Idolatry and Ingratitude
This entire sermon series is devoted to exploring the practical tension between a love and a passion for God and our desire and pleasure in the things of earth. We feel the tension in our Christian experience: we want to live lives that glorify God; we desire to have a single-minded pursuit of Christ. And yet we know that we also love earthly things: our family, friends, food, hobbies, and so forth.
Last week I argued from Psalm 19 that God created the world and everything in it to declare his glory. The heavens declare the glory of God. So do the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. All of creation reveals who God is and what he is like, and it does so through a woven web of images and metaphors and pictures and analogies. God has given us our bodily senses in order to gain knowledge of the world, and he has given us minds and hearts in order to grow in the knowledge of the God who reveals himself in it. We taste and see that honey is good as a way of creating categories in our experience so that we can taste and see that the Lord is good. The Bible is the grammar textbook for the language of God in creation, and by immersing ourselves in the Bible, we’re able to rightly hear what God is saying everywhere else. Special revelation (the Bible) guards our interpretation of general revelation (creation). The practical payoff of understanding this relationship is that we don’t suppress our joy in earthly things, but instead we let them soar since they carry our joy in God with them. This week I want to address the obvious question that this biblical paradigm raises: What about idolatry? It’s one thing to believe that God designed the world to communicate his glory to us; but we are broken and we are rebels, so don’t we need to guard against our sinful tendency to worship created things?
Two Approaches to God and His Gifts
I want to address this question by first revisiting the biblical tension that we introduced last week. It is a tension between two kinds of passages in the Bible. On the one hand, we have passages like this:
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4)
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73:25–26)
The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life. (Psalm 63:3)
On the other hand, we have passages like this:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (1 Tim. 6:17)
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Cor. 3:21–23)
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim. 4:4-5)
Only desire God. Receive everything with thanksgiving. Gaze only upon God’s beauty. Enjoy everything God richly provides. That’s the tension.
What I’d like to suggest is that the Bible gives us two complementary ways of viewing the relationship between God and his gifts. These are not opposed to each other; they’re complementary. But they are different. First, we have the comparative approach. We separate God from his gifts in order to determine which is more valuable to us. We put God on one side of the scales, and his gifts on the other side of the scales, and we ask ourselves, “Which one is weightier, more precious, more valuable, more delightful?” And if that’s the question, then the answer is obvious: God is. You hear the comparison in many of the passages I quoted. “There is nothing I desire besides you.” Your love is better than life. Paul clearly gives us a comparative approach in Philippians 3. See if you can hear it.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him... (Phil. 3:7–8)
Do you hear the scales in the passage? Put all of my gain on one side and Christ on the other. I count all of that gain—all of the ethnic heritage, moral virtue, every earthly blessing—all of it is trash and rubbish compared to gaining Christ and being found in him. Knowing Jesus is better than all of the other things apart from Jesus. That’s the comparative approach.
The other approach I call the integrated approach and it’s what I tried to articulate last week. Instead of separating gift from the Giver, we bring them together, enjoying God in everything and everything in God. We receive the gifts as communications from God, pictures and images of God, revelation from God about God. They are the sun beams, and we follow them back to the sun. They are the streams, and we follow them back to the fountain.
Keep that understanding of the two approaches in the back of your mind as we examine the issue of idolatry. To do that, we’re going to look at the fundamental passage on idolatry in the Bible: Romans 1:18-25.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Let’s begin by reiterating what we saw last week. Creation reveals who God is and what he is like. It’s plain as day. It’s clearly seen, because God has shown it to us. God’s invisible attributes—his eternity, his power, his character, and beauty—are evident and obvious in creation. Here’s the claim: Made things make invisible attributes visible. Honey, sunsets, rain storms, day lilies and elm trees—all of these reveal what God is like.
But this isn’t the whole story. Something goes wrong with this communication from God. One way to put it is that we suppress the truth (1:18). We receive the communication and then pretend that we hear nothing. We press it down until we even convince ourselves that we aren’t hearing it, even though it has been sounding ever since the creation of the world. Or, to put it another way, we refuse to honor God as God and give thanks (1:21). These are the two fundamental sins that we commit: idolatry and ingratitude. God is unbelievably, incredibly kind and good to us, lavishing us with good things, big and small. And we do two things: we refuse to acknowledge that he is God, the source of all Truth and Goodness and Beauty, and we refuse to say “thank you” for his many gifts. In our ungodliness and unrighteousness, we don’t want to admit that God is the center and origin of everything, the Joy of every joy, the pleasure at the heart of every pleasure.
Instead, we engage in a series of trades, of dark exchanges. Remember our set of scales from earlier? In this passage, we separate the gifts from the Giver, and we choose the gifts over the Giver. Instead of saying, “thank you,” we turn the gifts into gods. We have the glory of the immortal God, but instead of receiving it in all that God has made, we exchange it for images of the made things. We have the truth about God, but instead of celebrating it, we suppress it and then exchange it for a lie, and we worship and serve things of earth rather than the Maker of heaven and earth.
Idolatry then is the separation of the gifts from the Giver, and then a preference for the gifts over the Giver. We separate, and then we elevate. We exalt created things, including ourselves, above God. God’s gifts ought to be avenues for enjoying him, beams that we follow back to the sun. Instead, we make them into his rivals, rejecting him in favor of them.
This is one of the reasons those comparative passages are in the Bible. We are prone to wander, even as Christians. We are prone to forget the Giver and fixate solely on the gift. And so God gives us comparative passages to test our enjoyment of the things of earth. We are meant to live integrated lives, enjoying God in everything and everything in God. But because we are sinners, because the impulse to suppress the truth and exchange the glory still lurks in our hearts, God graciously tests our affections for him. God gives us the temporary separation of comparative passages and invites us to pray them and sing them and celebrate them, so that we avoid the permanent and suicidal separation of idolatry and ingratitude.
Let me summarize and then move to some application. God did make the world to reveal himself to us—his invisible attributes, eternal power, divine nature, and immortal glory. That is the fundamental reason why everything exists. The gifts of God are meant to lead us to God. But in our sinfulness, we suppress what we know about God, and we refuse to honor him and give thanks. We are idolatrous and ungrateful. And so we’re given comparative passages as a way of checking ourselves for this idolatry, so that we place God as the supreme object of our desire and the supreme model for our desires. We love him supremely and fully and expansively.
One of the fundamental ways that Romans 1 admonishes me is by giving me a clearer view of myself. And I don’t just mean in terms of my tendency to exchange God’s glory for images. I mean that it helps me to be a more faithful Christian. Follow this basic logic.
- Made things make invisible attributes visible.
- You are a made thing.
- Therefore, you make invisible attributes visible.
You are a word from God. God means something through you. You are communication from God about God, just like the heavens. Your conduct, your life is itself a kind of divine speech. It is revelation from God, designed by him to show the world what he is like. Here’s how this challenges me. Will I tell the truth about God or will I lie? Will God teach others about himself through me by way of comparison or contrast? Everyone is going to glorify God, one way or another. Either he will point at us and say, “I am something like that. That, even with all of the flaws, is a little mini picture of what I’m like.” Or, he will point at us and say, “That’s the opposite of what I’m like. I’m not that kind of husband. I’m not the kind of father. I’m not that kind of friend.”
This is the fundamental Choice that confronts us daily. Will we show the world what God is like, in all our words and all our deeds? When you leave for work and when you come home for work. When you make dinner or clean up after dinner. When you have a fussy child or a frustrated spouse or a hurting friend. You are a made thing, and you were made to make invisible realities visible to the world. As a husband, and a father, as a wife and a mother, as a child, as a friend, as a pastor, you—your life, your speech, your conduct—ought to be a display of triune glory and an invitation to triune glory. You ought to be a testimony to grace, and an invitation to grace. Your aim should be to be a walking, talking, living, breathing gospel proclamation.
Note on General and Special Revelation
When I say that you are a word from God, and that therefore, in your actions, demeanor, attitude, and conduct, you ought to be proclaiming the gospel, I don’t mean that you, as general revelation, are sufficient to save people. In other words, your smile to your children, your kindness to your co-worker, your patience with your friends, as a display of glory and an invitation to glory, in itself will not save them. Actual, verbal proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners is essential for salvation. What I’m saying is that God’s goal is that you, your life, your attitude, your conduct, your patterns of speech, would make the gospel more meaningful and comprehensible to others. That it would create categories in their hearts and minds that would light up when the grace of God lands in the verbal proclamation of the truth. This is the way that all revelation in creation works. It declares God’s glory, it reveals his beauty and attributes, it even, I think, gives us images and pictures of the gospel, but in itself it is not the means of the new birth and conversion. Only the verbally proclaimed gospel is.
Having seen ten frigid Minnesota winters, I know that Spring is coming. It’s around the corner. And I know that God is preaching a resurrection sermon with every trip around the sun. I see the sun die every single day, and come flying out of the grave every morning, triumphantly dancing across the sky like a groom on his wedding day. It’s general revelation that preaches to me because I know the preached gospel. That’s what your life ought to be.
You are a made thing that makes things. For the most part, I’ve been highlighting the fact that creation declares the glory of God—the heavens and the honey, the sunsets and the sweet tea. But what about culture? What about the things that we make? (I mean “culture” in the broadest sense; my simple definition is Creation + Man’s Creative Effort = Culture). Do they reveal the glory of God? They do. This is worth a sermon in itself; it’s a chapter in the book, but I only have time for one passage. It’s Psalm 84:10-11, which I mentioned last week.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
otice the comparative approach in v. 10 (“better than”). Notice how we can reveal God by comparison or contrast (doorkeeper vs. the wicked tents). Finally, notice both creation and culture. God is a sun and shield. God made the sun. We made the shield. Both declare his glory. That’s true of everything we do. It’s why Paul tell us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all of your heart, as working for God, not man.” Whether you’re working at Target to make sure the Cheerios end up on the shelves so people can eat, or managing a risk pool for a health insurer, or changing diapers and making a house into a home, or fixing bicycles so that people can ride to feel God’s pleasure, or playing music and telling stories in order to move people, or investing in students so that they grow in mind and body, in knowledge and virtue, or taking photographs to capture moments of beauty for people to enjoy, or helping people buy a home or fixing a chimney or repairing the plumbing, or caring for the sick and injured. In all of these, we are made things that make things, and our aim in them must be to take the work of our hands and offer it to God and say, “Establish this as a picture of who you are and what you’re like.”
You are a made thing that needs anchor points. Last week, I noted that, because God is everywhere and reveals himself everywhere, therefore we are always in his courts. We are always in his Presence. And that’s true. So what’s the point of corporate worship and personal devotions? These are anchor points. Corporate worship anchors our week; personal devotions anchor our day. As I said a few weeks ago when we were in Colossians 3, they are times of Direct Godwardness, when we set our minds on things above. Now we can fill the picture out a bit more. One reason we set aside times of direct Godwardness is because of the danger of idolatry, because the gifts of God are so powerful and delightful and our hearts are so prone to wander and forget. And so we anchor ourselves in the Giver. We take the comparative tests and sing that Jesus is better, that his love is better than life, that his joy is more than the greatest celebration. We confess here together that Christ is all that we want and all that we have. And then we plunge back into our lives, our callings, his gifts, alive and alert to him in all the places that he reveals himself.
A visual analogy can help to clarify. When it comes to seeing with my physical eyes, I find that I can really intensely focus on only one thing at once. While there may be a lot within my field of vision, my eyes truly focus only on one thing. My eyes may move around frequently and rapidly— from this person to that person, from the podium to the clock—but I’m always looking at essentially one thing at a time. What’s more, while I can see a lot of what’s in front of me because of the quickness of my eyes and the reality of peripheral vision, the one thing I can’t see is what’s behind me.
Applying these principles of physical vision to mental and spiritual vision, we might say that we can mentally and intentionally focus on one thing at a time, even as we dart our mind’s eye around our mental sky. My spiritual eyes can focus specifically on the triune God (direct godwardness) and they can gaze around at everything else in front of me (indirect godwardness). The goal, however, is that God always remain in front of me. Indeed, the goal is that he’s always close to the center of my vision. Even when he’s not the direct object of my attention, he’s right there; he’s present and I never turn my back to him.
The analogy is imperfect; it implies too much distance between God and his gifts. But it gives us some idea of what it means to be anchored as we go through our day. Let me close by reading a poem from George Herbert and making a few comments on it.
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.
(Here is Colossians 3:17 and 1 Corinthians 10:31. We want to see God in everything, and do everything for him.)
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
(What does it mean to do something “for God / as for Thee”? It means to do it intentionally, not like a beast. It means to prepossess him, to set our minds on him, and anchor ourselves in him, so that when we act and live, our actions and life have his perfection.)
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
(Here is another picture of creation revealing God. Creation is a window. You can look at a window, but if you only look at the window, if you stop with the window, you don’t know what windows are for. Windows are for looking through, to the heavens, to the God who shows himself through creation.)
All may of Thee partake;
Nothing can be so mean
Which with this tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
(There is no task or gift so low that the phrase “for Thy sake” cannot make it grow strangely bright.)
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
(A servant, a cashier, an employee, a homemaker, a teacher—no matter your vocation, doing it in his strength, for his sake, anchored in his love, alive to his presence, turns the simplest drudgery divine).
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
(God has the Midas touch. When he owns you and puts his hand on every thing of earth in your life, every pleasure becomes a tiny theophany, every task becomes a golden opportunity. Anchored in him)
So when it comes to God and his gifts, there are only two ways to go. Either we’ll separate the gifts from the Giver and commit idolatry, or we’ll love the Giver above all, and love all of his gifts in him. But what makes the difference? Jesus. Jesus makes the difference. His life, death, and resurrection deliver us from our idolatry and our ingratitude. And that’s what we celebrate at this table. Here God works his Midas touch. When we believe the gospel at this table, when we trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to us, God turns this simple bread and wine into a means of his all-conquering grace.