As I read the Psalms, one of the things that strikes me is how the psalmists so frequently use the dichotomy of the righteous and the wicked, with themselves playing the part of the poor, helpless righteous. The wicked–the ones who are always rich and healthy, who have no problems in this life–are oppressing them or causing some horrible injustice and getting away with it.

The trouble for me is that I identify with both sides. I want to be the righteous person, but I know my heart too well to ignore the fact that, at some point everyday, I am that wicked person. So it can be difficult for me to fully click with the psalmist when he writes, for example, in 73:27-28:

Those who are far from you will perish;
     you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
     I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
     I will tell of all your deeds.

I know that I’m the unfaithful one. I know that I’m the wicked one. But, only because of Jesus, I am also–and more so–the righteous one. Not because Jesus makes me a better person (although I happen to think that he does, at least for me), but because my faithlessness is wrapped up in and covered over by his faithfulness. My unrighteousness disappears into his righteousness. My wickedness dissolves in the sea of his holiness.

You are the wicked one. You know the evil that you’re capable of. You are, but in Christ, you’re not. In Christ you are faithful because he is faithful. In Christ you are righteous because he is righteous. And I think it’s good to live in this tension, knowing the evil you can so easily commit, but recognizing that all of your righteousness comes from, and is found in, Jesus Christ.

Today was one of those days that I needed a word from the Lord all day. Fortunately, in his sovereignty, God spoke to me last night through Jeremiah 12:5. “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” I sensed him calling me away from all the things that make me bitter—the frustration of ministry, the unfairness of life, so on and so forth. That, he said, is a race against men. Those are lesser things.

As it turns out, this was precisely the word I needed this morning. I got some disappointing news bright and early today, and rather than devolving into a pattern of bitterness and anger, God lifted me up and sustained me with this thought: Run with horses.
Running with horses means forgetting the lesser things of life. It means not being dragged down by disappointment, frustrating circumstances, or shattered dreams. The worries and anxieties of suburban, American life is a race against men. It’s a race that God has not equipped me or called me to run. My race is with the horses, a race I can’t possibly hope to win without his help.
Running with horses demands that I lift my eyes to Jesus. It requires me to get my chin off my chest, to stop feeling sorry for myself, and to recognize that what God has called me to is not, nor ever will be, easy. This race demands more from me than I can possibly hope to muster. It immediately takes me to the end of myself, to the point at which God must provide the energy, strength, wisdom, and courage to persevere. It is a call to the focused pursuit of excellence in all areas of life.
Our culture teaches us to pursue the lesser things—money, fame, fulfillment, and success. American culture, including many evangelical pastors and authors, tells us that God wants us to be satisfied in the lesser things. All too often, the church tells us to run against men.
But the lesser things don’t matter. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” In other words, run with horses, and the lesser things will take care of themselves.
Lift up your eyes. Get your chin off your chest. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You won’t find God in the rat race. You won’t find God amongst the lesser things. No, God is out in the wild, running with the horses. 

Of all the characters in the Bible, I think the one I most identify with is Jeremiah. He was a malcontent. He complained to God all the time. His melancholy weighs heavily on his writings. And yet he was passionate, and the word of God was like a fire inside of him, burning him up from within. He tried to shut up. He tried to walk away. He tried to get out. But he couldn’t. He was compelled by the word that God had planted deep within his soul.

God has a peculiar way of speaking to people like that: He asks them questions. I don’t mean silly little questions like, “Hey, how’s the weather down there?” I mean incisive, stop-you-in-your-tracks-and-shut-you-up kind of questions. Sometimes that’s the only way to get us to stop complaining or feeling sorry for ourselves.

In chapter 12, Jeremiah offers this complaint to God:

1 You are always righteous, O LORD,
     when I bring a case before you.
     Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
     Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
     Why do all the faithless live at ease?

2 You have planted them, and they have taken root;
     they grow and bear fruit.
     You are always on their lips
     but far from their hearts.

3 Yet you know me, O LORD;
     you see me and test my thoughts about you.
     Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
     Set them apart for the day of slaughter!

4 How long will the land lie parched
     and the grass in every field be withered?
     Because those who live in it are wicked,
     the animals and birds have perished.
     Moreover, the people are saying,
     “He will not see what happens to us.”

Jeremiah’s all upset because these wicked folks, who only pay lip service to God, are living great lives. They don’t have any problem paying the bills! They’ve got the 3,000 square foot house in the safe neighborhood. Their kids get to go to private school. They drive the best cars. They’ve got all the new toys. Meanwhile, I’m stuck back here in the ghetto! There’s crime all over the place. My kids go to a bad school. My car’s held together with duct tape. But you know me! You know I’m legit! I’m true. I don’t mess around with you. I live it, I believe it, I say it and I pray it. Oh I know you’re righteous God, but you need a little help with your justice.

Have you been there? Feeling sorry for yourself because your life is hard? Because you’re poor? Because God seems to be coming through for everyone but you? I’ve been there. That’s an easy place for me to get to, let me tell you.

What do you expect God to say to you in those times? “Don’t worry, just be patient. I’ve got it all taken care of. I’m sovereign. I’m in control. I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread. I will provide for all your needs.” All good things, right? Comfort in our time of need. But I bet you’d never expect to hear God say this:

5 “If you have raced with men on foot
     and they have worn you out,
     how can you compete with horses?
     If you stumble in safe country,
     how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?

And all God’s children said, “Oh, snap!” Whenever you complain to God, get ready for him to ask you a question that will absolutely tear you in half. And yet, within the verbal beatdown, God is calling Jeremiah (and you and me) to something higher–something far greater than this present rat race.

You see, Jeremiah had been running the wrong race. He looked around him and saw other men, mere humans, and they were leaving him in their dust. But God did not call Jeremiah to run against men. He called him to run against horses.

If you’re bitter, or frustrated, or disappointed with God that your life has not turned out like you thought, it’s because you’re running in the wrong race. God hasn’t called you to run against men. God has called you to run with horses. He has called you to a far more difficult task–an impossible race. He has given you something to do that you can’t possibly do on your own. If you think the task God has given you is manageable, then you’re not thinking big enough. You’re supposed to run with horses. And win.

Here’s the gameplan. (And this one has to come from Isaiah, because Jeremiah is just too cynical to ever think like this.)

Those who hope in the LORD
     will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
     they will run and not grow weary,
     they will walk and not be faint.

Put your hope in the Lord, and only in the Lord, and you can run with the horses. Don’t put your hope in the things you want, even the good things. Don’t hope for a better life. Don’t hope for a more effective ministry. Don’t hope for more money. Don’t even hope for justice! If you hope for anything but God you’ll be running the wrong race, and you will get worn out. But if you put your hope in God, and only in God, not even the horses will be able to keep up with you.

Last night, after everyone from life group had left, Breena and I sat down to pray. Sometimes, before I can pray, I need to read some Scripture because I don’t really have the words, and praying God’s word back to him helps me to find those words. So I opened to Isaiah 40, and started in verse 21:

Do you not know?

     Have you not heard?

…Those who hope in YHWH

     will renew their strength

They will soar on wings like eagles;

     they will run and not grow weary,

     they will walk and not be faint.

It was that bit about hope that struck me most. It occurred to me that I had been hoping in the false idols that Tim Keller had written about in his book Counterfeit Gods, as well as in some idols that are particular to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, hoping for a better life for me and my family. I create films in my imagination of the life I really want.

It occurred to me, as I sat and prayed with my wife, that my hope is not in YHWH. My hope is in making enough money to provide a good life for us. My hope is in finding a ministry job that truly satisfies me. My hope is in having a more structured, organized life so that I can do all the things I want to do. All of these are good things–things that, I believe, God wants for me–but they cannot be the object of my hope. That must be God, and God alone. These things had become idols in my heart because I directed my hope toward them and not toward God.

Our prayer last night was a prayer of repentance, of unmasking our idols and removing them from the throne of our hearts. The challenge is to continue in this new way of hoping, of rewriting the films of my imagination. I’ll know that my hope is truly in God alone when I have stopped daydreaming about a better life and financial blessing, and started to imagine a future in which God is most fully glorified through my life.

I just finished reading Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller, which is an excellent series of sermons-turned-book-chapters about idolatry. I’ll post a review for the book next Friday. (This week I’m posting a review of God is Great, God is Good, which I promised would come two weeks ago.) But I wanted to do more than just review the book here, because idolatry is a core issue for all of us, and yet most of us don’t even think about the idols that we worship. We think that sort of thing only happens in primitive cultures that aren’t as technologically advanced and civilized as our own. And yet…

Love. Money. Power. Success. These are the four idols Tim Keller assails in his book. You could probably add to that list Fame, Pleasure, Attention, and so on and so forth; but the four that Keller addresses are as good a place as any to start.

An idol, he says, is something you can’t live without. It’s something that you can’t stop thinking about, that you obsess over and would be devastated if you lost it. It’s something by which you identify yourself. Without this thing, you would not be a complete person…or so you think. Idols promise what only God can deliver. Idols take up residence in a place that rightfully belongs to God–the throne of our hearts. Idols usurp the place of God, and steal the blessings that he longs to pour out onto our lives. They promise to give us so much, but they are nothing but thieves.

Destroying the idols in your life begins by naming them. Naming your idols means unmasking them, bringing them out into the light where they are exposed to the heat of the judgment of God. It means exposing them for what they really are. When you name your idols you come fully present to the reality that what sits on the throne of your heart is not Jesus. It is something that goes by another name, something that doesn’t belong there.

I was walking into work yesterday thinking about the idols in my life. I wanted to name them, to expose them so that I could conquer them and put them back into their proper place. (So often an idol is a good thing that has been given primacy in your heart.) I thought about the things my heart desires when I get tired: lying on the couch, watching TV, relaxing, eating whatever food I want, drinking a Coke (or a Throwback Pepsi made with real sugar–mmmhmmm!), just taking it easy. Then it hit me: My idol is Ease! I want a life of ease, of comfort, of painless existence and the absence of hard work. Something clicked inside of me as soon as my idol had been named. I knew that Ease sat upon the throne of my heart–the seat that only Jesus Christ could rightfully claim as his own.

The thing about it is that Ease is not necessarily a bad thing. God has a different name for it: He calls it Rest, or Sabbath. Rest is my eternal destiny. Sabbath is ordained to occur once a week. But I want a lifestyle of Ease, devoid of difficulty and drudgery. So I let projects pile up. I procrastinate. Certain things don’t get done in my never ending quest for Ease. But this is not the Rest that God wants to provide me. Ease comes with guilt, that nagging feeling that you should be doing something instead of nothing. Rest from God comes with the peace of mind that you have worked hard and the invitation to enjoy some recreation. As an idol, Ease sucks. As a gift from God, Rest is glorious.

What are your idols? What can you not imagine living without? What do you fixate on? What does your heart want most of all? Naming your idol is the first step in giving the throne of your heart back to Jesus Christ, the King of All Creation.