Idols in the Heart

Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the LORD will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols” (Ezekiel 14:1-5).

As we reach the end of yet another year, it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months. At the beginning of the year, many were talking about “20/20 vision,” and developing a vision for the year. Being an election year in America, many found hope in both major candidates and proclaimed that they were the hope of America. Then COVID-19 hit. Masks. Lockdowns. Isolation. While the year started out with great promise to many, the year has seen America more divided than ever–and the church fares little better.

Don’t worry, though, this is not a post about politics–except to say this: Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden are the hope of America (or any other country). 

No, this is a post about what the church has learned (or rather still needs to learn) from this year. There have been some things exposed that need to be dealt with in the church, if she is to reclaim her biblical identity and mission.

Idolatry in the Heart

What is the root cause of such nasty division? How could the church, bought with the very blood of Christ turn in on itself in such dramatic fashion to make many believers ashamed? This goes beyond political stances or even disagreements on non-fundamental theological issues. The root cause of this is idolatry. “Idolatry? Here in America?” Certainly. We tend to think of idols in terms of tangible things. A statue. A crucifix. Something to take to a priest to be blessed. 

The truth is, however, that idolatry is firstly a condition of the heart. Notice what the Lord said to Ezekiel in this passage: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces” (v. 3, emphasis added). The elders that came to the prophet had idols in their hearts. They were not openly worshipping false gods or images. They were outwardly following the rules. Yet, the Lord pinpointed the real truth, that their hearts were full of idolatry.

How does one have an idol in the heart? When one worships, serves, and/or gives primacy of place to the idol. What kind of idols are we talking about? Anything and anyone can become an idol. Money is an obvious one, so is power, fame, etc. There is, however, one big idol that the western church has not only overlooked but has embraced in large measures: the idol of Christian Americanism.

What is that? What does that mean? The idol of Christian Americanism says that to be an American Christian you must think, vote, and act a certain way. It holds aloft the ideals of democracy, freedom, and individualism, proclaiming them as gospel truths–and indeed almost synonymous with the gospel. At the base of this idol is the foundational idea of “my rights.” Americans have rights. Humans have rights. 

What’s wrong with those things? Aren’t they good? In a way, they are very good. All should be treated as equal and treated as image-bearers of God. Yet, the concepts of democratic individualism and “rights” have done more damage to the church than most of the heresies throughout her history.

While we are individuals and the gospel celebrates our uniqueness, we are joined to others in the Body of Christ. Democratic individualism undermines the corporate identity of the church.

While we are never to place another person above (or alongside) God, we are called to give up our rights in favor of the benefit of others.

The idol of Christian Americanism is not much different than the lie of the serpent to Eve: You can do it your own way. You can be your own god. That is admittedly a strong statement. Yet, what else are we to say when believers turn on each other as they have? What else are we to say when a believer judges another’s salvation based on political stances? What else are we to say when a believer flippantly regards proper directives from authority, simply because he or she disagrees with them–or worse yet because he or she refuses to recognize said authority?

Over the past weeks on social media I have witnessed:

  • believers calling for civil war in the wake of the election
  • believers refusing to recognize the President-elect, saying “he’s not and won’t be my President”
  • believers refusing to follow mask mandates in the midst of the COVID crisis because “it’s illogical and doesn’t make sense”
  • believers saying or implying that if one votes for a particular candidate, he or she must not be a Christian (both sides are guilty of this)
  • believers making fun of, mocking, or implying that those who wear masks are silly, babies, walking in fear, or worse yet, duped by the government (and perhaps traitors).

The Stumbling Block of Iniquity

Notice what verse 3 also says about the idols of the heart. The one who has an idol in his heart has set a stumbling block before himself. He will trip and fall because of his own idolatry. And he will fall into iniquity. One cannot avoid falling into sin when they are being led by idols. It’s impossible. In the passage, the Lord says, “Should I let myself be inquired at all by them?” The tone of the question is, “Why would they even think that I’d listen to them when they try to inquire of me while their heart is full of idolatry?” This happened in Israel and it is certainly happening today. Many who profess Christ have set up such idols in their heart. What does the Lord say about that one who does inquire of the Lord with those idols?

I the LORD will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols (vv. 4-5).

There are several things we need to understand and heed in this passage:

  • Idolatry in the heart estranges one from the Lord. Notice the Lord mentions “the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.” Like Israel, a believer can become estranged from the Lord through idols of the heart. He has set his idols up in his heart as god.
  • The Lord will answer the idolatrous one “according to the multitude of his idols” (NKJV). He will give the idolatrous one over to his idols. This is similar to the language of Romans 1 where the Gentiles are said to be given over to their idols and the lies that they have believed. What does that mean? It means the idolatrous one will become more and more set in idolatry.
  • The Lord does this because He wants the whole heart. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel.” The NET says “in order [that I may] capture the hearts.” How does this work? As with all sin, in order to truly repent of it, one must come to the end of self. The Lord gives over the idolater to the iniquity of his idols so that he may eventually see the emptiness of those idols. That is not a pleasant journey. Solomon took a similar journey, and he said, “Vanity! All is vanity!” 

A Call to Repent

What must the church do? The answer to idolatry is always repentance. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to identify and expose the idols of the heart so that we may repent of and forsake them. We must distance ourselves from the idol of Christian Americanism.To do that we must remember:

  • we are first and foremost citizens of heaven and that we are aliens and strangers here
  • this world–let alone this country–is not our home
  • we are citizens of a kingdom–with a King; though he does not physically reign yet, his rules still apply to his subject
  • we are called to look out for others first; if wearing a mask is to the advantage of another then we should lay down any supposed rights and do so

Above all we must repent and repair the breaches within the church. We must go to brothers and sisters that we have hurt through our idolatry. And we must be willing for the Lord to show us those people. For those of us who have been hurt, we must find the grace to forgive.

Let 2020 pass away. Let 2021 mark a new beginning, where the Bride of Christ reclaims her identity.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me,
    the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
    the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43:19-21


Christmas: God Enters Our Battle

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). 

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will, but yours be done. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:41-44). 

We know all about Christmas, right? The birth of Jesus. The light in the darkness. The light of the world. Giving gifts. Decorating. Family. The time when so many people feel so alone.

Wait, what?

Yes. There are multitudes of people who feel empty and alone during this time of the year. And it’s only getting worse. The year 2020 has been one of the hardest–if not the hardest–years on record for mental health issues. The feeling of isolation coupled with the changing of everything. People can’t even do Christmas as they used to. Those feelings of emptiness and loneliness are not “just” emptiness and loneliness, though.

They are indicators of a battle for the soul.

“A battle you say? At Christmas?” Yes, a battle. When Jesus was born that dark night in Bethlehem, it was not only God putting a candle into the darkened world. It was also God entering our battles with us. Look at the encounter Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was fighting two battles. First, the submission of his will to the Father. And for his humanity, it was a battle. Jesus knew what he would face. He would face the eternal wrath of the Father–when he had done nothing to deserve it. He would watch the Father’s face turn away from him. Though he was God-incarnate, the humanity of Jesus showed through in that battle.

The second battle was for us. It was the beginning of the end of the real battle for our souls. He had lived his life perfectly. He had endured temptation, rejection, loneliness, mocking, scorning, attempted murder, and more. And soon he would endure betrayal. Yet, he endured those things without flinching, without turning away from us. He endured those things so that he can tell the lonely and brokenhearted, 

Not only am I with you, not only will I never leave you, but I am fighting with you. In fact I’ve already fought the battle. And I won. Take my hand and walk with me.

Why would he go to such great lengths? Why would he not only die to forgive our sins but willingly enter our battles with us? Because we are worth it to him. It’s true we could never be “worthy” of his love. We could never earn it. But we are worth it.

You are worth it. No matter where you find yourself, no matter where you have come from. No matter how broken you are. There is no sorrow, no pain, no brokenness that he cannot heal. 

Sometimes we just want someone to sit with us in the midst of our brokenness. Jesus does that. But he does more. He takes our burdens unto himself. He enters the battle with us. This Christmas, when you feel alone. When you feel that ache of emptiness in your heart though people are all around you, remember the One who entered your battle so that he could fill the hole in your heart.

On Waiting

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! (Psalms 37:5-7) 

As of today, there are ten days until Christmas. Advent is half over. Soon our waiting will turn to reality. During this season, I was recently asked, “What’s the point of waiting?” It was a good, fair, and honest question. Let’s face it. Waiting is hard, especially when we believe we know what the will of the Lord for us is. But, waiting does some really practical things for us.  

First, waiting helps us prove where our heart is and what the Lord’s will for our lives is. When we think we know what the Lord’s will is, especially if we feel He spoke to us about the matter, there is a tendency to jump into it immediately. But, when we wait patiently and don’t try to push it, the truth of what we believe becomes evident. The key to seeing the reality is what I said: we don’t try to push it. We don’t try to take things in our own hands, we follow the Lord and continue moving forward, step by step as the Lord directs. Then, if what we have believed to be His will truly is, suddenly we will find ourselves where we felt the Lord taking us.

Let’s consider a few examples. When Mary was given the news that had been chosen to birth Christ, she waited. She asked some questions, but she didn’t come up with a plan herself. She simply responded step by step. And then there’s David. He gets anointed by Samuel to be King of Israel. Think about it. “I’m gonna be KING one day?!??” Did he run and seize the throne? No. He went back to work for his father and it took many years, even time spent in service to the very king he would replace (Saul), before that “knowing” became substance. There are so many other examples, such as Abraham, Moses, and Rahab

Second, waiting also helps us be prepared for the time or event for which we wait. When a woman becomes pregnant, that pregnancy can’t be rushed. Both she and the baby have to be prepared, so they will be healthy, and so she can learn to be the person she needs to be. When two people enter a relationship, they enter a period of not only learning about each other but also preparing to be the person the other needs. Even if the two people have a word from the Lord, they still need to be in that season of waiting. To rush ahead is to build, at best, an incomplete foundation for what lay ahead. In David’s case, his waiting period was used by God to develop the maturity and trust he would need in the Lord as King of Israel.  

Finally, waiting helps us prize and appreciate the fulfillment of that for which we have been waiting. When we rush into things with an unsure foundation and with a lack of maturity, we may have some joy and happiness. That, however, will not last because we don’t have the long-term maturity needed—which only comes from waiting. Waiting is like the refiner’s fire and the potter’s kiln. It is often unpleasant. But if what we are waiting for is of God, it will be more than worth the wait.  

Many choose not to wait, hoping to avoid the often-painful period of waiting. That is understandable. Pain, however, is a part of this thing we call life. That is unfortunately true, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. It’s not a cynical view, it’s just a realistic view. So, the question becomes how we will deal with that pain when it comes. Will we try to deal with it ourselves and push it down, seeking something else to fill the void, or will we turn to the Lord and allow Him to heal us and teach us and learn to walk in true joy–the kind of joy that is only found by going through such pain?  That’s the question, really. 

Do not fear the waiting. Rather, fear the consequences of not waiting.