We have a lot of American idols. In fact, we even have a television show called “American Idol” in its 10th season that still draws upwards of 40 million viewers per season. We are a culture filled with idols. And we’d like to think that as followers of Jesus we’re immune from all of this American, cultural idolatry, but we’re not.
In Mark 10:17-31, Jesus has a dialogue with a wealthy young man. This young man is someone that our American culture would likely idolize because of his wealth. But the story of this rich young man is more than simply an expression of Jesus’ attitude towards wealth. It’s really a broader critique of what our culture values and idolizes.
I recently read David Platt’s book Radical. Here’s an excerpt as he talks about this rich young man:
Consider Mark 10, another time a potential follower showed up. Here was a guy who was young, rich, intelligent, and influential. He was a prime prospect, to say the least. Not only that, but he was eager and ready to go. He came running up to Jesus, bowed at his feet, and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t have the personal evangelism books we have today that tell us how to draw the net and close the sale. Instead Jesus told him one thing: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
What was he thinking? Jesus had committed the classic blunder of letting the big fish get away. The cost was too high. Yet the kind of abandonment Jesus asked of the rich young man is at the core of Jesus’ invitation throughout the Gospels.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these eager followers of Jesus in the first century. What if I were the potential disciple being told to drop my nets? What if you were the man whom Jesus told to not even say good-bye to his family? What if we were told to hate our families and give up everything we had to follow Jesus?
This is where we come face to face with a dangerous reality. We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that he will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.
But we don’t want to believe it. We are afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize these passages away. “Jesus didn’t literally mean to sell all we have and give it to the poor. What Jesus really meant was…”
And this is where we need to pause. Because we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with.
A nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus who would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that he receives all our affection. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe upon our comforts, because, after all, he loves us just the way we are. A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream.
But do you and I realize what we are doing at this point? We are molding Jesus into our image. He is beginning to look a lot like us, because, after all, that is whom we are most comfortable with. And the danger now is that when we gather in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead we may be worshiping ourselves.
Whatever Jesus commands and means, He clearly asks us if we’re willing to give up everything to follow Him? At the core, Jesus asks us if there are any idols in our lives that divert our affections and allegiances away from Him and onto something or someone else? So how do we respond to these American idols that influence and infect us?
1. Identify your idols. We tend to believe that idolatry is something that happens overseas in foreign cultures… statues, temples, and altars built to foreign gods. But idolatry is something that happens right here in our own culture and in own hearts.
In the book Counterfeit Gods Tim Keller defines an idol this way:
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
What in your life is more important to you than God? What are the things that absorb your heart, imagination, resources, and time more than God? Where do you seek identity, love, and meaning outside of your relationship with God? Whatever those things are, they are idols. Money can be an idol. The relentless desire to acquire more money and possessions easily takes over our heart. Seeking and wielding power and position can be an idol… spending hour after hour in job after job to climb the corporate ladder. Sex can be an idol, consuming our thoughts and corrupting our actions… somehow believing that it can satiate the hole in our hearts. Relationships become an idol when we’re more worried and concerned about what other people think of us more than what God thinks of us. If it takes the place of God in your heart and affections, it’s an idol.
2. Surrender your idols. Once we’ve identified the idols in our lives, now we need to confess them to Jesus. We need to repent and turn away from those idols and come back to Him. A.W. Tozier wrote this prayer in The Pursuit of God:
Father, I want to know Thee, but my coward heart fears to give up its toys. I cannot part with them without inward bleeding, and I do not try to hide from Thee the terror of the parting. I come trembling, but I do come. Please root from my heart all those things which I have cherished so long and which have become a very part of my living self, so that Thou mayest enter and dwell there without a rival. Then shalt Thou make the place of Thy feet glorious. Then shall my heart have no need of the sun to shine in it, for Thyself wilt be the light of it, and there shall be no night there.
It’s going to be a war when you surrender your idol… be prepared for that. Your own soul will beg for what it feels is lost, and the enemy will treacherously entice you that the idol is more ultimately satisfying than God. Be prepared for the war that ensues as you surrender your idols.
3. Invite Jesus to fill the void. It’s only as we grow in a longing for Jesus in intimacy with Him, learning to see Him as my all-surpassing treasure and everlasting joy that the idols are destroyed and not resurrected. It is only as I see and savor Jesus above all else that I stay “idol free.” It’s in that daily surrender where idolatry is defeated. It’s in the daily prayer of commitment, “Jesus please help me today to deny myself and surrender my heart fully to you, so that I might pick up my cross today, see you for who You fully are and recognize how fully and completely you love me because today Jesus, I want to follow You with all that I am.” Invite Jesus to fill the void.