For my Sabbath reading yesterday, I read Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
His premise was what I heard several times in Redeemer: that those who base their happiness on anything other than God and God’s love in Jesus Christ (e.g., money, sex, power, relationships, approval from others, etc.) are practicing idolatry and are setting themselves up for disappointment, if not despair. The reason for this is not only that these things cannot satisfy us, but also that they’re unreliable: there are so many factors beyond our control, as the recent financial catastrophe indicates.
As I read the early pages of the book, I thought it was the “same old, same old” that I’d heard hundreds of times at Redeemer and other evangelical outlets. But I soon found myself enjoying the book. Part of it was because Tim Keller is so well-read, so I’m able to get a crash course on (say) Reinhold Niebuhr by reading Tim Keller. I also enjoyed his references to current events, movies, and books: he convincingly shows that many people set themselves up for a fall when they root their happiness in something other than God. Bernie Madoff, for instance, said that he did his ponzi scheme out of pride, in an attempt to save face and cover up his financial failure: he was rooting his identity in something other than God (his reputation), with disastrous results. And even Tim Keller’s biblical references show the danger of idolatry: Jacob rooted his sense of worth in having a hot wife (Rachel), with the result that he neglected his not-so-attractive wife (Leah) and her children. This led to them selling Joseph into Egypt, etc.
I also appreciated Tim Keller’s political critique, for it’s about where I am right now politically. I am so sick of conservative evangelicals who act like God is a Republican. I’ve seen some of them say to Christians with liberal politics, “Do you really know the LORD?”, as if being a true Christian entails embracing a narrow right-wing political ideology. But Tim Keller takes on the current polarization in America’s political discourse, attributing that to idolatry. He says that both the left and the right can learn from one another, for there are positives and negatives in their perspectives. Socialism, for instance, tends to penalize the successful through high taxes, but the lack of it can restrict education and quality health care to a privileged few. Tim Keller also criticizes the current hatred for Barack Obama, quoting his eighty-four-year-old mother: “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” The same can apply to the left’s hatred of George W. Bush. If God has a standard, then I hope it’s above political partisanship, with its “us vs. them” mentality.
Tim Keller also says that idolatry can exist in religious communities, as they idolize having correct doctrine over accepting the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ. I like the fact that Tim Keller is an evangelical—one who emphasizes God’s love and grace through Jesus Christ, as well as the importance of Christians serving others—and yet he’s not bound to the aspects of conservative Christianity that turn me and many others off (e.g., spiritual pride, focusing on who’s in and who’s out, commitment to the G.O.P. as if it’s God’s political party on earth, a belief that the United States is God’s country and can do no wrong, etc.).
Keller says that the cure for idolatry is explained in Colossians 3:1-5, which actually calls greed “idolatry”: we set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. This includes rejoicing in God’s grace to us through Christ, worship, prayer, and meditation. I pray every day, but I still have problems: I am afraid of people’s disapproval, I’m shy, etc. I’ve often felt guilty about rejoicing in God and believing in his love for me because I have such problems—and there are plenty of Christians who act like I’m not truly one of them because I don’t reach out to people all that well. “Lordship salvation” advocates assume that those who don’t “follow Christ” (e.g., reach out to others in love) cannot claim to be recipients of God’s grace. Perhaps I should tell them to “shut up” in my mind and celebrate God’s love for me, regardless of what they think. That may be the path to producing spiritual fruit, as opposed to trying to pull myself up by my spiritual boot-straps through obedience to rules.
There were a few problems that I had with Keller’s book. First of all, he acts like idolatry is a sin that Christians cannot totally eradicate within themselves; rather, they keep on drilling for reliable bedrock, although they’ll never really reach it in this life (176). This makes some sense, for everyone—Christian and non-Christian—is an idolater on some level, for who does not rest his or her happiness on something other than God? It’s easier to root our sense of worth in things we can see, as opposed to a being whom we cannot see! But the Bible on a few occasions says that idolaters will not enter the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:20; Revelation 21:8). I think that Tim Keller does well to point out the biblical passages in which idolatry is more than bowing down to statues, but encompasses relying on one’s own strength for security and self-worth (Habakkuk 1:11, 16), or Israel seeking protection from nations rather than from God (Jeremiah 2-3; Ezekiel 16), or Saul’s arrogant disobedience to the LORD (I Samuel 15:23). But, if this is idolatry, then who among us is not an idolater, on the path to hell-fire? I’d like to believe in Tim Keller’s God of grace—a God who recognizes that we all have weaknesses, loves us anyway, and tries to pull us away from those weaknesses through his love and grace. But I wonder if that picture is consistent with certain passages of the Bible, which warn that people (Christians included) can end up in hell for their weaknesses.
Second, I was glad that Tim Keller didn’t harp on idolatry being what he and others have defined it as: as believing in a “God” who is not the God of the Bible, but is the product of one’s own imagination, or of picking and choosing from elements of the Bible. He does make that sort of comment in an endnote, though (200-201). Whenever one chooses not to believe in a God who burns people forever and ever in hell, or who commands mass genocide, there are Christians who are quick to tell that person, “Well, you’re picking and choosing from the Bible, so you’re fashioning your own God and are thus an idolater.” Tim Keller said in a few sermons that worshipping a God that you’ve made up cannot offer you comfort or security (though, to be fair, he doesn’t really define hell as a fire, but rather as spiritual separation from God, which people choose for themselves).
Personally, I agree that I should see God as a God of justice and of mercy, rather than believing in God’s love while ignoring the wrath aspect of God’s character. But I don’t think that means I have to view God as an ogre, or that I must think, “Well, my picture of God is too loving right now! I’d better focus on some wrath passages!” All of us have a picture of God that is not totally like the real thing, so, if having an incorrect picture of God is idolatry, then all of us are idolaters! It’s that simple. And we’re all making up our own picture of God, for how much wrath and mercy we attribute to him is our judgment call. To those who think that “making up” a loving picture of God is idolatry and cannot work for people, look, it works for people in AA all of the time, so who’s to say it doesn’t work?
And why does justice have to mean sinners experiencing a hopeless eternity in hell? God is just when he disciplines and chastises sinners to encourage them to repent, for God is not giving them a free ride in that case, but is upholding a righteous standard. One more thing: the Bible itself gives me permission to prioritize God’s love and mercy over his wrath in my conception of him (Psalm 30:5; James 2:13). So maybe those who have a problem with that are the ones who are disregarding the Bible.
Third, Tim Keller says that the successful should see their success as a gift from God rather than being proud, and that’s true, for our talents and our opportunities are things that we’ve received (I Corinthians 4:7). I like this because it shows how Christianity is so different from the Republican “you make your own luck” concept. As Tim Keller notes, a person in a poor foreign country cannot be whatever he wants to be, for his opportunities are limited. But I wonder why God allows things to be that way. And how can I trust in a God who doesn’t appear to bless or take care of everybody? I wish that Tim Keller had wrestled with these questions, at least in an end-note.