October 14, 2009
The Hansen Report: Calling Out Counterfeit Gods
Tim Keller banks on the recession to make Americans think about their idols.
There is nothing like a recession to put Americans in a reflective mood. Unemployment and a devalued stock market have led many to consider whether money is the pre-eminent form of American idolatry. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called for a new culture war, a “crusade for economic self-restraint” in a self-indulgent age. Adam Sternbergh wonders whether thrift is a virtue that can be developed or a trait that must be inherited. ABC’s Nightline invited Mark Driscoll to discuss the allure of celebrity and corporate idolatry. And Tim Keller has turned his attention to rooting out idolatry with his latest book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters.
For Keller an idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything which absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Elaborating on the book’s title, Keller writes that a “counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life, that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” What does Keller have in mind? Well, everything: family, children, career, earning money, achievement, social status, relationships, beauty, brains, morality, political or social activism—even effective Christian ministry.
To make his point, Keller interweaves biblical stories with cultural discernment and illustrations drawn from his counseling ministry. He evokes deep emotion and insight from the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham recognized his debt of sin before the holy God, Keller explains, yet trusted in that same God of grace, so he could sacrifice his idol with the expectation that God would somehow keep his promise (Gen. 17:19). Keller ends his account of this story with a Christological interpretation. “The only way that God can be both ‘just’ (demanding payment of our debt of sin) and ‘justifier’ (providing salvation and grace) is because years later another Father went up another ‘mount’ called Calvary with his firstborn and offered him there for us all.”
In his chapter “Love Is Not All You Need,” Keller concentrates on Leah rather than her husband, Jacob, and better-known sister and rival, Rachel (Gen. 29–33). This subtle but significant shift recalls Keller’s counter-intuitive focus on the older brother in his last book, The Prodigal God. Once again Keller connects Leah to Christ. Leah gave birth to Judah, patriarch of Jesus’ tribe.
“God had come to the girl that nobody wanted, the unloved, and made her the mother of Jesus,” Keller writes. “Salvation came into the world, not through beautiful Rachel, but through the unwanted one, the unloved one.”
Turning to money, Keller explains the difference between surface and deep idols. Deep idols seek fulfillment through their public manifestation, surface idols. Deep idols can’t be removed. They can only be replaced, and only Christ can ultimately satisfy. Christ replaces deep idols when we consider his costly grace, how he poured himself out for the world. Keller offers several suggestions for rooting out idolatry. Simply identifying the idols is not enough. Only a lifestyle of worship brings transformation.
“Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol,” Keller says. “If you uproot the idol and fail to ‘plant’ the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.”
Counterfeit Gods offers much insight for shepherding local churches. Keller argues that Christians cannot understand themselves or their culture unless they discern the counterfeit gods. Keller’s tests for idolatry could be used personally or passed along in counseling sessions: (1) What do you daydream about? (2) How do you spend your money? (3) How do you respond when your prayers aren’t answered and your hopes are dashed?
Keller offers examples of what these tests might reveal about pastor’s idols.
“Another form of idolatry within religious communities turns spiritual gifts and ministry success into a counterfeit god,” Keller writes. “Even ministers who believe with the mind that ‘I am only saved by grace’ can come to feel in their heart their standing with God depends largely on how many lives they are changing.”
But ministry success wasn’t Jonah’s problem. In fact, the positive response to his preaching in Nineveh was the source of despair for this proud Israelite. Keller treats the reluctant prophet in a prolonged case study. Jonah's plea for death in Jonah 4:2–3 offers hope to idolatrous ministers today. Only someone saved by grace could have been courageous enough to give such a defamatory speech. Only someone whose love for God had replaced love of country could be so brutally honest. There is hope yet for all of us who bend the knee to counterfeit gods.