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The evangelical interest in idolatry

A few weeks ago I came across these tweets by Sophie Killingley, @PrettySophieK, 9th Feb 2024:

1) The Evangelical urge to view everything through the lens of idolatry leads to hyper vigilance, scrupulosity and a narrowing of the emotional life.

Time and time again I hear the tired trope; what is the ONE THING that if taken away would you make you feel that life was over?

2) cue anxious rumination of audience Pastor/Speaker/Writer triumphantly emotes: THAT’S YOUR IDOL.

Now woah there! I don’t think there’s one among us who wouldn’t feel life was somewhat “over” if a spouse/child/meaningful friendship/career/health/money etc was taken suddenly

3) That’s a NATURAL human reaction to being invested emotionally in this life and the gifts given us. It proves only that we are humans. Not that we loved TOO MUCH and now should love LESS, in case of angering a greedy God.

My instinct in time past was to try and love things LESS

4) But friends, that’s surely not what is good and healthy. God’s gifts are expressions of himself, insights into his vast generosity. Putting things into dualist categories of idol/not idol seems reductive and unworkable. And feels like a dip into gnostic sensibilities.

5) What do we think is a better way of framing such things or are these frameworks what cause the narrowness of thought and fear filled practice?

 

 

These tweets were impactful for me, because I remember sometimes having that fear that God’s plan for me was to take away that which I loved most. I don’t think it was a particularly strong fear or one that I took very seriously, but I do remember it being there. I don’t think I acted on it either. Certainly, I didn’t try to love anything less.

 

I remember one (apocryphal?) story of a couple who had just experienced some hardship or loss. In telling her husband of the event, the wife started with a parable that went something like this: “My friend lent me a beautiful and precious necklace, which I have enjoyed having and wearing for some years. My friend has now asked for this necklace back, so that she can enjoy it too. What should I do? I want to keep it.”

 

Of course, the answer is to return the necklace; it was never the wife’s necklace in the first place. The story was told to ease the husband into the loss in question; that it was in the first place a gift on loan from God, and not something over which the couple could declare unilateral rights of ownership and possession. The idea for us listeners was to help shift our perspective a little on what we think is ‘ours’, and any in-built belief that God has no right to what is ‘ours’.

 

I don’t quite like the tale, in part because God doesn’t need to take back anything he has given us on loan. He can enjoy it even as we enjoy it; there is no exclusive possession where either we have something or God has something. But I am happy to discard the dross that the moral is wrapped in, and keep the moral. Because the fact is that every good thing that we enjoy on earth does come from God; does ultimately belong to God; and is something over which we have no exclusive claim to possession nor even any inherent right to possess. In our status as sinful rejectors of God, we in fact have no right to anything at all; not even to life.

 

We also live in a sinful, broken world where bad things happen. They happen with no particular reference to whether we were being ‘idolatrous’ in relation to a good thing or not. They happen because other people sin; and because we sin; and because creation is broken; and because Satan is present and active. And when these bad things happen, it does not mean that God has stolen from us. It does not mean that we were idolatrously clinging to those good things that are now gone. To be honest, I’m not sure that God has to actively intervene to ‘test’ our ‘idolatry’ very often, as the world is sufficiently broken to create enough trials and griefs on its own; enough difficulties that God can use for our good, without him having to send his own.

 

God can use difficulties and trials in our life to help us refine our trust in him. We are advised to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-3). “Though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6b-7). “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-4).

 

But God’s use of trials when they happen, and his ability to turn them for our good, doesn’t mean that he necessarily cuts out something or someone precious, deliberately to make that test. I don’t deliberately make my nieces’ lives unpleasant just to teach them something about not depending on X, Y or Z. Sometimes I might refuse a special treat because I know it’s not good for them to have lots of sugar, or lots of TV time, or constant play without ever tidying up. Other times, they are sad and want their mum or dad, but mum or dad is out and I’m the only one available. We don’t set up these times; they just happen, because mum and dad need to work or need a break or are too ill to get up. Or something has gone wrong and the favourite cup to drink from is missing; or the favourite toy is broken; or the favourite TV episode is no longer available on demand. These ‘trials’ happen more than regularly enough for me not to need to artificially make one, in order to teach a lesson about not ‘needing’ certain things for happiness.

 

CS Lewis takes a stronger view about God’s role in the arrival of trials in our life. He queries, “what do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ have they never even been to a dentist?” The fact is that God disciplines those whom he loves. That suggests an active agency. Nevertheless, I would be surprised to learn that those people who lost a child whilst young or a spouse soon after marriage were more idolatrous parents and lovers than the rest of us. Indeed, I might rather be inclined to be in awe at God’s grace that he doesn’t carry out such harsh actions for the huge numbers of us who do place the security and purpose of our lives in things like our children, our partners, our work, or our health. I might rather wonder at all the trials and tests that don’t come our way, because God has actively stopped them in his mercy, than query the ones that he does let through.

 

When I became ill back in 2011, that illness helped me learn on a deeper, experiential level about trusting in God for income and support; but I don’t think I was idolising my health or that God made me ill in order to teach me a lesson about idolatry. My relationship with him has been refined and deepened, but I wouldn’t talk of the loss of my health as something that God deliberately sent to teach me a lesson. I am happy to talk about the ways that I can serve God because of my illness, in particular the lived experience that I can bring to research into disability and social security, and to churches about how Christians should respond to long-term structural poverty. But I do God the credit to think that he could have used a wide range of different circumstances for my good, and that I could have usefully served him under a variety of situations and experiences.

 

I’m also single, but I don’t think God has kept a partner from me out of some need to teach me not to idolise marriage. I am content being single, so if anything maybe God should send me a husband to make sure I don’t idolise singleness! I enjoy helping to look after my young nieces, but I also enjoy coming back home and having the freedom to live in accordance with my health. Should God send me a child so that I don’t idolise the child-free state? This could quickly get ridiculous, with God having nowhere to turn for fear that we can equally idolise the presence and the absence of something!

 

Instead of worrying about idolatry, I think it is a good practice to be in the habit of appreciating every good thing that we have. I don’t mean the things that we feel we ought to be grateful for, but aren’t. I mean the things we genuinely experience joy and gratitude for. For me, this is my bed. It makes me very happy, and I thank God for decent mattresses and comfortable pillows and the flexibility in my life that means I often can return to bed when I need to. And when I was at university, I made a deliberate point of enjoying the beautiful architecture of my university town and the frequent clear skies. I worked at never growing stale to it. So when I became ill and had to move back to my dank, grey place of birth, I was comforted by my memories and enjoyment. I had no regrets of ‘if only I’d appreciated it whilst I had it’. Currently, I really love my flat and the place I live; but I am bearing in mind the possibility that when my nieces are grown and have their own children, perhaps it will be of use to them if I move to live nearby and help with their kids; or my parents as they age might need me to live closer by to them. I hope that in either of those eventualities, I give up my flat with good grace, thanking God for the time in which I had it, and looking forward to the new blessings of the new situation.

 

As a single person, sometimes I struggle with loneliness. I don’t necessarily want to go visit a friend and have to make conversation, but I’d like there to be someone around to do life with. Someone to eat with; to do chores with; to sit and a read a book with. I also visit my sister regularly, and am reminded of all the benefits of being alone! I don’t have to wash up but can leave it for my assistant. I can eat what I want, when I want. I can watch what I want. I have no grumpy moods to navigate, and no tearful kids to comfort. Although on balance I think that the shared life is better, I also acknowledge and enjoy those benefits of singleness that do exist. To be fair, this has been massively helped recently by getting an affectionate dog who, whilst she can’t replace human companionship, is good enough to get me through the lonely days until I’m next visiting my sister and her family.

 

Combining the goodness of God with an awareness of the broken, frustrated nature of the world we live in suggests to me that we should actually love more, not less. We should make use of the good things that God has given us for as long as we have them, to enjoy them as he intended for us to do. The fact that none of what we have is a guaranteed permanent feature of our life should make us want to ensure that we never have that ‘if only’ regret; that feeling that we didn’t appreciate what we had until it was gone. So I appreciate the singleness that I have. I appreciate the opportunity to live near family. I even appreciate the fact that chronic illness prevents me from working, because it means that on those all-too-rare sunny days, I can go and soak up as much sun as possible rather than be stuck indoors at a computer. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t rather be healthy and have a job and live with friends or family, but I don’t let the overall negativity prevent me from enjoying the occasional good side.

 

Overall, I want to remain aware of the fragility of life. I know that good things come and stay and other good things come and go; that bad things also come and stay or come and go. I know that God loves me, but that this is a frustrated world and that the only way for God to end all suffering now would be to bring in the new heavens and earth – which would mean foreclosing on all the people not-yet-born who would otherwise get to enjoy that new heavens and earth with us. So I endure the loss that happens, and I enjoy those things that are still present, and I try always to praise to God in all situations.

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