A Buddha sits on the shelf in my friend’s bathroom. My friend isn’t a believer in Jesus and to him, it is just a happy, little fat guy that gives his LA apartment some Asian flair. Harmless. Cute even.
Most Christians I know wouldn’t have a Buddha adorning their bathroom shelf. Millions of people bow down to similar statues every day, even feeding the little gods from their own meager food supply. But we Christians don’t bow down to idols. True, we probably wouldn’t be tempted to a lifetime of slavery to a false religion if Buddha sat next to our deodorant and flameless candles, but we just don’t want idols on our bathroom shelves or anywhere else in our homes or lives. We are committed to flee from idols. We pray for the natives of Papua New Guinea who live in animistic fear. We may wonder whether Catholic friends can really be Christians if they have a statue of Mary in their homes. We probably even avoid a fung shui approach to decorating our living rooms- after all, it’s derived from Eastern mysticism.
We might feel pretty good about our commitment to flee from idolatry. Our homes are decorated with Bible verses, but not images of God or gods. We know that God is Spirit and we don’t worship him in graven form. We are Christians, not pagans. Not idol-worshippers. Buddha does not have a home on our bathroom shelf.
There are other kinds of idols that we have become aware of. We know that we must be careful not love money, success, sex, food or other people more than we love God. We know that we are to strive to love God first. We all battle this kind of idolatry and most genuine Christ followers are aware of their personal struggle with this kind of heart idolatry. Hopefully, we are taking those things to the cross every day. I have my own heart idols. Fear is a big one. And I need Christ to work in me to overcome that and bring my heart back to Him every day.
What I want to talk about here though are the idols that we may be completely unaware of. I want to address those cute, fat, innocent and smiling idols that are sitting on the shelves our hearts. We didn’t realize that they were idols. They are just, well… cute. They are idols, nonetheless. They are the things we love so much more than they are worth loving. Cute, worthless idols.
I am talking about those things in our lives that make us feel good, but don’t draw us to Christ.
-The favorite TV shows that capture our imaginations, our time and too much of our conversation with others.
-The trips to the beach, the local pub or to Disneyland that cost us so much that we aren’t sure we can give time or money to our churches anymore.
-The baseball fan club that eats up every weekend and leads us to hours of worthless Twitter feeding.
-The epic video games that leave us at the end of a long free Saturday with dishes in the sink, laundry still on the floor and absolutely nothing of value at the end of the day.
-The Facebook addiction that keeps us answering name test quizzes, posting our best selfies and comparing our lives to everyone else’s at a rate of approximately 16 checks per hour.
-The beer, coffee, wine or foodie passion that keeps us throwing time and dollars at the next, great experience for our taste buds, all the while growing our ability to sound intelligent and cultured when we snub the choices and offerings of less sophisticated palettes.
-The girls’ nights out that are full of fun, a few drinks, a lot of laughter and very little substance.
I’ve only touched on a few happy, cute idols, but I’m sure I’ve struck a few nerves with some people. Believe me, I’ve struck some of my own nerves! I have met very few American Christians, especially in my own generation that don’t have at least one of these cute little guys hanging out on their heart’s idol shelf. He may look more like Mickey Mouse, Dr. Who, Harry Potter or Buster Posey than Buddha, but it’s there.
A lot of the things that I mentioned are not bad, in and of themselves. That’s what makes this kind of cute idol so deceitful and destructive.
How do we know if one of these things or something else has become an idol on the shelf of our hearts?
The first clue is probably that we get pretty defensive if anyone comments on our favorite idols. We should prayerfully check ourselves if we hear ourselves saying things like:
“It’s not an idol! It’s just something I enjoy and there’s nothing wrong with that!”
“Besides, YOU have this other idol, so who are you to judge me??”
“I could be into something so much worse. What’s a little Disney addiction compared to alcohol, drugs or cheating on my wife?”
“I work hard! My time and money are mine and if I choose to spend it on these innocent things, then that’s my own business.”
I know I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking. The very fact that I would get defensive of my favorite things is a strong indicator that they have become more precious to me than they are actually worth.
Once, when I was a teenager, I had some of this idolatry pointed out to me by my father and it made me mad. I was a huge fan of the Beatles as a teen. I loved the early stuff- the romance without all the sexual charge of the music of my own generation. It was fun. It was innocent, I thought. I collected posters, decorated my room in a 60s theme and sat by the radio at night trying to record songs off of oldies radio on to cassette tapes to listen to later. My siblings and cousins got into it with me, and we loved to talk about the Beatles. We were true fans, even if we were about 30 years late!
My dad told me one day that he thought I was way too in to the group for a Christian. I immediately got defensive. I thought about how judgmental my dad could be. About how he never seemed pleased with me. I wanted to tell him about how all of my friends were lying and sneaking around behind their parent’s backs. About how other kids listened to Top 40 music that was really worldly. About how he should get off of my case, because I was a good kid listening to innocent music and having completely harmless fun.
As I sat in my self-defensive pout, God spoke to my heart. He revealed to me that the reason I was so defensive was because I didn’t want to give my love of the Beatles up. It made me feel happy. It helped me escape from the mundane of my teenage life into a fantasy of boys, rock music and other-worldliness. I was ashamed when I realized how much love was going toward something that was so worthless. The posters came down and I cooled on the Beatles for a while. Later, as a very young adult, I got into their music again, for the same happy feelings that got me into them in the first place. Yet again, God spoke to my heart. It’s not that it’s so evil. It’s just so worthless. So I stopped listening again.
There have been a number of times in my life that a similar heart cleansing has needed to happen because of happy idols that perched themselves there. Looking back on some of it, I am embarrassed to even admit I let those worthless things become such loves. There were idols of books, movies and video games that “took me away” from my heartaches, an idol of baseball that made me feel part of something bigger than myself and even a few “healthy lifestyle” obsession idols that made me feel like I was more worthy of love. These idols all needed to be cleared off of the shelves of my heart. Strangely enough, when by God’s grace, I evicted an idol, many of my Christian friends accused me of “not being true to myself”. It’s sad that “myself” had come to be synonymous with these things of no intrinsic value in the minds of some of my friends and family.
The thing about my heart and yours is that we don’t keep empty shelves. We are looking for something to fill us up. If you look at the various idols I mentioned, they are all being used to try to fill a real heart need. We use happy little idols to try and bring ourselves happiness. We use them to escape from heartache because we can’t bear the pain of this life. We use them to make us feel a part of something greater than ourselves.
The Bible says, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)”. When God spoke these words about His people Israel, He was angry. He had brought His people out of slavery. They were His own sons and daughters. Yet, they kept turning to false gods and worthless things to satisfy them. How insulting to the God who broke their bonds and gave them every good thing!
The happy little idols on the shelves of our hearts are essentially our own attempts to gather water from empty, broken wells. We need fresh, life-giving water, yet we go and look for it in all the wrong places. We have been freed from slavery and made alive in Christ for a glorious life of freedom (See Romans 5 and 6). The thing that is so heart-wrenching about our idol worship is that, while our happy little idols do no great harm, they completely distract us from being filled with everything that is incredibly good. We might have lives filled with meaningful loves, days filled with true joys and hearts full of every spiritual blessing. Instead, we clutter the shelves of our hearts with fat, smiling meaninglessness.
Jesus is offering so much more to us. He is eagerly desiring to fill us with His resurrected life. He desires to make something magnificent of us (2 Peter 1:3-4).
The question is, will we have the courage to leave behind the loves that fill us to really experience His fullness of joy? If we will let go of the meaningless fillers in our hearts, we can find true fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
There was a defining moment in my life a few years ago when I became more fully aware of the great tragedy and wickedness of the happy idols in my heart. I realized that I was hiding my heartache, guilt, shame, feelings and unworthiness and obscurity behind worthless pleasures that acted as Band-Aids on my broken heart. I chose at that moment to LIVE without self-medicating, no matter the pain. I wanted the abundant Christ life- in all of its peaks and valleys. That decision would be the beginning of a transformation that I have experienced and continue to experience. I still battle my days of temptation to try and find satisfaction in a happy idol or two. I am sure that there are still some that I am not quite aware of. However, since I committed this part of my life over to Christ, I am being truly changed on the inside. My taste for meaningless pleasure has significantly faded. My ability to embrace the joys and sorrows of life has brought me to the throne of Grace in thanksgiving, tears, desperation and great rejoicing. Christ has shown me that no place in this world is “the happiest place on earth”, but He has traded my empty idols for something far beyond. The Psalmist said it best:
5The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
6The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
7I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
8I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
9Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
10For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
11You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.