each week i think i’m going to post an entry, but the truth is i have had zero time. life has been absolutely crazy lately, and even tonight i’m having to take a break from a lot of homework to write this. but it’s good. i need a break, and there’s been a lot of stuff.
right now in sunday school i’m reading through a book called counterfeit gods by tim keller. it’s been wayyyy better than i was expecting. it’s a book about idolatry, and it does a great job of identifying common idols that we can each find in our own lives. i’m actually the only one in the class under maybe thirty-five, but it’s really great because i’m getting the input of all these older brothers and sisters in Christ, who have had far longer to experience life than i have. each section’s been good, but the one on cultural idols really stood out to me.
each chapter takes a story from the bible and opens it up a bit. the one on cultural idols focuses on the story of jonah. now, i’ve read the story before, heard it a hundred times, and aside from “if God tells you to do something, do it or else God will have a giant fish swallow you”, there wasn’t a lot i’d taken from it.
then keller kind of blows the whole thing out of the water.
anything i write here is basically a paraphrase of stuff he said in his book, because he says it far better than i ever could. one of the first things keller does is talk about the context and background of jonah. the book opens with God asking jonah to go preach to the corrupt people in the city of nineveh. doesn’t seem like a huge deal, right?
well. a little background. nineveh was the most powerful city in the world at this time, sort of the capstone of the assyrian empire. assyria, for those of you who don’t know, was the long-time… we’ll say “antagonizer”… of israel, and therefore the people of God–jonah’s people. the assyrian military was constantly threatening to overrun israel. so there was tension. God is now asking jonah to preach to these people, a corrupt population of idol-worshiping, wicked sinners. jonah realizes that the only reason He would be asking him to do this is because there’s a chance the Lord could spare them.
so jonah’s like, “nope. i’m going to go in the complete opposite direction of nineveh, okay?” and he does. this is where that huge storm comes in, jonah gets thrown into the water by the people who own the boat (who then turn to God, by the way), and a huge fish swallows him up.
having read the story a few times, i fall into the mindset that, well, of course God sent a fish to swallow jonah up. why wouldn’t He? but let’s look at this from jonah’s perspective. he knows the storm is God’s doing (he told the boat owners as much), and he knows it’s probably not a result of God being happy with his decision. so he’s being tossed around these huge waves, being sucked underwater, coming up for breath at the last second, being sucked back under… and then a huge whale eats him.
jonah’s first thought probably wasn’t “oh good, i’m saved!” it was more likely something along the lines of “craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaappp!”
but then he slowly realizes he’s not dead. in fact, he’s not even having to tread water. he’s alive and he’s on solid… something, and it’s amazing! he sings praises to God, thanking Him for rescuing him and promising to do what God asks of him. after three days and nights in the belly of a freaking sea animal, God tells the fish to spit jonah out on dry land, and it does.
so this time when God tell jonah to go to nineveh, he does. he tells them that in forty days the city will be destroyed and that their only hope is to turn to God. when they hear these things, they react. “they called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” (3:5) seeing their actions, God, in an act of mercy and love, decides to spare them from His judgement.
and jonah gets ticked off.
he basically goes on a rant against God: “that is why i ran away to tarshish! i knew that You were a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. just kill me now, Lord! i’d rather be dead than alive if what i predicted will not happen.” (4:2-3)
whaaaaat? jonah’s so angry that God showed mercy that he asks God to smite him. read that sentence one more time. is it making any more sense? probably not, because it doesn’t. there’s no rational reason for jonah to be feeling this way.
this is when keller comes in an sheds a little light on things. jonah’s reaction is evidence of the idols in his life. the first is a religious idol of self-righteousness. he felt that he (and his people) were better than the assyrians. they were God’s people, after all. the assyrian’s had caused them trouble for countless years, and they were heathens to boot! the idea of God showing them mercy suggests that in God’s eyes, there is no difference. mercy is for all. and this grated heavily against jonah’s long-time idol of pride and self-righteousness. the second idol was one of culture: he had a strong nationalistic fervor for the nation of israel. it was certainly related to his religious idol, but it was also a completely distinct issue. jonah assumed that even though he was to preach against assyria, God would end up destroying it anyway. then israel wouldn’t have such a prominent oppressor, and might even gain some power. but with this sparing of nineveh, there was no way that could happen. the final idol keller points out is a personal one of ministry success. now, at first glance this doesn’t make sense… after all, jonah preached and nineveh listened. is this not success? but jonah’s friends and family back home probably were hoping for the same things he had been: the destruction of nineveh. how embarrassing would it be for jonah to go back with his tail between his legs to confront his people? “well… i preached. and they’re still there. oh yeah, and God decided not to destroy them… so…” probably not a conversation he was looking forward to.
see, idols completely distort our thinking. they take the greatest thing–God–and try to take His place. when we see something as the greatest thing instead of God, it’s an idol, plain and simple. when something gets in the way of our greatest thing, we get angry. we pout and we kick things, and our whole day/week/life is ruined. depending on where in our lives these idols rest, there are different outcomes. keller puts it best:
“when idolatry is mapped onto the future–when our idols are threatened–it leads to paralyzing fear and anxiety. when it is mapped onto the past–when we fail our idols-it leads to irremediable guilt. when idolatry is mapped onto the present life–when our idols are blocked or removed by circumstance–it roils us with anger and despair.”
this totally blew me away, because i could see evidence of each in my own life. a few of my idols are academics and social involvement. i want to be involved and to get good grades so badly that when it seems scheduling is going to undo me, that i won’t be able to get everything done, i fall into intense anxiety. another idol, perfection in the christian life (legalism, basically), leads me to feel condemnation because i look back and see that i’ve done so many bad things, instead of living in light of the gospel of Jesus, that though i’ve sinned, i have been completely justified. in my present life, i become very frustrated when i can’t find the praise and esteem of my peers. i long for the high opinion of man, instead of seeking only God’s desires.
and that’s just a mere surface description. but i instantly saw where each of those idols was causing tension in my own life… causing me to turn even farther away from the Lord.
but here’s the great, amazing truth: God is greater. when i think about why i turn to my idols, the reason always comes down to personal satisfaction. but God designed me–He designed all of us–in such a way that the only way I can be wholly and completely satisfied is by putting Him above all else. by forsaking my idols, i’m actually gaining far more than i ever could by clinging to them. plus i’m loosing all the junk that comes with them: anger, anxiety, frustration, fear, guilt. it’s all gone because i have been forgiven, and i don’t have to worry about working my way into God’s favor. Jesus did that for me.
goodness. i could go on for a while. God is so good! and He desires that each of us feel this completeness that’s found only in Him. it’s free, and it’s awesome. i boast in none but Him.