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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

Mention the word idol to someone and they are likely to think of the shrines of old or temples in far countries that still house representations of gods to be worshiped. Yet in our own culture the propensity for idols is no less prevalent, though perhaps far more nuanced.

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, Jamie Smith overlays seemingly arcane language of the shrine on a typical American pastime with striking ease. He describes a "site throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week" entered through "one of several grandiose entrees...[that] channels the ritual observance of the pilgrims." As the faithful "wander the labyrinth in contemplation," iconography consistent with other temples draws pilgrims into "chapels devoted to various saints." Here we are greeted by "acolytes" who guide us through the selection of "holy objects" and eventually to an altar where a priest "presides over the consummating transaction." As you've probably guessed by now, the experience of shopping at our local mall described in this way "unveil[s] the character of what presents itself as benign" (pp. 19-23).

Our forefather Abraham required a reorientation in his devotion to a gift God had given him: his son Isaac. Given to Abraham in his old age, Isaac was the promised heir that would make his descendants like the sand on the seashore. Yet this good gift of a son, intended for the fulfillment of God's purposes, began to take up the space in Abraham's devotion that should have been directed toward God alone. Genesis 22:2 describes Isaac as Abraham's son, his precious son whom he loved. It is of this son that God issues the gut-wrenching command to offer him up as a burnt offering.

We can be encouraged to know that Abraham acted in obedience and faith toward God's command. In the process his corrupt love for his son was the thing offered up, and a God-oriented love took its place. The hard reality for us is the realization that perhaps we have been given gifts that have become more "ultimate" than the Giver, to use Tim Keller's definition from Counterfeit Gods. We are given a warning to heed and an example to follow when God gives us good gifts that we might turn toward in worship. But what exactly are these things that we have turned into de facto idols?

The answer varies for each of us, but perhaps in this time of withholding satisfaction of our natural desires for food God will reveal the cravings in us that have grown disproportionate to our desire for Christ. Certainly materialism is rampant in our country, as our mall example illustrates, but perhaps the more pervasive and more "benign" idol, especially in achievement-oriented America, occurs when the worshiper himself is present as both the devotee and the devoted thing.

I am speaking of course of self-worship, or more specifically, worship of our own abilities, accomplishments, and reputation. In the knowledge-economy of our day, it pays to invest much in our abilities. However, for many this pursuit of excellence has turned into more than using the gifts that God has given us for His glory, but rather to provide a sense of control over our own fate. At the same time, we doubt whether faith in God actually helps us to "get ahead" and we're probably right in that sense: this fallen world has a vastly different trajectory than God has for us. Proverbs 27:21 says that much like a crucible reveals the content of silver, the praise we receive from others – and particularly our response to it – tests the posture of our hearts toward what God has given us for His purposes. Do we offer the praise up to God or do we feed the praise of men back into our own idols?

Ultimately the God of the Bible deserves His place as the recipient of our whole-life worship. No matter how hard we try, how great our abilities, how much we prepare, how much we save, we don't know what's around the bend; we actually need a God who can look in the eye the things that threaten our existence. Our idols cannot do that, as much as it might appear that way for a time. Unlike idols, our God is a God of real power. We should fear Him. We should worship Him. This is good news because our fearsome God is for us and not against us. He has shown His love for us in this: He offered His Son, His precious Son whom He loved, so that we might find true worship in Him.

Justin Mills
Ministry Director at Penn