But when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing it’s an idol. When you’re willing to sin to feed it or sin if you think you’ll lose it, you may be feeding the beast.
Lent: Spring Cleaning For Your Soul
When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, Timothy Keller writes, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping.
I shared 4 “idol-identifying” questions a couple posts back. And when the Spirit convicts me of inordinate time and energy going into Facebook—specifically a Bible study ministry group—I’d best change that.
So then along comes Lent, a lovely 46 days (I’m including Sundays.) to forsake a good thing to make space for “more vibrant discipleship.” In other words, Lent is a great season to do some spring cleaning in your soul. It’s a great time to starve your idol.
So I’m fasting from Facebook and the hardest part of that will be laying aside my baby, my Isaac, my little Bible study ministry, the Wonders of the Word (WoW) group that I so enjoy.
Not, because WoW is bad, or Facebook is bad. So why give a good thing up?
Why My Facebook Fast?
It’s the same reason one friend is giving up a nightly glass of wine for the month of February, and another friend is fasting from sugar for 12 weeks.
Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
My focus, my energy, my “happiness and self-worth” even, is coming too much from my social media presence. I’m being mastered by a good thing— my online ministry. And any good think that is not God can morph into an idol.
That’s why you won’t see me on Facebook (or Instagram or Twitter) for a while. That is reason #3 for a Lenten fast .
The other two are described now, in a repost from April 2015, when I kissed ice cream good-bye.
Why give up a good thing? Why wage an optional war?
In a word, training. In four, Christ-exalting soul strength. Each time I skip a soft-serve and pass on pie a la mode, my soul gets a little stronger. Train yourself to be godly, Paul told Timothy. I from a little thing like ice cream and am strengthened for bigger battles against greed and pride, grumbling and envy.
It’s called resistance training.
Reason #1: Resistance training makes me stronger.
Lent is testing ground; a time for spiritual resistance training. It’s a battlefield of sorts. Fasting shows what controls me, what comforts me. It exposes what I really live by: ice cream and coffee, Facebook and fitness? Or every word that comes from the mouth of God?
Christian fasting-giving up a good gift for a time- is not about Stoic pride, or proving my love for God. It is about training in godliness. I work my soul in a new way to build spiritual fitness. It’s resisting what would lure my heart away from my all-glorious, all-satisfying God.
Fasting increases the strength of my soul. so, I will not be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12). That is why I kissed ice cream good-bye.
If I can’t deny myself ice cream for six weeks, how can I resist the more habit-forming, tempting tastes of pride and envy, of anger and impatience?
A heaping bowl after dinner and a long run every morning and notices on my phone could all have me for breakfast. When my happiness hinges on those, I’m done. I’m captive.
All are innocent pleasures. Caffeine and ice cream, Facebook and fitness are gifts from God. And all can move subtly to become an end in themselves. To enslave. Ice cream has that power?
It does. Or did. And so does coffee in the morning and posting that elusive “100 likes” photo. A sub-seven minute mile can do it for me, too.
But I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his suffering, becoming like him in death (Philippians 3 :10-11). Starting with these little denial deaths. Paul said he counted everything rubbish that he could know Christ. Little food and Facebook fasts make me strong for big soul fights, because in them I know Christ better.
But there’s one more big I kissed ice cream good-bye.
Reason #2. God gets glory when we call on him for help to resist temptation.
C. S. Lewis hinted at it. Only those who try to resist temptation knows how strong it is, he wrote. And Christ is the only one who never yielded to temptation.
Jesus was like us in every respect, and because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:14-15). He can sympathize with our weakness, because in every respect he has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.
And here is how Christ is exalted. It’s when we confidently draw near to the throne of grace, to receive mercy-forgiveness when we fall– and find grace-power to keep from falling-to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).
He gives mercy and grace. I call, tempted and weak. Christ answers, sympathetic and strong. I called, you answered; my strength of soul you increased(Psalm 138:3).
That exchange- I call, God answers- is soul-strengthening, Christ-exalting soul training.
But what does look like in real life?
For me, it looks like closing the freezer without sneaking a bite from the pint in the back. And refusing to peek at Facebook one last time to check if someone liked my post. At Arby’s last week it was Thank you Jesus as the rest of the family shared a Jamocha milkshake.
That’s freedom. It’s starving idols that would ensnare and enslave me. That’s some Lenten cleaning for my soul. But we don’t go it alone.
We don’t call uncle; we call Jesus.
Help me stand stand firm. Fill the hollowness. And please remind me of your truth. Like this.
It might be countering your itch for human praise with this reminder: Let another praise you and not your own lips.
Or dueling with envy the minute he starts to whisper, You ought to have a four bedroom, sunny-side house. Nope: Godliness with contentment is great gain.
And striking with the sword of the Spirit when despair over a failed friendship falls. Why so downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God. He’s the lifter of your face.
Or wielding the Word to kill worry when the infection spreads to your kids. Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you. And, Commit your way to the Lord.
Or trading gratitude for grumbling, when we feel entitled to better this, or more that. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
That’s how God gets glory when we strength train. The One who was tempted in every way, who is right now interceding for us, His strength is exalted when I work my soul muscles.
Then we really know the truth we talk: no temptation can seize us beyond what we can bear. God truly is faithful to provide a way out so we can stand up under it. That kind of resistance strengthens our spiritual muscles.
Yes, we are a Resurrection People; Christ is Risen indeed! My sin is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. We stand forgiven at the cross. But our battles aren’t over yet.
Jesus suffered and died so I won’t have to suffer is NOT its message. It’s He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).
The cross isn’t just past. The word of the crossis to us who are being saved the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). John Piper says the cross of Christ is not merely a past place of substitution. It’s also a present place of daily execution.
It is not just history. It’s a present way of life for the Christian. It’s Colossians 3:5, Put to death what is earthly in you. It is Roman’s 6:11, Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ. And, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
But remember, fasting and denying are not ends in themselves. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-24). The Lenten fast always leads to the Easter feast.
In heaven there will be no self-denial because none of our desires will tend toward sin. We’ll be with the Bridegroom and we won’t fast. Oh no. We will feast.
That this our fast of forty days, May work our profit and Thy praise!
The ancient hymn, Audi benigne Conditordescribes the bonds between our bodies and souls. Anthony Esolen’s translation beautifully expresses how God is glorified when we bring both into subjection. When we resistance train in the present power of the cross.
Do you know the joy of a well-timed word? The sweetness of an apt reply?
Those sort of words met me this morning. Some timely words caught me by surprise before I even left my bed. But before I share those words, I’ll quick explain the season.
We’ll make it short and start last night. I spent a good part of the night in fighting the sulks. The triggers were clear: low blood sugar, the time of month, and a visit with a friend enrolled in a degree program in which I’d love to be.
Even though that credential could open more ministry doors and lend influence and credibility to current ministry, for now that door is closed. This opportunity is not knocking. But hearing the joy behind my friend’s open door at once exposed an old idol and scraped up feelings of inferiority.
Inferiority. Influence. Idol?
My idols are familiar to me. I’m on to my influence idol.
Influence in itself isn’t bad. In fact, we should seek to have influence, provided it’s focused on making God in Christ- not ourselves- look grand. Jesus explained influence like this: “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Influence is light. Christian influence is living in ways that reflect God’s glory and have a positive effect on the character of those around us. We’re mirrors and our words and our blogs and our giving and good works can help others worship God.
I like to be influential. I like to know I’m building the kingdom of heaven and making God look good. But influence turns idol when craving it means I’m ungrateful for the gifts he’s given and discontent with my lot in life- which God alone holds. (See Psalm 16)-
Good Thing Or Ultimate Thing?
There is a holy ambition. Romans 2:7 is about “seeking glory, honor and immortality.” A while back, I shared 9 Quotes For Glory-Seekers and #3 was an oldie-but-goodie from Matthew Henry:
There is a holy ambition which is at the bottom of all practical religion. This is seeking the kingdom of God, looking in our desires and aims as high as heaven, and resolved to take up with nothing short of it. Those that seek for the vain glory and honor of this world…are disappointed, but those that seek for immortal glory and honor shall have them.” (Commentary on Romans 2:7)
For the record, the things we turn to idols aren’t necessarily in and of themselves bad things. They can, and usually are good things: food, children, nature, influence. Good things.
But, like Tim Keller says, idolatry is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.
We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.
And so my influence idol was exposed. I know: UG-LY.
Translated: I unloaded the dishwasher, wrote out a birthday card, chopped some kohlrabi and snipped yellow wax beans, all the while reminding myself to give thanks and DIGLI.
I reminded myself that God arranges the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12:18) and that He scatters grace and mercy as he wishes on whom he wills. That God loves inequality and dispenses his gifts and open doors as he wishes and that it’s for me not to envy and wallow in inferiority, but give thanks and keep on.
Friday was my early morning, the only day woke at 6:00. So I got into bed, set the alarm, and-with a mix of success and lingering sulks- I turned out the light.
How The Well-Timed Word Came
Beep-beep-beep-beep. I hit the button and let the radio talk. Here’s what I heard:
Hi, I’m Joni Eareckson Tada with a funny story.
Not long ago at a conference, I was introduced as “Dr. Joni Tada.” When I wheeled up to speak, I confessed to the audience, I said: “Friends, I may have been given a couple of honorary doctorates from seminaries, but hey, look, I’m only a high school graduate. I’ve never even been to Bible College!” Most in the audience looked a little surprised, and there was a time that fact used to embarrass me, I wouldn’t have told anybody that I had no real scholastic degrees. If a person’s wisdom and expertise were measured by their M.Div.’s or their PhD’s or even their bachelor degrees, my goodness, then I’m not competent to speak alongside Christian leaders who have actually earned those degrees…
Did Joni see last night? It was as if she was sitting beside my bed, speaking straight to me. As if she knew comparison and inferiority and envy were on the march to cripple me. Because I didn’t have the right degree.
The Word from Joni, and God
Then Joni told how someone had shared timely words from 2 Corinthians 3:5-6:
Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
The 4- minute spot continued. By now I was on the edge of my bed lacing my running shoes, letting these delightful, timely words land.
No, I haven’t spent 4 years in Bible school. But I have spent over 50 years in a wheelchair, most of those years studying the same books and scholars as my friends who graduated from The Masters University or Wheaton College…Look, I’m just a quadriplegic! But that’s just it! God delights in teaching us powerful lessons through our weaknesses and limitations…
Plus, it’s my weaknesses that keep pointing me to the source of all authority and ability, God and God alone. Praise the Lord; He is the one who makes us competent as ambassadors of the new covenant! God takes our inadequacies and, as we lean on him and learn from the trials he sends, he makes us competent.
Now you may think, ‘who am I that anyone should listen to me? Why should anyone care what I have to say?’ Oh friend, don’t fool yourself; in Christ, you are completely competent.
That was the how the well-timed word came to me, On the only day last week I woke to the radio, after the only night I had a fight like that, here was Joni, giving an apt answer, the perfect truth to address my immediate need. Here was Joni, speaking a timely word to me.
And friends, degree or no degree or three degrees, be encouraged to know: Your competence comes from God.
But more, I hope that in every good and well-timed word, you hear a loving Lord.
A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word!