Lesson 5: Idols and Conflict
I. More on Judging
Last week’s lesson was called “Get the Log Out of Your Eye!” Step #1 in dealing with conflict is to get rid of your ugly, unloving, critical spirit. Your problem might be 90% solved just by taking that step, because getting the log out of your own eye unlocks several abilities that in many instances, can disarm conflict very quickly. It unlocks the ability to define the issues, the ability to overlook minor offenses, the ability to view others in a positive light, the ability to lay down your rights, and the ability to be reasonable. We also spent awhile talking about guidelines for knowing when to overlook an offense and when to go have a conversation. If you missed last Sunday for some reason, let me know so I can print you the notes or go back and read them online, because last week’s lesson was very important.
This week, we are going to dive even deeper into our sinful hearts, which can be scary, because you never know what you might find down there! But I believe this lesson will also help you to understand yourself and others better, which is very important. I’d like to read you a paragraph from The Art of War, which is a Chinese treatise from the 5th century B.C. that is still in use today. (You can buy it on Amazon for $5.99.) "So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.” The problem is (and some of you may have seen me post about this on Facebook this week), in the Christian life, “Know yourself” and “Know your enemy” are not necessarily two separate things! In many ways, I am my own worst enemy! James 1:14 says, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” If we want to achieve victory in the Christian life, we will strive to understand ever more clearly the propensities of our own sinful hearts.
That said, I’d like to open with this question: “Where does a critical spirit come from?” Any ideas?
Turn to James 4:11-12 (James 4:11-12).
This study parallels the one we studied last week in Matthew 7:1-5. Many commentators will cross-reference one passage from the other. Both passages deal with the sin of judging. Again, that is not about making distinctions; it’s about condemning another person in your heart. Last week, we talked about three reasons not to condemn others: 1) because if you condemn others, God will condemn you; 2) because your self-righteous, critical spirit is 100x worse than whatever it is the other guy did; and 3) because until you deal with your pride, you are in position to help your brother. This passage adds another motivation (v. 11b). Don’t judge others because in doing so, you are judging the law.
You say, “I don’t get it.” How is judging a brother the same as judging the law? Well, Jesus said the entire law could be summed up in two commands; what are they? (“Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”) So when you condemn your brother for breaking the law, you are at that very moment subverting the very purpose of the law! The Bible is not a weapon for whacking other people in the head! It’s a sword that heals.
But James goes even further. He says, “Don’t judge others because that’s not your job.” Imagine that you invite me over to your house, and I start giving your children jobs to do. And then when they don’t perform up to my expectations, I scold them and perhaps even start to discipline them. How are you going to respond? (You might kick me out!) You’re going to say, “Who do you think you are?” And that’s exactly what God says to us when we condemn a brother or sister in Christ! “Who do you think you are? Last I checked, there was one Lawgiver and one Judge–Me!” When you judge another person, you are essentially playing God. In fact, in some ways you’re actually playing Satan! Is there someone who lives to condemn God’s children? (yes) Who is he? (Satan) In Revelation 12:10, Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren.” When you become proud and condemn other believers, you’re acting like Satan.
But let’s get back to our original question: where does a critical spirit come from? Go back to vv. 1-6 (James 4:1-6). I don’t know of any passage that does a better job of laying bare our sinful hearts when it comes to conflict than this one. A critical spirit comes from idolatry.
On Thursday evening, we had a birthday party for Felicity. So earlier in the week, I was working on getting this structure up in the back yard. It’s basically two wooden posts stuck in big plastic pots filled with concrete and then we hung Christmas lights from post to post and back and forth between the posts and the house to create a canopy feel over our outdoor fire pit area. It sounds fancier than it is, but it’s pretty nice. This all started two years ago, when Elise saw this on Pinterest and made it for me for Father’s Day. We got it all set up and enjoyed it for a couple months, but then the wind knocked the posts over, and we never got around to fixing it. Ever since then, fixing this thing has been on the back of my mind, and I have been determined that this time it is not going to blow away! So on Monday evening, I’m out there with a pick axe digging burying cinder blocks in the ground and attaching them to these posts with steel cables. (This illustration tells you way too much about my personality.) It started out fun, but then I hit a couple of snags and I started to get really frustrated. (This feeling was probably compounded by the fact that I didn’t eat dinner because I was so anxious to get out there and get the job done.) You know how it is when your spouse makes a suggestion and you just want them to be quiet? Elise and the girls were all outside at first, but finally the went in for various reasons, but partly because daddy was frustrated so they needed to leave him alone. What was the problem in that situation? The problem was that I was turning home improvement projects into my idol. “I’ve been waiting to fix this thing for so long! If I can just get it up, then I’ll be happy! And I’ve got visions of our friends sitting around the fire pit roasting marshmallows and saying, “Wow, these Christmas lights are really nice!” I’ve made my own commercial! And that scene is what I’m after! If anything gets in my way, I’ll be mad! And if anyone gets in my way, there’ll be conflict! That is exactly the kind of thing James 4 describes.
TRANSITION: How does an idol lead to conflict? I’d like to share with you four steps in the progression of an idol. And just so you know, these are not original to me; they come straight from the book.
II. The Progression of an Idol
Step #1: I Desire. What are some things you and I desire that could be turned into an idol? (food, approval, justice, sex, money, comfort, order, etc.) Most of those desires we listed are legitimate under certain circumstances, correct? So when does a legitimate desire pass over into being an idol? It happens when we go from “I desire” to “I demand.”
Step #2: I Demand
One of the best ways to determine whether a particular desire has become an idol is to observe, what happens when my desire goes unmet? So, back to my Christmas light illustration, when my project goes off the tracks because I didn’t realize that you can only string two strands of incandescent C9 Christmas lights together without blowing a fuse, can I still go to bed on time in a pleasant mood? Or do I stay up till midnight trying to force a solution? (I won’t tell you which one I did.)
But idols are not always about trivial things like Christmas lights. Sometimes they involve the things nearest and dearest to our hearts. “I need a baby.” “I deserve a happy marriage.” Or, “All I want is a healthy spouse” (or parent, or child, or grandbaby).
Sande says, “Unmet desires have a way of working themselves deeper and deeper into our hearts. This is especially true when we come to see a desire as something we need or deserve and therefore must have in order to be happy or fulfilled.” Here are some examples that he gives. “I work hard all week. Don’t I deserve a little peace and quiet when I come home?” “I just want the children to get along and work hard in school.” “I just want to have the kind of intimacy God intended for marriage.” “She’s my granddaughter. If I don’t see her more, she’ll think I don’t love her.” “I’ve worked harder than anyone else on this project. I deserve the promotion.”
Do you see how subtle that is? There’s an element of truth to every one of those statements, just as there is to just about all of Satan’s lies. Sande’s definition of an idol is extremely helpful. He says that an idol “is something that we set our heart on, that motivates us, that masters and rules us, or that we trust, fear, or serve.” Did you know an idol can be something you fear? What’s your greatest fear? If your greatest fear is being poor, then probably money is your idol. If your greatest fear is getting your children taken away, then it could be that your kids are your idol.
An idol can also be what you trust in. Martin Luther said that whatever a person runs to for refuge, that is his god. Think about that the next time you sing “A Mighty Fortress.” You know, I taught “Financial Peace” here a couple years ago, but one weakness of that program is that it can appeal to our tendency to turn money into an idol. Just think about the title: “Financial Peace.” “If I save enough money, I will have peace”; therefore, money gives me peace; therefore, money is my idol. (Just to be clear, that is not what Dave Ramsey teaches, but we can easily be led astray in that direction.)
An idol can also be what you dwell on. What do you lay in bed at night and think about? David said, “I meditate on You in the night watches.” He laid awake in bed at night thinking about God! What do you think about as you drive, pull weeds, or clean your house?
An idol can also be what you hope in. Fill in the blank: “If I just had ________, I would be happy.” “If I was just out of debt. If I just had a fully-funded emergency fund. If I just owned a home. If everyone was just healthy. If I could only get out of California.” If discontentment is your problem, moving will not fix it.
Sande says, “As you search your heart for idols, you will often encounter multiple layers of concealment, disguise, and justification. One of the subtlest cloaking devices is to argue that we want only what we legitimately deserve or what God himself commands.” “I just want my kids to stop arguing! Is there something wrong with that?” What do you think? It depends on your motivation. If you’re truly zealous for God’s glory and your children’s good, then no. But we rarely get angry and blow up at our kids out of a concern for God’s glory or their good. It usually has more to do with my comfort and peace of mind.
“All I want is for life to be simple again, or for my country to turn back to God.” Did you know that you can turn a longing for “the good ol’ days” into an idol?
Can we even turn serving God or church involvement into an idol? (Yes) This is a big temptation for pastors. It’s also a temptation as a pastor to address the idols that work against me but leave unaddressed the ones that tend to make people work harder. Often, idols make people work harder. But that does not make them right. If your church involvement is motivated by perfectionism or people-pleasing, it’s no more glorifying to God than any other sin! The specific sin James’s readers seem to have been guilty of was turning their desire to be teachers into an idol because they longed for approval. And James called them out on it.
Step #3: I Judge.
Sande says, “When [others] fail to satisfy our desires and live up to our expectation, we criticize and condemn them in our hearts, if not with our words.” This is where James 4:1-3 bleeds over into James 4:11-12. This is how idolatry leads to judging.
Sande goes on to say, “The closer we are to others, the more we expect of them, and the more likely we are to judge them when they fail to meet our expectations. For example, we may look at our spouse and think, If you really love me, you above all people will help me meet my need. We think of our children and say, ‘After all I’ve done for you, you owe this to me.’ We can place similar expectations on relatives, close friends, or members of our church.” Am I the only one convicted by that paragraph?
What we are doing in this step is demanding that everyone else serve my idol. Because in serving my idol, you ultimately serve me. What happens when someone fails to serve your idol? That’s where the next step comes in.
Step #4: I Punish.
If I am going to demand allegiance to my idols, I must have some method of enforcing that requirement. So when others refuse to worship my gods, I make them pay, so that next time, they’ll get with the program.
I’m going to tell another story on myself. As a result of that Financial Peace class we took, every month, Elise and I sit down and categorize our transactions from the previous month and prepare a budget for the coming month. Elise hates it. Now, part of that is her personality, but partly, I’m to blame. Because here is what inevitably happens. Elise loses a receipt. Often two or three of them. And usually, it’s a Target receipt so we have no idea how that money was spent. It could have been clothing, it could have been home supplies, it could have been food, it could have been her own spending money–we have no idea. So I ask her to go look for those receipts. She comes back a few minutes later. “I can’t find them.” I start to get frustrated, and I go into punish mode. I sigh. “Do you know where you put them?” Obviously she doesn’t know where she put them or else she would have found them by now! “Love, I really need you to keep track of those receipts; it is very important!” She already knows that. “Do you remember what you spent that money on?” The answer is always, “No,” so why am I even asking? I never really realized this until this week, but the reason I am asking the questions is to punish her for not worshipping my idols, perfectionism and money.
What are some ways that we punish one another in order to bring them into conformity with our idols? (angry outbursts, the silent treatment, exasperation, lectures, physical abuse, name-calling, body language, manipulative comments, pouting) Sande says, “Sending subtle, unpleasant cues over a long period of time is an age-old method of inflicting punishment.” Wives, do you do this to your husbands? Send him little, unpleasant cues over and over again until he gets with your program?
A willingness to inflict pain on others is one of the surest ways to tell that an idol is ruling your heart. So the next time you catch yourself punishing someone close to you for failure to conform, work backwards through these steps in order to locate the idol that has captured you.
I’ve intentionally been very open this morning because I thought God might use that to reveal an idol in your own heart. But now you tell me. What’s an idol you struggle with?
TRANSITION: But what are you supposed to do about that idol once you have located it? That’s where James 4:4-10 comes in (James 4:4-10).
III. The Cure for Idolatry
In order to be cured from idolatry, you need to recognize that idols always displace the true God. That’s why James calls his readers adulterers and adulteresses and tells them they can’t worship God and the world. Since idolatry displaces true worship, the ultimate cure for idolatry is always salvation. Exodus 20:2-3 says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” Romans 1 casts sin in terms of worshipping creation rather than the Creator. The cure for that sin is the justification Paul talks about in Romans 3-4.
The fact that idolatry replaces true worship also means that the only way to get victory over idolatry is to get our eyes back on God. Pride and idolatry are inseparably linked, as James 4 indicates, so you must humble yourself before God. You must also repent of your sin and draw near to Him. God must become very big in your eyes. When you do those things, James 4 is clear that God will shower on you His abundant grace.
Practically speaking, one of the most effective ways to battle idols is to practice the kind of radical amputation that Jesus talked about in Matthew 5:29, when He said that if your right eye offends you, you should pluck it out. There may be something that in-and-of-itself is completely innocent, but you need to cut it out of your life, because for you, it has become an idol.
If you try to get rid of idols, but don’t replace them with true worship, you’ll always be playing “Whack-a-Mole.” That’s because, as Calvin famously said, our hearts are idol factories. We were made to worship. You can’t shut down the factory, but you can put it back to its original purpose.
If you’re still struggling to determine whether your desires are idolatrous, let disappointment and our new hymn act as a measurement. If you can sing “Whate’er my God ordains is right” when something bad happens, then your desire is probably not an idol. Can you honestly say, “I will be still whate’er he does, And follow where he guideth”? Can you say, “I take content, what he hath sent. To him, I leave it all.” If not, then your desire has probably become an idol.
Can I challenge you with two prayers? First, pray for God to expose your idols and then wait for Him to answer, because He will. Second, pray that God would rob your idols of influence by making you miserable every time you give in to them. I would love to see what God would do in our church if we would all pray those two prayers sincerely.
We don’t fight idols because we want peace and comfort. In fact, it’s even possible to turn peace into an idol! We don’t fight idols to get peace, we fight them because God is better. And yet, a side benefit of breaking down idols is often a decrease in interpersonal conflict.