“We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor.” – Powlison, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair
I am profoundly struck by the subtle ways that we tend, even when acknowledging our own sin, to turn our idolatry into somewhat of a noble attempt to meet our most basic and “good” needs. As if somehow our hearts were in the right place, but we just mis-stepped along the way.
Whether it’s our pursuit of the approval of others, our constant state of anxiety over money or our willingness to gossip about others, the issue isn’t rooted in a noble desire for simply finding love, security or self-worth. Our temptation might be to say something like, “Well, he just wants to be loved and doesn’t know how to find that in the right way.” Or, “she just wants to feel some sense of security about her future and should learn to trust God more.” Or we’ll look to the gossip and say, “It’s his desire for them to make better choices that causes him to speak that way about them.” The logic in all these ways of thinking is that we had the right idea—the right desire—but in our sinfulness we just got off track a little.
Why do we do this? Why do we ignore the reality that we are caught up in idolatry that has no good root or redeeming quality? Why do we let ourselves turn our sin into something that sounds noble of heart that just needs a little redirection? This is definitely anti-gospel, because it implies that our desires—our yearnings—are at their core in line with God. It leads us to believe there isn’t anything wrong with what we desire, but that it’s the execution of filling those desires where the problem lies. It implies that the problem is ignorance more than sin; or maybe a lack of discipline. This way of thinking is far more palatable to our desire to find something good within ourselves. We want to twist our own idolatry into something that we can consider at its core to be based in a godly or God-given desire rather than embracing the reality that as sinners, the core issue out of which our idolatry surfaces is simply our sin.
Instead of seeking to find out what things we have given the title of our heart to or which things we’ve used to try and escape the rule of God, we would rather be treated as simply those who have made misguided attempts at fulfilling the “God-shaped hole” in our lives. This false way of thinking so subtly side-steps the root of the issue: we are sinners who neither love God nor worship him if left to ourselves. This is our problem. This is why we are idolaters.
This false way of thinking about our desires and sin is also dangerous because we can easily fall into the trap of simply trading one form of idolatry for another. Religion can become the idol we call people to worship. Or it could be good works or moralism. If all we do is tell people their idol worship is misguided “good” desires then we are not calling them (or ourselves) to true healing and change, which comes only from God. Jeremiah 17 says, “Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” (v.14). We need saving, not redirection. We need healing, not just a realignment of our thinking. It’s not as if we are simply sinners on the surface, or sinners in certain areas of life. We are sinners to the core. There’s just no way to get around that.
This is the gospel truth: we are sinners who neither love God nor our neighbors. Salvation comes when Jesus steps in and doesn’t simply redirect, but truly changes us. He changes our hearts and desires and everything, making us new.