Good things can become idols that keep us from God’s best. Things that once served a good purpose can eventually become bad things that distort and disrupt what God intends for us.
You understand how good things can go bad, don’t you? We live with that reality every day. Just last week my 17-year-old son was digging in the refrigerator – that’s a habit that teenage boys develop early – and all at once he called out to me: “Dad, are strawberries supposed to have white stuff on them?” Now I love strawberries – they are one of God’s good things! But those two beautiful boxes of strawberries had been stuck away in the back of the refrigerator, and now a week later they were growing something that didn’t belong on strawberries! A good thing went bad.
Can you imagine having a beautiful package of steaks in the freezer, but while you are out of town the power goes out. A few days later when you return home and open the freezer door, you’re going to be met by a very unpleasant aroma. A good thing went bad.
Years ago my wife went with me to a church conference that was being held in Las Vegas – talk about a good thing that went bad! We rented a car to drive out and see the Hoover Dam – it was a wonderful trip until, all at once, we realized that Alamo had failed to refuel that rental car before they gave it to us, and we found ourselves out of gas in the desert. A good thing went bad.
The truth is, we live in an age filled with idols, because an idol is something that captivates us; something that becomes our priority. Michael Stark describes it this way: “Your idol is what you value most. It is what you would most hate to lose. Your idol is what your thoughts turn to most frequently when you are free to think as you will. And finally, your idol is what affords you the greatest pleasure.”
There are all kinds of destructive idols around. There are idols of sex and pleasure, and many men and women – including preachers and ministers – have run aground in that area. There are the idols of money and possessions, an idol that can wrap itself around our hearts and dominate our thoughts if we are not careful. There are the idols of ego and status, and those seductive idols sometimes drive us to think we are better, smarter, more deserving than others; sometimes they make us think that any success we receive is the result of our own talent and good looks and effort, rather than a gift of God’s grace. There is the idol of position, that makes me hunger for a more exalted title, a bigger church, sometimes hunger for what some other brother or sister has been given by God. Those kinds of idols will chip away at our souls and leave a hole in our hearts.
But what about those idols that started out as good things, like the bronze snake Moses made that had become an object of pagan worship?
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and scribes had taken parts of the Old Testament ceremonial law and turned it into an idol. There were religious observances that had been given to Israel to help the people recognize their uniqueness as the people of God, but by the first century those religious practices had been turned into weapons that the Pharisees used to control and subjugate the common people. No wonder that Jesus called them “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs” that looked clean from the outside but on the inside were filled with corruption and death. In their hands, a good thing went bad.
We’d like to think that we Bible-believing ministers and churches wouldn’t fall for such things, don’t we? But brothers, could it be that there are high places in our churches that need to be torn down? Could it be that there are bronze serpents that are draining the grace and energy from our mission? Could it be that we have some good things that have gone bad? Good things can become idols that keep us from God’s best.
Can you think of anything in your church about which you can say that long after its intended purpose has been accomplished, it was still around – and now it has turned into something different than the purpose for which it was originally intended?
Tradition can be a wonderful gift or it can be a power that enslaves us. That’s why it’s vital to constantly ask – and to teach out churches to ask – is this something we are doing because it’s the best way to serve God and accomplish what He’s called us to do? Or are we doing it this way because momma did it this way, and her momma did it this way, and her momma before her did it this way.
How often do we do things in church and in our Christian lives because that’s the way we have always done it? God forgive us for staying in ruts because we get locked into tradition and habit. In the midst of a changing culture, the church that isn’t willing to constantly seek new ways to serve and minister is a church that has already voted to die – they just haven’t scheduled the funeral yet.
I remember when I was a youth pastor and I encountered the wrath of the senior adult ladies Sunday School class. We were having a youth event on Saturday night, and we needed some extra chairs. Young and foolish as I was, I didn’t realize the senior adult ladies Sunday School class was holy ground that could not be touched, so we borrowed a few chairs, and when we put them back we apparently didn’t get all the doilies and padded chair covers in the right places, so the next morning I heard about it. They were less concerned about reaching young people with the gospel than they were about having their padded chair covers where they left them. At one time I’m sure the way they decorated their classroom was a good thing meant to accomplish a good purpose, but it was a good thing that went bad.
What are the idols in your church that were once good things, but now they’ve gone bad, and they need to be rooted out and removed? It’s probably going to take some training and some teaching to help our folks understand, but if we want God’s best we need to worship the Lord, not the legacy of past generations.
Michael Duduit is founding Dean of the College of Christian Studies and the Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University. He also serves as Professor of Christian Ministry. He is the founder and still serves as Executive Editor of Preaching magazine, one of the nation’s premier publications for pastors. His email newsletter, Preaching Now, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences. He is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Joy in Ministry: Messages from Second Corinthians, Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Communicators and Communicate With Power.