Since the ARC Conference two weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about idolatry in general, and the various idols in my own life. We tend to have a rather silly understanding of idols–pieces of wood or stone to which we bow down and worship. While these types of idols dominated the world of the Bible, the Scriptures also warn us to avoid the idols of our hearts. In other words, idolatry is not localized to wood and stone statues in ancient cultures; idolatry is in our hearts.

One of the most important things we can do to follow Jesus well is to rid ourselves of all idols. But because we have such a silly image of idolatry, we are not able to intelligently identify the idols of our hearts. David Powlison has written something called X-Ray Questions: Discerning Functional Gods in which he lists 35 questions to help you discover the idols of your heart. This is an excellent resource that I’ve been using to help me name my idols. It’s been both painful and fruitful, and I recommend it to everyone who reads this blog. I’ll post a few of the questions I found most helpful here.

1. What do you love? Hate?
This “first great commandment” questions searches you out–heart, soul, mind and might. There is no deeper question to ask of any person at any time. There is no deeper explanation for why you do what you do. Disordered loves hijack our hearts from our rightful Lord and Father.

2. What do you want, desire, crave, lust, and wish for?
What desires do you serve and obey? This summarizes the internal operations of the desire-driven “flesh” in the New Testament epistles. “My will be done” and “I want ___________” are often quite accessible.

5. What do you fear? What do you not want? What do you tend to worry about?
Sinful fears are inverted cravings. If I want to avoid something at all costs…I am ruled by a lustful fear.

9. What makes you tick? What sun does your planet revolve around? …What pipe dreams tantalize or terrify you? What do you organize your life around?
…We are meant to long supremely for the Lord Himself, for the Giver, not His gifts. The absence of blessings–rejection, vanity, reviling, illness, poverty–often is the crucible in which we learn to love God for who He is. In our idolatry we make gifts out as supreme goods, and make the Giver into the errand boy of our desires.

15. On your deathbed, what would sum up your life as worthwhile? What gives your life meaning?

21. What do you see as your rights? What do you feel entitled to?
This question often nicely illuminates the motivational pattern of angry, aggrieved, self-righteous, self-pitying people. Our culture of entitlement reinforces the flesh’s instincts and habits.

These are just a few of the many questions that, if you answer them honestly, will uncover the deep motivations of your heart–the gods you worship and trust more than the one true God. Do yourself a favor and download the full document. Engage with the questions with brutal honesty. Uncovering your idols is the first step to dethroning them.

Just before I left for vacation last Saturday, I attended the Alliance for Renewal Churches National Conference in Toledo. The focus of the conference was Transformation, based on a book called How People Change by Timothy Lane. This is an excellent book, and I’ve put off reading Love Wins so that I can work my way through How People Change carefully and thoughtfully.

The primary speaker at the conference, Scott Pursley, frequently referred to the work of David Powlison, of whom I had not heard before. Scott quoted Powlison several times on the gravity of sin. Here is an excerpt:

Sin, in the popular misunderstanding, refers to matters of conscious volitional awareness of wrongdoing and the ability to do otherwise. This instinctive view of sin infects many Christians and almost all non-Christians. It has a long legacy in the church under the label Pelagianism, one of the oldest and most instinctive heresies. The Bible’s view of sin certainly includes the high-handed sins where evil approaches full volitional awareness. But sin also includes what we simply are, and the perverse ways we think, want, remember, and react.

Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants, and interprets things. Once we see sin for what it really is–madness and evil intentions in our hearts, absences of any fear of God, slavery to various passions–then it becomes easier to see how sin is the immediate and specific problem all counseling deals with at every moment, not a general and remote problem. The core insanity of the human heart is that we violate the first great commandment. We will love anything, except God, unless our madness is checked by grace.

I so quickly forget about the pervasiveness of sin in the world, and especially in my own heart. I don’t think about sin being simply how I function–how I perceive, want, and interpret everything around me. I think about sin in terms of what I do, not who I am. But that is insufficient, and doesn’t take into account the deep desires that motivate my behavior. These desires are steeped in sin, driving me to participate in the spread of evil and the worship of idols. It is at the level of deep, internal, personal desire that Jesus seeks to wage war against evil, and the gospel of grace and agape love is his weapon of choice.

Are you spiritually frustrated, stuck in the same place fighting the same sins for far too long? Have you tried to change but can’t? The only hope that you and I have to see real, lasting change in our lives is if our desires are transformed. Behavioral change follows transformation at the level of desire, and Jesus is the only one strong enough to change us at that deep a level.

I’ll post more on this topic throughout the week. In the mean time, open yourself up to what is churning in the depths of your heart. Think about your desires and how they motivate your actions. Invite Jesus into the process to guide you into the depths of your soul.

The mountain peaks burst through the clouds like massive granite daggers punching holes in the deep blue sky. A great valley stretches as far as the eye can see. In the summer a sparkling blue lake would dominate the landscape, but now all is covered in snow. The great evergreens that manage to survive up here are stooped low by the weight of the snow, barely discernible in the whitewashed landscape. The sun burns brightly, impossibly high in the sky.

At the head of the valley is a simple log cabin, the only evidence of humanity in this pristinely preserved plot of God’s country. Smoke curls from the chimney, signaling the invitation and call: “Here is warmth, rest, peace, and joy. Here is shelter from the cold. Here is a drink to warm your body and a meal to renew your strength.”

Maybe this sounds like hell to you, but for me it’s idyllic. When I think about the lives of America’s most influential pastors, this is the image that comes to my mind. It’s not that I think they actually live in cabins like this, but the image is an impression, a metaphor, for their life as I imagine it. Put simply, they are living the life I want to live. They are successful in ministry . They are writing books. They are speaking at conferences. They are in-demand, famous, and well-respected. It’s hard not to want what they have; it’s even harder not to idealize (or idolize) them.

But here’s the thing. As I enter that idyllic cabin in the mountains, as I go through the great wooden door and into the warmth and richness of the interior, as I gaze at the masculine trinkets decorating the walls and warm myself by the roaring fire, I realize something: Nobody lives here. It’s not just that nobody’s home, it’s that this house is vacant. It’s unoccupied. The idyllic life I imagine these pastors have doesn’t exist. It’s not where they live. The cabin is empty.

What it looks like from the outside is not what it is on the inside. Fame and celebrity are fundamentally false, and the picture they paint (or tempt you to paint in your heart) is a lie. Don’t give in to their temptation, and don’t be deceived. That cabin may look perfect from the outside, but inside, it’s uninhabitable.

“I’m just being honest.” When was the last time you said that? What did you mean when you said it?

This phrase usually finds its way across my lips when I’m giving full, unfiltered vent to emotional frustration. It’s a way of justifying the extreme language I’m using and the acute emotions I’m feeling. “You can’t fault me, I’m just being honest.”

But just how honest am I being when I give full, unfiltered vent to my emotions, particularly my emotional frustrations? Is what I feel necessarily an accurate representation of what is real?

Let’s say that someone is going 35mph in a 45mph zone directly in front of me, and the road is constructed such that I cannot pass them. (Not that this sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time on freaking Maxtown Road!) Is it necessarily true that that person is an idiot? When I exclaim, from the safety of my own car, “You’re an idiot!”, am I being honest? Or am I just being subjective?

Of course I’m being subjective. But in that moment I truly believe that person to be a blithering moron who is a clear danger to themselves and everyone around them and has no business being on the road because they don’t know how to drive the speed limit. My angry exclamation may be an accurate reflection of my emotional state, but it is not an accurate reflection of reality.

I find that “being honest” often leads to greater deception. When I give full vent to my emotional frustrations I am crafting a world that fits my emotional state, rather than letting reality influence my emotions. I become angrier and angrier, but I also become more detached from reality. In fact, by “being honest” I become less honest.

Rather than giving full, unfiltered vent to my emotional frustrations, I need to learn to see the world, and the people in it, from God’s perspective. He, not my emotions, is the definer of reality. This is not to say that we ought not to be emotional, but rather that our emotions ought to be in congruence with God’s emotions. Our perception of reality ought to be in line with God’s perception of reality. That’s what it means to be honest.

Karen Spears Zacharias wrote a piece at Patheos called Time to Tax America’s Churches. She looks at Ed Young, Jr. as the archetype of a new breed of CEOs, people who are leading vast and wealthy churches that function as corporations. She has some harsh words for these “celebrity” and “rock star” megachurch pastors, and she concludes her post with these statements:

We are facing hard economic times. A lot of much-needed revenue could be generated by taxing the Church.
If we are really interested in living out a life of faith, instead of just preaching about it, isn’t it about time the Church picked up its cross and carried it instead of pushing the tax burden off on everyone else?

I encourage you to read the article, but I have several responses.

1) Church employees are taxed like everyone else, with the exception of two benefits for ministers–a tax free housing allowance and the option to withdraw from social security. But if you claim the housing allowance, you better opt out of social security, otherwise that portion of your income will be considered self-employment, and you’ll have to pay both sides of the social security and medicare taxes. Other than these benefits, church employees pay the same tax as everyone else.

2) There is no distinction, in the state of Ohio at least, between a church and any other nonprofit organization. If the government were to implement income taxation on churches, it must also tax every nonprofit organization, otherwise it would likely face a lawsuit of religious discrimination.

3) It may be flat out illegal to tax churches and nonprofits because the income they generate is not recompense for goods or services, but is rather given of the free will of the givers. In other words, despite Zacharias’s depiction of megachurches as corporations, there is no commercial transaction taking place.

4) We live in a society where we constantly let one person ruin it for everyone. One person bends the rules and suddenly the masses have to bear the consequences. Freedom is impinged every time some idiot decides to do something stupid because we immediately run to the government to fix our problems and keep us safe. Let’s not do that with churches and nonprofits. Their work, which cannot be duplicated by any government, would be crippled by taxation. Sure, Ed Young would get his comeuppance, but thousands of churches and nonprofits would be forced to close their doors.

5) Charitable giving pales in comparison to consumer spending. The benefit from taxing churches and nonprofits would likely not even cover the cost of government services required to fill in the gaps of those now defunct organizations. It would be the law of diminishing returns proven true on a grand scale of social deconstruction.

6) Finally, a commenter on Zachrias’s post says it best when talking about the purpose of the church and the love of Christ:

Government can never embrace such love, will never live out such reality, can never love the enemy without regard to self, will never embrace the street person rather than the CEO, won’t ever hold up to be emulated the one who is most despised by society, and is not ever going to reject power for meekness, vengeance for grace, and violent action for forgiveness. Government, and indeed our American society itself, will always look at such claims as either nonsense, sheer naivety or both. And yet, Jesus does exactly these things, over and over, and calls us to do the same.

So, where I constantly struggle with my own collusion with and participation in denominational systems that too often look contrary to gospel relationship and being, I do believe that ultimately only the church has any possibility of congruence with life in Christ and, at its best, must be a counter to the state’s systems of power, privilege, and possession.

The Church and the Government–whether it’s Rome, Nazi Germany, or the USA–are not after the same thing. The Church, at its best, is a woman with warm embrace, comforting those who mourn, feeding those who hunger, and seeking first the kingdom of God. The Government, at its best, is a bureaucratic system of cold and distant departments, assigning numbers instead of names, rubber-stamping applications, and seeking first the security of the State.

So, I say, don’t tax the churches and nonprofits. Don’t let a few abusers ruin a system that works. The Government has more than enough money. Maybe we should begin our audits with them, and then we can move out to the churches and nonprofits.