“When there is nothing to do, when there are no phone calls to return, when nobody is watching or expecting anything from me, what do I do? When there is nothing to think about, what do I think about? When my mind is free to wander, where does it go? Where do my mind and heart go habitually?”
I ask myself these questions once a year, conducting a kind of “soul audit.”
At first this practice of “thinking about my thinking” seemed daunting, then interesting, then revealing. People who do this realise that every heart has its ultimate delight. Although most of our thoughts seem quite fragmented, behind them all is something that holds each person together, something that centres us, something that drives us and comforts us.
In the language of the Bible, everyone —whether religious or not—“worships.” Everyone “gives ultimate worth” to something or someone. But what is it?
Suppose you have a spouse, who loves you and whom you love. And suppose you have children who love you and respect you. And at your workplace, your peers look up to you and support you. And you might believe in a sports team, or in a political party, or in an idea or a cause.
Now, which one is on the palate of your heart? Which one is your ultimate joy? Which one of these sustains you and gives your life worth and significance? Like a piece of good chocolate that electrifies us when placed on our tongues, there is something that gives sweetness to our lives when we place it on the palate of our hearts.
In the Hebrew Bible one can read about nations, tribes, families and individuals having something in which to trust. Often, their trust was placed in statuettes made of wood, stone or clay that embodied all that is safe, certain, and life-giving. We call them idols.
Today, life has no less mystery and uncertainty. And although we don’t have statuettes to centre our lives, we too have idols. Whenever we rest our souls on our work, our possessions, our spouse, our family background, a cause, our looks, our wits, our education, a political party or our nation, we are resting our souls on a non-god.
Paul, the biblical writer, explained the tragedy of a life lived for a non-god. Whenever we worship a non-god, we worship an idol, and one of two things happen. First, we will break or crush our idol. When one burdens a non-god with expectations only God can meet, the idol will break down. When I expect my work to be my ultimate delight, I will ruin my health and relationships to succeed, which will in turn ruin my work. When I expect my child’s success to validate me or my spouse to give me value, these expectations will burden my loved one and ultimately crush them. Nothing and no one can bear the weight of such expectations.
Or second, if we don’t break or crush our idols, our idols will break or crush us. They become our functional masters. We serve them and obey them because we have to have them in order to be happy, to accept ourselves, to have meaning. Whatever controls us becomes our Lord. No matter how much we can milk from them, non-gods cannot satisfy us. The more we want from them, the more we think we need them, the more empty we wind up.
Henrik Ibsen said that when you take a “life lie” from an average man you take away his happiness. Although we are creatures, and our spiritual growth involves acceptance of our dependence, we cannot bear not to be God. So we throw God out of our universe and out of our hearts. Then we are forced to constantly create “life lies” to be devoted to and our hearts become idol factories.
Interestingly, one of the life lies Paul talks about is religiosity. Paul says that being zealous for the Bible, being extremely moral, having all the doctrine figured out, we can be just as enslaved to an idol as anyone who does not believe in God. He is implying that instead of following Christ one can follow Christianity, whatever the brand, seeking to be one’s own Lord through obedience to religious laws or belonging to a religion.
According to Paul, non-religious and religious people are basically in the same situation.
Non-religious people worship non-gods to avoid depending on God and religious people can worship religion, church or Christianity to avoid depending on God.
A significant difference, according to the New Testament, is that the idolatry of religion is more tragic than idolatry of other idols, because the non-religious person knows he or she is away from God, while the religious person doesn’t.
The first two of the Ten Commandments say, “I am the only God. Don’t have other gods. And don’t make images of God.” These tell us what we need to know to live fully as humans: No idolatry. We are accustomed to thinking that, above all, we need to be warned not to do certain things. But, according to the ancient scriptures, sin in its essence is a dislocation of the human heart. Whenever we fail to be truthful, gentle, humble or generous, whenever we are lying, hurting, arrogant or bitter, it is because something is an idol. We don’t wrong others out of thin air. An idol takes the title of one’s heart and everything becomes negotiable and expendable for the sake of the idol. Instead of delighting in God, we delight in a non-god, we mis-worship.
If we want God in our life, we don’t have to generate worship or somehow create faith in our heart. We are already worshipping something, believing in something, valuing something, centring our life on something. We only have to transfer that trust. One moves from slavery to a non-god into a relationship with God. That’s why repentance (“changing the way you think”) is a sorrowful and joyful act at the same time. We are replacing something finite, temporary and breakable with God, and joy overtakes the sorrow. We become free to love any thing, person or cause for what or who they really are, and not using it to play a god role in our life.
In the Hebrew sanctuary, the menorah was a candlestick, kept burning constantly to represent the delight of the presence of God. As a follower of Christ, I live in that light. I walk into the presence of God and I examine my heart. Five minutes before I fall asleep, I ask myself, “What do I worry about? When I am troubled, where does my heart go for comfort and protection? What do I give my time and money most effortlessly to? What, if I lose it, would deprive me of the desire to live?”
After answering these questions, I say to my heart, “All my problems come because I am forgetting how loved, honoured, served, beautiful, rich, secured, respected, embraced and free I am in God.” And I remember that no matter how I—a creature—adore and delight in God, God adores and delights in me even more.