I’ve now said this a couple times, and I’ll say it again, and perhaps I should keep saying it every week until it truly sinks in with us: our worship isn’t about us and it isn’t for us. It is only and entirely about and for God. Moses is perfectly clear on this in Deuteronomy 6, and Jesus reinforces it when he cites Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the most important of all the commandments of God. You’ll notice in Mark, the teacher of the law responds to Jesus by saying that this commandment, combined with the commandment from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself, is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices—which is to say, all the outward activities of worship. Jesus confirms his insight and praises him, for he has shown by his understanding that he is near to the kingdom of God.
To put this into our context, it’s more important to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength—which is just four different ways of saying, with everything you have—than it is for you to ever go to church. It’s more important for you to love God with all your power to love than it is for you to ever give any of your money or time to God’s work through the church. Now, as Jesus knew and I’m sure that scribe understood, anyone who loved God in that way would give him all the burnt offerings and sacrifices mentioned in his law. Anyone who loves God in that way will come to church regularly, give generously, and serve in any way they can. But what God wants isn’t just for us to come to church regularly, give generously, and serve gladly. He wants for us to do these things because we love him. He doesn’t want our offerings just as offerings, he wants them as joyful offerings of grateful hearts.
And if they aren’t, and we don’t? If we come to church because we want to see our friends, and only give if we’re pleased with who’s leading the congregation and how they’re leading it? If we only give our time to serve when it suits us, when it’s something we want to do and we get to make sure it’s done our way? If we come to worship as consumers, evaluating it based on whether our desires are satisfied and our felt needs are met? Then we hit the reality expressed by the Christian Reformed writer Shannon Jammal-Hollemans: “God rejects worship that is not worthy of God.” Then we aren’t worshiping God at all, we’re worshiping our own desires—we’re putting ourselves at the center of the church instead of God. Then, to be blunt, we’re worshiping an idol.
That might seem like a strange thing to say. When we think of idols, unless we’re thinking of the pop-music slang use of the word, we think of statues in pagan temples. The thing is, we have statues in our pagan temples, too; we just call them “mannequins,” and we call our temples “shopping malls.” It’s not the statues God cared about, or cares about, it’s the heart attitude—and that doesn’t require a statue. That’s why God tells the prophet in Ezekiel 14 that the elders of Israel have “set up idols in their hearts.” As Tim Keller observes, “The human heart takes goodthings like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. . . . Anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give,” is an idol. Thus, as he goes on to say, “Anything can be an idol, and everything has been an idol.”
The practical test is, where do we give our love and desire, our trust, and our obedience? If we love another person more than we love God, if we trust God only until the money starts running low, if we obey God only until that conflicts with obeying our boss, then we have an idol, and we need to deal with it. In truth, probably all of us struggle with more than one, because as John Calvin said, the human heart is a factory of idols—we’re always making more. If we want to be free of idolatry, we have to keep fighting that tendency and that temptation in ourselves, because they’ll work their way back in to our hearts when we aren’t looking.
It doesn’t matter what it is, or even if it’s a good thing. Many idols are good things, in their proper place. That place is secondary to God. Anything that competes with God in our hearts is a counterfeit god in our lives, and we need to sacrifice it. If you think I’m being extreme, go read Genesis 22 and see what God did to Abraham: he told him to take Isaac up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. God had no intention of making Abraham kill his son. He had every intention of making Abraham kill the little idol of his son that he’d set up in his heart. He’s commanded musicians to sacrifice their music to him—not because he wanted them never to play or sing again, but because he wanted them to kill their idol. This is what it means to love the Lord your God with all your capacity to love: it means finding everything in you that gets in the way of that, and killing it. Since idols are spiritual weeds, it means killing them over and over again.
The sad thing is, when we give our greatest love and trust and obedience to something or someone other than God, we’re cheating ourselves. God alone loves us perfectly, and he alone loves us no matter what, without fail. He alone knows perfectly what’s best for us, and he’s the only one who’ll never try to take advantage of us. He’s the only one who will never fail our trust, never let us down, and never betray us. He’s the source of all grace, and the only one who will always give us grace. As the Presbyterian pastor and writer Craig Barnes asks, “What more do we need than the God who breaks into every day with more grace than we even know how to receive?” If we try to get more, we only end up with less.
Paul commands us in Romans 12 to offer up our whole lives as sacrifices to God, but that’s not a painful duty—it’s a blessing and a joy. It can be a painful one, but we know in this world that the birth of a new life is usually accompanied by pain. In this world that clings to everything it can get, it doesn’t sound like good news to say: we need to give up every claim that we have the right to get what we want, and every thought that we deserve to get our own way. To say that we have to lay down every claim to ownership, not just of our possessions but of our bodies and our lives, doesn’t fit with what this culture calls good—but it is.
We have been bought whole and entire by Jesus Christ on the cross, and we are not our own; the truth that the world refuses to see is that we never actually were our own to begin with. Idols tell us they’re giving us freedom and security, but in truth, they make us slaves to ourselves and leave us at the mercy of the vagaries of the world. Only in Jesus do we have true freedom, and only in him can we be truly whole. The world can satisfy our superficial hunger and thirst, for a while; only Jesus can meet our deepest needs.