Note: Over the next few weeks I will be posting the manuscripts from a series I am preaching titled “Uncovering Idols.”
Last week Laura and left for Nashville, Tennessee late afternoon for a conference that was beginning the next day. It was about dinner time so we stopped in a small town in Western North Carolina named Canton. We began to notice a strange stench; to us it was a horrible smell- a smell we could not get away from (in other words it wasn’t inside coming from insider the car)
For those of you who know the area, Canton is the home of Blue Ridge Paper Products- a paper mill, and paper mills smell. Anyway, we ate and as we got back on the highway I began thinking to myself. “I wonder of the people of Canton are even aware of that smell? They live and breathe that air. I tell you this story becuase in many ways this is the way idolatry functions in our culture. It’s the air we breath.
An Important Distinction in Idols: The Overt and Covert
For most people, the subject of idolatry conjures up pictures of a “primitive people bowing down before statures.” We would be pretty safe to say that when most people think of “idols” they picture literal statues- which is what we might call “overt idolatry.” An example of overt idols would be “the golden calf” that the people of Israel worshiped in Exodus 32. It was a literal statue, an “overt idol.” Even today, there are people across our world who worship “overt” idols- consider Hinduisms many god’s.
Tonight we are going to focus on a different type of idolatry, one that runs rampant in our culture, a type of idolatry that may be the most dangerous because it is so elusive, so obscure, so concealed, so “covert.” See, our idols are not the “overt” idols seen in Hindu temples, but the covert idolatry of the human heart. Actually, I would argue that it’s better to understand idolatry as a posture of the heart, rather than a religious practice. Therefore idolatry is not constrained to false religions; an idol can be anything, literally.
The human heart has a powerful way of taking anything and turning it into the ultimate thing. We have this uncanny ability to take anything that gives us significance, security, comfort, safety, and fulfillment, and place it as the center of our lives. “An idol is anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
How Does Meteorology reveal idolatry?
Some of you are still trying to figure out the point of my title for this post. What does meteorology have to do with idolatry? Nothing in and of itself; but meteorology (weather reports and forecasts) reveal something that we as a people value, something we are concerned about. See, the weather report and forecast are permanent fixtures in the news. They are very practical and convenient as a reference point for “future planning.”
Let me clarify something, we are not exploring the scientific discipline of meteorology, we are examining meteorology as “cultural phenomenon.” In other words, “what does our cultures [reliance, maybe even] fascination with weather reports [and forecasts] say about who we are and what concerns us?”
I thought it would be interesting to test this concept with an actual meteorologist. I had the privilege of interviewing WXII’s meteorologist Austin Caviness this past week, we talked a few minutes about “weather reports” and “forecasts.”
See, forecasting is simply, the process of estimation in unknown situations. Austin’s job is really to “prepare people for what lies ahead.” This is not wrong in and of itself. But, he quickly pointed out that “people want to it to be right, they get upset when its not.” That’s the key- how we respond when things don’t go as expected.- What does this reveal about us? I think Austin nailed it when he said; “we want to fill like we can control the things we can’t. It takes us out of our comfort zone when we can’t control our expectations for a situation. It’s a way we protect ourselves.” When our future expectations are not met, how we respond reveals what’s truly in our hearts.
See, on a much deeper level I believe that our concern with the weather reveals a deeper anxiety over the future – here is the reality of our situation;
- Because we cannot fully see the immediate future. We don’t know exactly what will happen in the years, months, weeks, even moments to come. We can estimate.
- But, without being able to fully see all the things ahead, we cannot control certain situations our specific outcomes in our future.
‘Meteorology’ is just one (maybe even trivial) cultural expression of an attempt to find security in the unknowns of the future. Think about insurance (being covered for the future), financial planning (making sure you have your assets alighted for the future), there are 10,000 examples of good things that we do to prepare for the unknown.
When facing the unknown – we can feel somewhat helpless. So we forecast, because the illusion of control helps us “deal with that uncertainty”. Remember, and idol is anything that we find our security, comfort, safety, and fulfillment in other than God, “anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
For many people, the illusion of “future control” can be a very covert idolatrous posture of the heart. If we are not careful our concern over the future can absorb our lives. In fact, we can begin to act as if “control” over the future gives us only what God can- security, comfort, and safety.
“Hold your future with open hands.”
The Attitude and Action of Unbelief revealing the “Idol of Future Control.”
Idolatry deeply affects the way one thinks, behaves, and lives. Idolatry always produces attitudes and actions that reveal what the heart reveres.
A.) Attitude of Unbelief: “The Idol of Future Control” is rooted in Anxious Fearfulness- Matthew 6:34
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
In this passage Jesus is addressing the disciples. He is basically saying, worrying about tomorrow is nonsensical, because today has enough to occupy our attention and it does no good to dwell on the situations of tomorrow (the inevitable, possible, or hypothetical) Honestly, we all worry about many things, but we often get obsessed with the wrong things. Almost any of your worry’s can hijack the controls of your mind. So we need to start by asking “what do I worry about”, but that will get you nothing but a big list.
- I am worried that I won’t get that job, or job promotion.
- I am worried because I won’t have enough saved for retirement.
- I am worried because I have a family history of cancer.
- I am worried because my older child has strayed away from the faith.
- I am worried because I am getting older and don’t know if I’ll ever get married.
- I am worried because we have been trying to have children for 3 years, and it’s not working.
The list goes on and on. While these things are good to identify, we need to learn to pull the roots up on these problems. The deeper and more important question is “why do I worry about these things?” What is it in these things that you are trying to obtain? Worry assumes the possibility of control over the un-controllable. So the attitude of unbelief often leads to actions aimed at “controlling the future.” So the attitude or root of the “Idol of Future Control” is usually anxious fearfulness.
B.) Acting on Unbelief: “The Idol of Future Control” is often revealed in Arrogant Confidence- James 4:13-14
What do I mean by arrogant confidence? I mean the illusion that we know how the future ought to be, therefore we are going to bring it about ourselves. To this mindset we should be reminded of the words of James; (James 4:13-14)
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
In this particular passage James is writing to combat boastful arrogance in his readers. James is not forbidding any type of planning here, or even forbidding concern for the future altogether. But, James is warning from “any type of planning for the future that stems from human arrogance in our ability to determine the course of future events.” Worriers act as if they might be able to control the un-controllable. Central to worry is the illusion that we can control things. “I am going to this town or that”, I am “going to spend a year there” and make much profit.
- If only I could get that job, or job promotion everything would be secure.
- If only I had enough saved for retirement we could be comfortable.
- If only I get my diet and exercise right I can overcome our family history of cancer.
- If only I can get my child rearing techniques right, my other kids wont turn out like my prodigal son.
- If only I can find someone to marry I will be complete.
- If God would give us children, we would be happy.
See, worry assumes the possibility of control over the uncontrollable. Sure you can take preventative measures to set yourself in a better place, but you cannot completely control the future. This is essentially what James is asking here, “how do you finite creatures presume to dictate the course of future events” as if you know better than God almighty. The obvious sin in this approach to this approach is having no regard for God as you plan for the future. And it’s not just that forgetting God is evil (of course it is), it’s not just that this attitude boastful, arrogant, and proud. The greater evil is that when your forget God, you assume God’s place. We were created in the image of God, in other words God built us to reflect him.
But, our sin has distorted us and how we reflect God. In other words, in our sin we even seek to reflect God in sinful ways.- What do I mean?- Let’s work this out a second. When talking about God we describe Him according to his attributes. His attributes being the characteristics or qualities that express His nature. Typically we classify God’s attributes into his moral and non-moral attributes. This is important;
- Moral attributes: The attributes that humans share with God. (Patient, holy, truth, love, etc.)
- Non-moral attributes: The attributes that humans do not share with God. (Self-existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, and sovereign, etc.)
Here is the point: Under the influence of sin, we tend to care less about reflecting God moral attributes (love, patience, holiness), but what we want more than anything else is to reflect him in his non-moral attributes (self-existence, all-knowing, all-powerful) When facing our uncertain, and often scary future; (think about this)
- We would rather be All-knowing, than patient.
- We would rather be All-powerful, than loving…
Sinfully we desire God’s non-moral attributes, because we think “control = comfort and security. (This is an illusion)
Why is this devastating?
“We are but images of God, not the real thing. We are shadows and echoes. So there will always be an emptiness of in the soul that struggles to be satisfied with the resources of self.” Sure, you can take preventative measures to prepare for the future, but ultimately you cannot control the future. This is always revealed when our expectations or desires for future circumstances or outcomes are not obtained. We become angry and confused, because things are not the way we wanted them. You assumed the place of God without considering that God may have other plans. Ultimately you bow down to the idol of future control rather than the only God of the universe who knows eternity in its entirety.
Let me propose to you that “the root of worry/anxiety is unbelief.” Even more so, unbelief is the reason we act in arrogant confidence.
- The Root of Unbelief: Anxious Fearfulness
- The Fruit of Unbelief: Arrogant Confidence
Idolatry is always connected to unbelief. It is turning to anything other than God for a sense of security and comfort because we don’t trust God. Now, since the Idol of Future control is rooted in unbelief, we need to learn to fight for faith. Let’s apply some biblical doctrine as armor for the fight of faith.
Truth to Destroy the “Idol of Future Control”
1. God is in control of all things, therefore we don’t need to control the future.
Often times, “We don’t just want His word that he will be with us; we want Him to show us the end from the beginning, and prove to us that He can be trusted. We want to know what tomorrow will bring instead of being content with simple obedience on the journey.” Let me be clear here. You don’t need to know the future, and most likely God is not going to show you the future. When we obsess about the future we get anxious. Anxiety is simple “living out the future before it get’s here.” This is why James says in 4:
“you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
“If the Lord wills.” This is one of the clearest texts on God sovereignty in the Bible. James is confronting his readers and arguing that we must live our lives believing that all of our plans are subject to the sovereign will of God. God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful and what God wills will be. Period. Trust that, and trust him. We are humbled when looking to the future because we don’t control it; God does. God is our hope, the future is not our hope- therefore we don’t need to control the future, we need to be content with knowing that God is in control. We must repent of our sinful desire to control the future, and walk into the future with our confidence in God, “not because the future is known to us, but because it is known to God.” We trust Him fully.
2. God will supply all of our needs, therefore we should not obsessively worry about the future.
Matthew 6:25-26 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
God provides you with life itself, we He not sustain you, provide for you? Look at the birds, they are more helpless than you…they cannot grow their own food, they cant even make a sandwich, and God provides for them. God knows what we need for life. God knows when we will die, we will die. As long as He wants us to live- will he not provide us with the necessities of life? Plus, worrying and fretting about the future will not “add one single hour to our lives, “and it will certainly not add any happiness or holiness either.”
Listen to Jesus question, “and which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27)
This is almost funny when you process what he is saying. You worry and fret about “how you will continue living”, and it will not add anymore time to your lifespan. Worry is a spiritual issue that must be fought with faith. We must believe that God has mercy for today’s troubles, and no matter what comes tomorrow we will have fresh mercy every morning. I think there is much wisdom in the words of C.S. Lewis on this point. He argues that we should be “living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.” We need to learn how to hold our future with open hands. If we don’t we will continually act like the school girl who got angry at the weather man because he got the forecast wrong.
– “Hold your future with open hands.” –
-  I am indebted to Paul Tripp for making this distinction in his book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (69, 2002).
-  Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xi, 2009.
-  Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xvii, 2009.
-  Kevin Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 20, 2007.
-  Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xvii, 2009.
-  This list is an adapted form of one found in David Powlisons book Seeing with New Eyes (115, 2003).
-  Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, 202, 2000.
-  This insight was drawn by Tim Keller in a sermon based on James 4:13-14 titled “Worry.”
-  John Piper, Future Grace, 94, 1995.
-  D.A. Carson, Matthew, 181, 1984.
-  Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something, 47, 2009.
-  Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something, 56, 2009
-  C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Cross Examination, 266, 1963.