Breaking the Bonds of Idolatrous Service – Part I

Note: I am taking two concepts from an article and a book that I have read recently. The article is by Tim Keller – “Idolatry in a Postmodern Age“; the book is by John Owen – “Of Communion with God“, particularly chapters 3 & 4 of Part I. I highly recommend reading the links I have put. The readings I have linked to are relatively short, and if you have time, I encourage you to read them.

A friend recently posted a comment on my blog in response to one of my posts. This is what he said, “I feel compelled to ask the question,”How do we look to Christ in those moments of utter temptation?” Is there an easy formula? Or is it a continual renewing of our spirit day in and day out where we are brought to the Lord in our lives? I find it so hard at times to just focus my heart and mind on the Kingdom. Not because I don’t believe it but more so because I am just tired and mind needs rest. What I mean [by] “rest” is that it’s almost like I feel like I need to be serving in order to be Kingdom minded where as sometimes I just want to rest my mind and not use it too much.”

What my friend has posted here is something I currently struggle with deeply and have only been able recently to really grasp how to move away from obligatory feelings toward God in my service and worship of him, into a place of “rest” where service is a natural outflow of the Christian life, where it is not only something desired, but also something pursued, not simply because we ought to (though we should) but primarily because in our hearts we long to serve our Lord.

There are four points I want to hit in order to help confront this idea of service done out of obligation, which I will call Idolatrous Service. They will be done in three or four consecutive posts.

1. Any service, work, action, or duty done in relationship to God simply out of obligation is idolatry (See Keller Article)

2. Motivation of service rendered to God out of obligation stems from an incomplete, skewed, and or misunderstood, view of God’s love towards you.

3. The primary way to confront our idolatrous service is to experience by faith the love and grace that God pours out to you.

4. And the experience of the love and grace of God is found poured out through Jesus Christ
(For points 3 and 4 see the chapters from Owen)

I would like to address this issue of obligation and how we can move to the place of “rest” in God, even when we are tired, worn out and our minds cannot muster themselves to reflect on weighty thoughts of God.

In Tim Keller’s article he quotes a section from Martin Luther. Keller is trying to show that all sin (in essence) is an idolatry against God, and his quote by Luther demonstrates that all people are in essence trusting in something, whether that be God, or in something else (themselves, economic security, social acceptance, etc.) which essentially is idolatry. I’m going to re-quote the Luther section to help you see how even service rendered to God can be (and often is) idolatrous.

“All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, obedience, patience, and chastity of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them… If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…. (Part X. XI) Excerpts from Martin Luther, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).”

Keller follows by saying,

“Here Luther says that failure to believe that God accepts us fully in Christ—and to look to something else for our salvation—is a failure to keep the first commandment; namely, having no other gods before him. To try to earn your own salvation through works-righteousness is breaking the first commandment. Then he says that we cannot truly keep any of the other laws unless we keep the first law—against idolatry and works-righteousness. Thus beneath any particular sin is this sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.”

What I think is most important that these two have established is that if you believe that by doing some act of service, such as prayer, reading the bible, engaging in fellowship, giving money and/or time to the church, for basis of acceptance with God, you are committing and act of idolatry. Now, how this is an act of idolatry is very important. If you act and feel that your acceptance with God is based on the performance of some sort of service rendered to him, then your trust is in the act of service, not in God. You are basing your acceptance with God on a duty. In essence, you are saying, “I trust in serving”. You are setting your hope on praying, maybe even setting your hope on the experience of God through prayer. But this is idolatry. You are fundamentally looking away from what God has promised to do for you, namely, remove your sins from you, forgive you, and pour out his love and grace on you, and instead are looking to what you will do for God. It is a backwards relationship. Oftentimes we neglect coming to God because we see that we haven’t “performed the duties” or “served” as we ought, and are ashamed and filled with guilt (thanks Phil De Martimprey for the insight) and then, ironically retreat from God. We commit idolatry because we are trusting in the act of service, for example, prayer, and not in the God who made promises to us in our sinful condition that we are in right now, even to those who are believers.

Scripture confirms this frequently. David says in Psalm 51:16, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” This is written by David after his sin with Bathsheba. He is looking for cleansing from his sin, but the way he deals with cleansing from sin in this Psalm is not by going and offering sacrifices, because in themselves, sacrifices do nothing. David, at the beginning (v. 1-2) looks to God himself to do for him what he cannot do on his own, namely, rid himself of his guilt from his sin. He even says that he would give sacrifices if the Lord would delight in it. But David knows that simply offering a sacrifice will not bring God to a person. That person must inherently be trusting in the work that God does: obtaining mercy, blotting out transgressions, washing iniquity, and cleansing from sin; not in their own work of making offerings for sin that they have committed.

If we would like to get closer to the heart of God, we can look at Isaiah 1:11-15:

(11) What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

(12) “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
(13) Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
(14) Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
(15) When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

Here we have a vivid picture of God’s view towards those who have altogether forgotten God’s love towards them and have begun to trust completely in the Hebraic religious system. God is filled with anger at their hearts towards him in how they approach him. Now i don’t think all Christians who come to God seeking approval based on their performance of service are viewed in this way. Some do inherently trust in Jesus Christ and the work he has done in their behalf, but have, like myself, ignorantly included, in the worship of God, the need to add works and service for their acceptance with him. But none the less, far to much of Christianity is filled with people described like in these verses – all they do is bring their offerings to God and do not rend the sacrifices that God truly desires: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” and “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.“(Psalm 51:6, 17)

God is not desiring from his people service done because we feel obligated. Even though we are obligated, it is better if we never did service if only done because we wanted to appease our conscience of guilt. They do not make God more or less pleased with you. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” If you are troubled by the fact that you do not serve as you ought, do not give simply because you feel you ought to and are “under compulsion.”

But this is the main point: all service rendered to God out of obligation is at heart idolatry. We are not better off praying simply because we feel that it will please God.


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