When a good thing turns into a god-thing
In our article on 5 biblical ways to manage your attention, we looked at the pivotal role our attention plays in shaping our lives. Attention is very closely linked with another concept- our identity.
What we think about the most, what triggers us the most, our greatest fears, our most dominant worries, who or what we turn to when times get tough, and what comes to mind when we wake up are all potential clues as to where our ultimate identity might lie.
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Who we are. What defines us. What sustains us or gives us hope. Our foundation in life. The lens through which we view everything.
I’ll be the first to admit I am far from perfect in this area. The more I progress through my journey with Christ, the more conscious I become of shortcomings in my life I previously never even knew existed.
Yet, there is a comfort in this. Christ urges us to come to him with our shortcomings, and leave our burdens with him (Matt. 11:28–29). He yearns for us to come to him and shape us through the journey (Is. 30:18).
If it came down to our efforts alone, we wouldn’t even be beginning to have this conversation.
A good thing becomes a god-thing
Often when we think of idols we think of more clear examples- explicit and obvious sin, turning to other worldviews, obsessing over financial success to the point you only fellowship with Christians or read the Bible every 3 months.
Yet, the nature of the human heart is such, that pride and self-centredness make a good thing a god-thing (or idol). The gifts which God has given us usurp his role as King of our lives.
Gifts take priority over the Giver. The god of our own ego over the God of the universe.
The sacrifices involved in our own self-discipline over the ultimate sacrifice of Christ for us.
Here are 6 quick examples (we could cover many more!):
1. Romantic partner
Romance and marriage are a gift from God. Closeness to a romantic partner can further closeness to Christ- someone to pray with daily at the end of the day, someone to call out flaws you never knew existed, someone to encourage and love you to be more like Christ.
On the flip-side, relationships can also make life very difficult and cloud our entire lives with darkness and pain.
As humans we look to love for fulfilment
By nature, as humans, we need to depend on one another to an extent. Yet, this is different to looking for ultimate fulfilment and foundational meaning in others.
Romantic partners easily take the place of God. For many, the key factor in whether or not they are happy or content in life. An attempted source of ultimate fulfilment.
At the end of the day romantic partners are, in effect, only loaned to people for a time (until either death or separation). They’re not possessed indefinitely but gifted temporarily.
A deeper foundational love
Through the knowledge of Christ, we have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). God’s rich glories in Christ Jesus can satisfy every need of ours (Phil. 4:19).
The Psalms speak of the satisfying love of God, better than life itself (eg. Ps. 63:3).
David speaks of having God always before him, at his right hand (Ps. 16:8), with God as his true wealth and source of security (lot) and sustaining joy in life (portion) in Psalm 16:5.
With the love of Christ at the foundation of our lives, romantic relationships become more of an opportunity to show Christ’s love to another. Stemming from a place of wholeness and satisfaction in Christ rather than a desperate clinging to ultimate fulfilment from a broken human being.
How people respond to broken relationships is often an indication of their ultimate foundation or need of a better foundation. Often, to be remade we must be unmade first.
The woman who leaves Christianity for God after a short relationship ends compared to the woman who stays faithful to Christ despite her husband being faithless after 20 years of marriage and leaving her with three kids to care for.
Sometimes in the dark moments of greatest pain and betrayal, the opportunity to show Christ’s love and forgiveness has the potential to shine brightest.
Is it easy? Absolutely not. Pain takes time to process and some humans experience sheer horror in romantic relationships almost beyond comprehension. Yet, in Christ, we’re not alone, he wants to meet us in the depth of our brokenness and pain (Heb. 4:15–16). Pour out your heart to him (Ps. 62:8).
17 yo leaving Christianity after getting dumped by girlfriend?
Psychiatrist Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled provides the example of a boy who gave up on Christianity at 17 after his girlfriend, whom he attended church with, left him leaving him crushed and distraught.
It took him a whopping 13 years to start realising where his real identity should lie and pursue Christianity again at 30 before becoming a minister in his mid-thirties.
2. Family and church approval
People are in our lives for a reason and we are called to fellowship regularly with believers (Heb 10:25). We are there to help each other.
However, there is a world of difference between serving others out of genuine love for them and Christ and acting out of an endless desire to gain human approval.
Left on seen?
Is your well-being hanging on whether or not a family or church member replies to your nervous text? To whether or not your suggestion will be well received?
Do you feel as if your Christian faith is hanging on whether or not a certain church community approves or accepts of you?
If you find yourself shaken or physically tense or overly nervous about what others are thinking or saying of you in your family and church communities, it might be good to pause and reflect what potential lies you might be believing about your identity.
What if people lie about you?
A real risk in having human validation as our foundation in life is seen when innocent people are slandered and gossiped about in a malicious fashion. This can have truly devastating consequences.
3. Church leaders
The church in Corinth let affiliations with certain church leaders take priority over Christ being the foundation (1 Cor 1:12, 3:4–11).
Nearly two thousand years later this is still a widespread issue.
Similar to point 2, church leaders are appointed by God. They are there to help shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:2) and are fallen, imperfect humans themselves like the rest of us.
When follow the leader gets dangerous
However, it becomes a real danger when your spiritual health is almost perfectly correlated with the moral standards of your church leader.
Their failures are no reason for us to abandon Christ for their moral performance is not the reason we turned to Christ in the first place.
Building on the rock
Christ is the foundation. Our lives are to be built on His Word (Matt. 7:24–27). This is how you survive the storms and chaos of life.
We come to Christ for who he is and what he has done for us (Eph. 2:8:-10, Rom. 5:8).
This doesn’t change if your pastor gets caught having an affair or if your favourite Christian author is caught swindling money or even if you elder makes an unwise decision which hurts you.
These events might (rightly!) cause you to reconsider your church or who you read but won’t change the truth of Christianity which is rooted in history.
Are these acts to be grieved over? Absolutely (2 Cor. 11:27–28). Are they hurtful and take time to process? Absolutely. Are there wolves in sheep’s clothing around who ought to be exposed? For sure.
Yet, let’s not make pastors, authors, preachers or whatever other Christian influencer you look up to your foundation, for the rock is Christ.
If Christianity is true, your leaders will repeatedly fail you but Christ never will.
4. Gifts and Service
God is the Giver of gifts. We have nothing which we did not receive (1 Cor. 4:7). Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above (James 1:17).
Gifts are given to us to help equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12). Not to boost our own egos or to sustain our spiritual identity.
We can spend our entire weekly free time dedicated to Christian activities and still have the wrong motives.
Using our gifts, and acting in service are not fundamentally about us forging an identity but rather activities which flow from an identity in Christ gifted by his rich mercies (Eph. 2:4).
On a more material level, possessions easily take the place of God and can occupy much of our attention.
We boast in future material success or financial plans forgetting every second is a gift and life could end at any moment as a vapour rapidly disappearing without notice (James 4:13–14).
Knowledge and wisdom are good things (eg. Proverbs 1:7). Doctrinal truth and knowledge play a pivotal role in refuting false teachings and doctrines (eg. 1 Tim 4:13, Col. 2:8).
Obtaining knowledge for the sake of appearing superior to others is a dangerous, although sometimes alluring path to tread.
Paul warned knowledge puffs up but love builds up the church (1 Cor. 8:1) and that loving God means we are known by him (1 Cor. 8:3).
True knowledge of God (2 Peter 1:3), shapes our hearts to use our knowledge in a more edifying way. For the purpose of building up and edification rather than for the purpose of boosting our ego compared to others.
Knowledge of God is far more than just head knowledge, it is deeply spiritual, relational, loving, satisfying, shaping experiences while rooted in historical events concerning Jesus.
6. Spiritual progress
This is a particularly pernicious one. Do you notice spiritual progress in your life compared to others? Are you calmer, less lustful, more forgiving, more compassionate, more prayerful and disciplined than your peers? Be careful!
When we grow and change for the better, it’s a great thing. However, if we use this as an excuse for our pride to become inflamed again rather than being genuinely grateful for the work God has done in our lives, we can quickly miss the point and become like the Pharisee comparing himself to the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14).
We seek to grow spiritually out of love for Christ and our desperate need for him, not to boast of our character to others.
Second by second, the fight continues. We will continue to seek to set ourselves up as little gods. Attempting to forge an identity linked to our own pride and pleasure.
In Christ, your best is not enough. Yet, this is paradoxically relaxing. He calls us to die to these games, let go of forging our own foundation for ourselves and to press into him instead. From there, genuine heart change begins as gruelling and winding a process as it is.
What good things are you letting become god-things?
We will fail, we will misplace our identity again and again. Yet, it is such people Christ gave himself for and calls to continue to fight against their flesh in gratitude for his work on the cross daily.
Christ had no romantic partner, was rejected and despised by the religious elites, his own family turned on him, his friends betrayed him, he was slandered and misunderstood, his good works were called evil and he gave himself as a gift in the ultimate act of service and sacrifice.
What is the foundation of your thinking and existence?
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