Archive for June, 2009

How do I know when my enjoyment of something becomes a sinful idol?

John Piper writes:
Idolatry will destroy our relationship with God. And it will destroy our relationships with people. All human relational problems—from marriage and family to friendship to neighbors to classmates to colleagues—all of them are rooted in various forms of idolatry, that is, wanting things other than God in wrong ways.
So here is my effort to think biblically about what those wrong ways are. What makes an enjoyment idolatrous? What turns a desire into covetousness, which is idolatry?

1. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is forbidden by God. For example, adultery and fornication and stealing and lying are forbidden by God. Some people at some times feel that these are pleasurable, or else we would not do them. No one sins out of duty. But such pleasure is a sign of idolatry.

2. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is disproportionate to the worth of what is desired. Great desire for non-great things is a sign that we are beginning to make those things idols.

3. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is not permeated with gratitude. When our enjoyment of something tends to make us not think of God, it is moving toward idolatry. But if the enjoyment gives rise to the feeling of gratefulness to God, we are being protected from idolatry. The grateful feeling that we don’t deserve this gift or this enjoyment, but have it freely from God’s grace, is evidence that idolatry is being checked.

4. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it does not see in God’s gift that God himself is more to be desired than the gift. If the gift is not awakening a sense that God, the Giver, is better than the gift, it is becoming an idol.

5. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is starting to feel like a right, and our delight is becoming a demand. It may be that the delight is right. It may be that another person ought to give you this delight. It may be right to tell them this. But when all this rises to the level of angry demands, idolatry is rising.

6. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it draws us away from our duties. When we find ourselves spending time pursuing an enjoyment, knowing that other things, or people, should be getting our attention, we are moving into idolatry.

7. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it awakens a sense of pride that we can experience this delight while others can’t. This is especially true of delights in religious things, like prayer and Bible reading and ministry. It is wonderful to enjoy holy things. It idolatrous to feel proud that we can.

8. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is oblivious or callous to the needs and desires of others. Holy enjoyment is aware of others’ needs and may temporarily leave a good pleasure to help another person have it. One might leave private prayer to be the answer to someone else’s.

9. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it does not desire that Christ be magnified as supremely desirable through the enjoyment. Enjoying anything but Christ (like his good gifts) runs the inevitable risk of magnifying the gift over the Giver. One evidence that idolatry is not happening is the earnest desire that this not happen.

10. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is not working a deeper capacity for holy delight. We are sinners still. It is idolatrous to be content with sin. So we desire transformation. Some enjoyments shrink our capacities of holy joy. Others enlarge them. Some go either way, depending on how we think about them. When we don’t care if an enjoyment is making us more holy, we are moving into idolatry.

11. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when its loss ruins our trust in the goodness of God. There can be sorrow at loss without being idolatrous. But when the sorrow threatens our confidence in God, it signals that the thing lost was becoming an idol.

12. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when its loss paralyzes us emotionally so that we can’t relate lovingly to other people. This is the horizontal effect of losing confidence in God. Again: Great sorrow is no sure sign of idolatry. Jesus had great sorrow. But when desire is denied, and the effect is the emotional inability to do what God calls us to do, the warning signs of idolatry are flashing.

For myself and for you, I pray the admonition of 1 John 5:21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

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Colombia bound

1146878_80379220Prayer warriors, we request your support again. In a few hours a small team will fly out for Colombia to train a large gathering of youth at a local church. The focus is on decision making, which means bringing the gospel of grace to bear on the issue, pointing our hearts to Christ Jesus our Lord who alone is able to transform our hearts to seek the Lord in all decisions.
It is not a lengthy trip, but because we are partnered with nationals in the country who are already working to train small group leaders, the stay need not be long for the Spirit to work.

Please pray “that words may be given to us in opening ours mouths boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which we are ambassadors, that we may declare it boldly, as we ought to speak.”

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Twitter notified me of a new message. “Paring back some of the trading long rentals to be safe in here, volume wanting but action the world’s fair.” The cryptic message from a fellow stock trader launched me into a burst of anxious action.

I was a stock trader. Every morning at 6am my eyes popped open, and I would check futures to see where the market was headed. I would keep the trading platform open all day on my laptop, even during classes. Last thing before bed, I was watching market trading recap videos- from various guru traders- with my eyes set on the following day.

My fiercely competitive personality bred an anxiety that bled me of joy and peace. My emotions followed the ticker tape. Account up $750 today? I’m soaring into the clouds of bliss, though they are tinged grey on the underbelly with the discontented wish for $1,000. Slipped $800 into the red? I’ll harbor a poisonous defeated feeling that will seep out as irritability in relationships throughout the day. A particularly draining series of down days released anger to ricochet through my heart with an unwelcome sting, flashing a glaring warning signal I was slow to investigate. My heart was blindly whoring after an idol that devoured all of my time and controlled all of my emotions.

“…If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Those words are true. My conscience would not leave me alone, and the Spirit spoke through the scriptures often. I fought back. Why was it such a problem? Why couldn’t I earn a living in stock trading world? Couldn’t it be akin to tent-making? There are other Christian stock traders, why can’t I be one? Why did I feel like I had to justify this to God in the first place?

The justifications barricaded my heart when the Spirit spoke through the word. The justifications were most ardent when the Spirit called for me to count all as loss in order to know Christ. Not that investing is evil in itself, yet it was keeping my heart from pursuing Christ. There was no need to justify my passion for the stock market when my heart was comfortably lukewarm. A lukewarm heart and the stock market were perfectly compatible, and fed off of each other. Yet when my hunger for God was roused, it could never be satisfied because I had no room to study and meditate on the Word and commune with God when stock charts filled my head every spare moment of the day. I admired one stock trader who said something to the effect of, “Don’t trade stocks on Fridays, because then you will be distracted all weekend while the market is closed, wondering if you were right to buy the stock. Save the weekend for church and family.” My admiration for that man revealed my heart attitude. “God, you can have my weekends. The rest is mine. I’ll honor the Sabbath, but worship other gods the rest of the week.” I thought it was a noble thing to be so devoted to God as to clear the weekend for Him.

I continued to wander in the desert. I found enough time for God only to know that I was missing more than I could imagine. Could I afford to continue to pay that price? What if I did gain the whole world, or even just a home-run stock pick? Was it worth starving myself spiritually and losing communion with my God? I didn’t want to answer those questions. God’s Word was abundantly clear: if anything in my life rises above God, whether it is intrinsically evil or not, it is an idol and it is rubbish. A close friend, after hearing me spill my heart out on the matter, could see I was torn between two loves. “I don’t see why you are still doing it if what you say is true and it is taking God’s place.” The words were blunt and I had no good response. God was speaking to me personally in His Word, and speaking to me through a friend who could see the low place God had fallen to in my life, even though I was blind.

Then I was broken. Christ took the throne of my heart one night as I cried out in prayer for hours. God, take me. All of me. I won’t hide from the pain or clutch at the rubbish anymore, tear it away, plow my fallow ground and prepare my heart for Your rain of righteousness.

The following morning, I liquidated my stock holdings. I feared that if I delayed a minute, black and white might turn to grey again and I might remain ensnared. I wanted out. Now. My longing heart was desperate for the quiet waters of the Lord. Let me be clear: I do not believe investing is evil in itself, and I do believe anything can take God’s place and become an idol. The problem was that I had given my life over to the markets, dethroning God. When an activity dethrones God and sabotages my relationships with God and man, it is a toxic lie that has deceived me into sacrificing joy Christ died to bring me for bondage Christ paid to release me from. And if such an activity has to be utterly abandoned to restore communion with God, so be it. Some things can not be abandoned and must be restored to a proper place in subjection to Christ. Yet others, as in my particular case, must be cut off.

For the first week after ceasing to day trade, I still woke up at 6am. Strong habits did not fade over night, and neither did the strange aimless feeling that followed suddenly giving up what once consumed my life. All of the short-cut buttons on my web browsers were links to stock trading websites. My computer desktop was covered in trading files. I cleaned and prayed. “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”

God is faithful. He opens the eyes of the blind, He pursues the hearts of the wandering. He gives wisdom to those that ask for the right reasons. He works through the body of Christ to bring words of insight and discernment to those who are lost. His grace is poured out for His own name’s sake. Glory to His name, His surpassing worth floods my heart with a joy and satisfaction that could never be found in the all-consuming world of day trading.

Recounting the story feels like trying to sort through a jumble. But it is a story that ends with a thankful heart. There is one who has paid our ransom, purchased our bodies so that we are not our own. We do not have a life to call our own, to spend as we please on rubbish. And the One who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it, just as a shepherd pulls a wandering lamb back. God, rescue us from the rubbish heap.

Do you have a similar experience? Has God brought something to your mind that is costing you more than you can afford to pay?

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Treasuring Christ

This is a powerful and concise summation of the message Piper passionately delivers. 3 minutes, and worth much more.

Tell me if you are moved by that as much as I was.

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powerful_prayer_t_notextDear readers,
For the next 3 days, God’s glory will be displayed as His name is proclaimed by the mouths of children in daycares. For the past year, I have had the privilege to work with a group of children (ages 7 to 13), training them to share their faith. The staff team has put in many hours with the children, and their parents have put in many more as the children do parent-child work at home, memorizing scripture and working through homework from Children Desiring God.

Will you please pray for us as we go out to share the gospel in daycares for the next three days? We need the Holy Spirit to work in hearts, even our own hearts, for God’s glory as we witness. The staff team of 6 need strength and wisdom. Our heart’s cry is to model for the children a God-centered view of missions; will you join with us in prayer? Hundreds of kids will hear the gospel of Christ Jesus proclaimed.

Please send this prayer request on to any prayer warriors you know. We don’t just ask for your prayer. We plead for you to pray. We plead with you to pray Scripture for us. The power of prayer to move God is undeniable. I’d love to know how many of you are praying for us, it will be an encouragement for our staff and children. Thank you all.

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This article was my reading before bed tonight, something to spur my mind to meditate. It was successful enough to merit sharing.

Excerpt: “After some deliberation, they conceived a question that would surely hang Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. Either answer would incriminate him, divide the crowd, and give them cause to arrest him.
On Monday morning, as Jesus was teaching in the temple, the appointed delegation made their way to him through the crowd. The spokesman loudly asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus, sitting, leaned back a bit and squinted up at them. The tension was thick.
Then he answered, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, where did it come from? From heaven or from man?”
This was a stunning counter. They faltered. The crowd began to murmur. Their hesitation was humiliating.”

Click to read: Exposing the idol of self-glory, by Jon Bloom.

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837127_98553547Thy will be done
The Lord’s prayer offers insight for the bewildered saint who is struggling for answers, for it offers hope of clear vision through clouds of personal interests and biases. This clear vision can be found when we fall to our knees with a heart that cries “thy will be done.” The cry relinquishes all personal control, transfers it wholly to the Father, and submits to His sovereignty, which is an act of faith in His goodness coupled with a distrust of self’s ability to perceive things clearly. God’s will then engulfs our own and nails self to the cross to die.

Be Thou My Vision
Then we see, and we can at last trust in the Lord with all our heart, not leaning on our own understanding, but following the straight path of His will. Only humility paired with faith will lead us to this straight path found on the stones of surrender that break the heart of its arrogant attempts to trust its own vision.

Approaching God’s Word
This surrendered attitude leads us to come to God’s Word in communion seeking His will instead of coming to the Bible as a self-help reference book of proof texts useful for justifying our fleshly desires. If these fleshly desires are willing to be counted as rubbish if God labels them so, then we are free to read His Word more objectively in search for guidance. Our difficult decision will not suddenly become easy, yet the Truth can shine light to enable us to discern rubbish from treasure. All that glitter is not gold. In low light, tin foil gum wrappers gleam. Oh how we need our righteousness to be brought forth like the light as we walk a path committed to the Lord. As we walk that path, God’s Word is the appropriate nourishment for for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil .

2 Tactics for decision making
Because we believe God’s Word holds the key to spiritual discernment, we will use tactics based on Scripture when endeavoring to separate rubbish from treasure.

1. Seek God in the quiet. Since it is difficult to hear the Holy Spirit through the noise- audible or mental- that busyness creates, it is best if we will slow down and be still before God. To-do lists sitting on the desk, music blaring from the iPod, deadlines pulling us into a rush, inboxes overflowing with email, texts that demand a response, and our many other activities add to the busyness and keep us from ever having an uninterrupted moment to meditate in quiet wonder upon the glory of God. Yet God promises wisdom to those who will come before Him and make their request. Another Biblical idea that I am still exploring is seeking God in His sanctuary, literally. In Psalm 73:16-17, things become clear in God’s sanctuary. It was also where Hezekiah went to seek the Lord after receiving a difficult letter from the King of Assyria. The letter was laid before God on the temple steps, and God guided Hezekiah (Anyone have thoughts on that? I will try to explore it more, and maybe even give it a try next time I face a difficult decision).

2. Seek wise counsel. We are in a position of weakness whenever our heart is in the matter. Because we can be easily deceived and hardened by sin, we must go to someone who is willing to be honest with us. Qualities to look for in our counselor are spiritual insight, a gift of discernment, a strong relationship with God, and knowledge of the Bible. It is spiritual arrogance to believe we can find the answer from the inside without help from the body. Sure, we might find the answer alone, but two can stand stronger and a three-fold cord is not easily broken.

The bottom line
We need spiritual discernment, not a cookie-cutter 3-step solution for dealing with difficult spiritual decisions that the heart has tangled with justifications and excuses. For example: “Is the Lord telling me to give up my lawful, yet unprofitable rubbish?” Spiritual discernment to know the difference between unprofitable rubbish (even if lawful) and profitable treasure is developed by feeding on God’s Word. The question ought to be brought before God in the quiet, and before a brother or sister in Christ who advise me from outside the tangle.

One last note
Let’s give God room to work His will. We must listen to what He wants to say, not only what we want to hear. The answer may hurt or break us, plowing up follow ground in order for the rain of righteousness to pour down. We may feel insecure and helpless in the fact of vast uncertainty, as Abram might have felt when God called Him to leave his home and go to a land untold.

What would these principles look like in practice?
In the next post in this series, we will dissect a difficult decision, a recent story of God breaking my own heart and revealing sin. We can see what went wrong, and what worked. We will see that my story is not a story of my faithfulness, but of God’s faithfulness in spite of my lack.

What are your thoughts? What has helped you sort out difficult decisions?

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