The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dulness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God… Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 11
I’ve lived in a college town for over ten years; not just any college town—Tuscaloosa, Alabama—home to the state’s flagship institution, the nation’s largest sorority recruitment and, of course, the Crimson Tide. Since living here I’ve seen the football team win five national titles, the campus undergo historic growth and expansion, and thousands of students intentionally chase after the wrong thing. Like any other state school competing for incoming freshmen, Alabama constantly drives home the same message to its students: it is all about YOU. If Calvin calls the human heart a factory of idols, Tuscaloosa, Alabama should be on the Forbes watchlist for largest industrial cities.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not standing atop the mountain, shouting down at all the sinners below, warning them to repent of their love of football (or drinking, or sex, or academic pursuits, or whatever) as if I wasn’t breathing the same air. I have. I do. I am. But one thing I have learned from living here awhile is that, no matter what the desire of your heart is, you can find it here and it won’t satisfy you.
Idolatry works like a As Seen On TV product. You see something you want and think, “That’s exactly what I need. It will immediately answer this longing I have.” The tricky thing about it is that, for a while, it does exactly that. Whatever you’re worshipping seems to fulfill you until it doesn’t. I’ve experienced my share of disappointment at the end of what I thought would make me happy. The high wears off, the applause of your peers eventually stops being enough and your team achieving the highest possible accomplishments on repeat comes to be expected rather than delightful.
We exhaust ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually when we worship the wrong thing.
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, he began the list with this issue, giving it a primacy and importance before all the rest. Exodus 20:3 says “You shall have no other gods before me.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains this verse this way:
The first commandment requires us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly. The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshipping and glorifying, the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone.
It’s uncommon on campus (though not completely absent) for people to actually have miniaturized gods or idols to which they pray, give honor and try to please. Abundantly more common in the college context (and in my own heart) is the elevating of common things to the place reserved for God alone. This “god-ing” of everyday things, experiences, people, achievements and the like is the primary idolatry of our day. And as it is far more insidious, it is far more deadly.
As a kid, I remember feeling off every December 26th. Something about waking up the day after Christmas felt empty. Not because I wasn’t gifted what I wanted—in fact, all too often, it was because I had gotten exactly what I wanted and realized that, even just one day later, the majesty of it began to fade. One thing I’ve always tried to communicate to those I’ve discipled and taught (and this is something that has always helped me) is that you will have countless mornings when you wake up with that hollow feeling. The best thing you can do is to embrace it. Embrace the hollowness of that moment, because unlike any other moment of your life, your soul is finally being as honest with you as it ever will. It’s testifying of what you already know—that this world is deeply broken and tragically flawed and all the bells and whistles the world promises will bring you life are completely impaired from doing so because idols are nothing more than counterfeit gods. And your soul can taste the difference.
But there’s something else.
In the moments of the hollow soul, when you’re disappointed because you’ve finally got the degree/job/car/house/spouse/award/kids/college football national championship you wanted and it hasn’t made you feel the way you thought it would, there’s something else, something better.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.