ed Welch, for instance, he doesn’t talk about the role of the sacraments (though E Free churches and pastors typically don’t focus on the Lord’s Table). So this good book could be better.