“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” 2 Tim. 2:3-4 (ESV)
“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'” Matt. 16:24-25 (ESV)
This week I went to a worship conference with Sam and Kevin. One recurring theme at the conference was the need for worship leaders to recognize that we don’t bring anything to the table, that God does not need us, and that when God calls us, we need to leave all of our past accomplishments as well as future ambitions behind.
On Thursday night, before I went to sleep, I read chapter 2 in The Pursuit of God, “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing.” At first glance, the chapter appears to be about materialism, but when you go deeper, you find it is more about the sin of putting anything other than God on the throne of your heart, whether that be material things, people, abilities, ambitions, ideas, desires, dreams, whatever.
At first, as I read, I was thinking about a certain materialistic person whom I had known, and how correct I was in my opinion of the wrongness of this materialism, and how right I was in choosing to dissociate myself from this individual. But when we read, we cannot read for other people. Even a preacher who is reading in order to prepare a sermon that has to be made relevant to a congregation, has to first read for himself. “We preach best what we need to learn most.” So a better application than strengthening my resolve against other people’s materialism is to humbly recognize my own idols.
For example, the idea of getting married was an idol for me, for a very long time. I made compromises in critical areas, the way musical artists might sell out on their convictions and their friends in order to get a recording contract. This was such a bad issue for me, and even when healing is complete and I’m ready to open up my heart to make it available to somebody else in the future, I doubt that Theoretical Future Girl will be able to believe that I’m really interested in her and not just in the idea of marriage.
The core of the chapter uses Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac as an illustration. By asking Abraham to kill his only son, God humbled him and took away all of his earthly security, and thus reset his priorities. In the same way I had to come to a place where I was humiliated, in order to discover in my shame that the whole wanting to get married thing was an idol for me after all. This is an area God’s been dealing with in my heart for months, but right now what I’m learning is that idolatry has deeper roots than what is visible or obvious, and it has to do fundamentally with our understanding of contentment.
This week I came to a realization that the word contentment does not mean what we think it means, and I think that it is possible for us to have idols and not know it, and it is by changing our definition that these very idols will be exposed.
I once had a friendship that was so special to me, I said that I could go the rest of my life and be okay, even if I never got married, as long as I still had this friendship with this girl. And in so thinking, I thought I was being content, and therefore spiritual. But that’s not contentment at all. Biblical contentment is not the same thing as being happy with the status quo and not wanting more than we already have. No, true spiritual contentment is being happy even if everything we have is taken away from us, because our treasure and our hope is internal, and it is eternal. In this way, expressions of perceived contentment can actually point out idolatry in our lives, when we are expressing satisfaction with things we hope will not be taken away, when we are satisfied with God’s gifts rather than with God. Even a friendship can be an idol, when you say it’s the one thing that will keep you happy as long as you get to hold onto it forever.
Everything was different for Abraham after the trial was over. As Tozer puts it,
The old man of God lifted his head to respond to the Voice, and stood there on the mount strong and pure and grand, a man marked out by the Lord for special treatment, a friend and favorite of the Most High. Now he was a man wholly surrendered, a man utterly obedient, a man who possessed nothing. He had concentrated his all in the person of his dear son, and God had taken it from him. God could have begun out on the margin of Abraham’s life and worked inward to the center. He chose rather to cut quickly to the heart and have it over in one sharp act of separation…
I have said that Abraham possessed nothing. Yet was not this poor man rich? Everything he had owned before was his still to enjoy: sheep, camels, herds, and goods of every sort. He had also his wife and his friends, and best of all he had his son Isaac safe by his side. He had everything, but he possessed nothing. There is the spiritual secret. There is the sweet theology of the heart which can be learned only in the school of renunciation. (p. 27)
What God did to Abraham produced a profound change of character that affected how he looked at everything else in his life. In the same way, in terms of applying this in our own lives, we need to look to make sure that we get the full affect of what God has done to us when we go through experiences like this; that we don’t just see the one particular issue he addresses as being re-ordered in our lives, but that the root of idolatry is completely eradicated!
The next morning, we led worship for the whole group gathered there and Sam spoke on Genesis 22. Lord, are you trying to tell me something?