As many people know, the NFL season began about a month ago and because of a strike by the NFL Referees Association, the NFL started the season using replacement referees. This caused a huge uproar and a public outcry as it was discovered that the replacement refs were a poor substitute for the actual professional NFL refs. Eventually, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association reached a tentative agreement ending the three-month lockout. As is my custom, I read through the comments section on ESPN to see how people would respond to the news. As I expected the comments were pure joy; the shouts of anger at the replacement refs were replaced by relief (and jubilation in some cases). This event was so important to American life that it became breaking news from CNN.
Now, it may be perplexing to non-NFL fans that a game holds this much sway in the heart of millions of Americans, but we have been here before. The NFL is known as America’s passion and it was no more evident than during the 2011 NFL lockout which threatened to cancel an entire NFL season last year. A prominent NFL player even speculated that NFL lockout might lead to increased crime and violence because “there’s nothing else to do” (his speculation turned out to be partially accurate). When the 2011 NFL lockout ended, the response was fairly predictable, yet still very telling. Scores of men (and women) shouted for joy as the NFL returned. To many, life became normal again. Even when mounting law suits from former NFL players and the concussion-related deaths of various former NFL players threatened to undermine the future of the NFL, multiple articles (such as 120 Reasons Why Football Will Last Forever) emphatically stated that nothing will take the NFL away from Americans.
An important question to ask is whether or not the passion for football has gone too far and borders on idolatry. I would never have thought of this concerning football until I listened to a sermon from Mark Driscoll concerning American versions of idolatry. A portion of his sermon was made into a Youtube video and I believe that it’s definitely worth watching (and it’s only about 2:30 minutes long). There’s an exchange between Mark and a pastor’s wife who lives in India in the video concerning what she sees as American idolatry.
I said, “Where are the shrines of false worship and idolatry in our culture?” She said, “Your god is your stomach and you have restaurants everywhere. Your god is your sports teams and you build multi-millon dollar stadiums to house them. Your god is your television and all the chairs in your home are lined up so that your family can gather around the altar and worship that god. And it dawned on me that idolatry is what we often see in someone else’s culture and in our culture we just think it’s the bass pro shop, the steak house. We just think it’s the place where you get recreational sporting goods, movie theater. We just see it as entertainment, we see it as hobby, we see it as sport. We don’t see it as religion, we don’t see it as spirituality. We don’t see it as idolatry.
I see that there are at least two important points concerning her observation of American idolatry.
Seeing Idolatry in Our Culture
First, it usually takes someone from outside of our culture to identify idolatry in our own culture. This was a very important point for me personally because it does mean that things that I see as simply normal fixtures of American culture may be shrines of worship to false gods. For me, I began to see professional sports in this light in my life and in the life of many other men like me. After examining the known idols of my heart, I noticed that there are three characteristics common to all my idols: (1) I’ve placed some confidence in them (usually in terms of enjoyment and comfort); (2) I become defensive or seek justification (or blame shift) when they are addressed; and (3) There’s deception and fantasy surrounding it.
There are many passages in scripture that describes the folly of idolatry, but the passage really struck me was Psalms 115:3-8:
Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. [emphasis mine]
This passage contrasts the idols created by men with the reality of the one true living God. He is the Maker and Possessor of heaven and earth. Heaven is his throne, and the Earth is his footstool. He dwells in the highest heaven, overlooks everything on earth, and overrules all. He is higher than the highest and His kingdom rules over all. He has made all things for His pleasure and His counsel and purposes shall always stand. He does all that He wills and all that He wills is easily done by Him. As a result, He is the only one worthy of worship, praise, and honor. Beyond His majesty and transcendence, He is also intimately personal to His creation. Revelation 1:5-6 says:
To Him Who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
He is worthy of all the worship that we can give Him and more that we could ever give Him. In essence, God has no rivals in heaven or in earth. The contrast becomes clear to the Psalmist: we know what God has done. What can these idols do? These idols are our creation who are not sovereign, who cannot love, and who cannot act in any way. By definition, they are dead and have no life in themselves to do anything. The statement of the Psalmist now becomes very haunting:
Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.
Because the idols have no life, those who put trust in them for anything become just as foolish, senseless, vain, and dead as the idols themselves (see Romans 1:18-25 for Paul’s explanation of this). Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising when idols do not fulfill the trust we have in them, yet it is always surprising and painful to us when God strips us from our idols and we see how much confidence, emotion, and time we have placed in them. Now, as stated before, it’s easy to see idolatry in someone else’s culture. It’s easy to see idolatry in a pagan, polytheistic culture or in the secular culture around us, but do we see these idols in our own circles? Do we see the idols in our own heart? For some, it may be our Christian heroes (past or present) who we place above reproach and criticism. For others, it may be our own natural talents or our reputation. No matter what the object of false worship may be, idolatry in its essence is distorted worship that we must guard against.
Our Natural State as Passionate Worshippers
This leads to the second point that comes from the above video: humans are innately religious and passionate worshippers. This may sound strange, but if we would examine ourselves, we would see that we do not need to learn how to worship. According to the argument of Romans 1-3, the issue is not that we need to learn how to worship; the issue is that we need to turn from worshipping vain idols to worshipping the true living God. This comes out very clearly in Paul’s missionary trip to Lystra in Acts 14. After Paul heals the man crippled from birth, the natural response is to worship Paul and Barnabas. When Paul addresses them, He does not criticize their inability to worship; rather, he rebukes their distorted worship of men (cf. Acts 14:15). The reality is that all people, even confessing irreligious individuals, are naturally worshippers because in its simplest essence, worship is an act of ascribing high worth, value, and esteem to anything. More particularly, to worship is to adore and give supreme respect; it is to honor with great love and submission. Because it’s in our nature to worship, we will either worship God or something in the creation, whether it is self-centered worship and worship of anything outside of us that we place high value in.
The problem with man is that due to our depravity and sinfulness, it’s our nature to worship idols. The heart is a perpetual factory of idols and even from conception, we are experts in inventing idols. We are experts on bragging on the merits of some created object, yet we are amateurs on bragging on the excellency of Christ. We are shy when it comes to bragging and persuading others to live for the glory of God, but we are experts on bragging on our favorite sports team or our favorite car or our favorite restaurant or anything else that we esteem highly. This is the heart of man, but thanks be to God that He is determined through the Holy Spirit to detach us from our idols so that we may serve and worship God only through the gospel of Christ Jesus. This is the restoration that the gospel promises: He takes godless pagan idolaters like us and transforms us into passionate worshipers of Christ.
A Reality Check
My wife and I have been reading through the Old Testament prophets this year and we have been amazed on how easily Israel was drawn away from the living God Who rescued them from their enemies to worship the false gods of the nations around them. In Jeremiah 44, Israel specifically tells Jeremiah that they will ignore his word and will continue to fulfill the vows made to false gods:
But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine. Jeremiah 44:17-18
Now this is a shocking and blatant admission of honesty, but the real question is are we this honest about our own idolatry? Do we cling to our idols because we really believe the confidence that we put in them? Do we place unreasonable confidence in our careers because we really think that is our protection? Do we place confidence in our political leaders because we really think that they are the reason that we are prosperous? Do we simply cling to our idols because “they work for us”? This is the danger of idolatry. It deceives us into thinking that creating things are our confidence. If we aren’t savoring Christ and making Him our satisfaction, we will worship something else; something else will fill that void. We do not have another option; we will worship that in which we are satisfied with. We become what we worship, either into the image of the living Christ or in the image of dead and vain idols.
We Love the World Correctly Only When We Love the Father Completely
Now based on your background, you may read this and dive immediately into two ditches: lawlessness or ascetism. Some may read this, ignore it, call a perversion from the gospel, and go back to their idols. Others may read this and get the conclusion that everything in the world itself becomes an idol and fall headlong into ascetism. I think that Thabiti Anyabwile address this very well in his examination of 1 John 2:15
So, when John says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” he is not saying that God’s people should not enjoy and use God’s gifts in a proper way. They should. Proper enjoyment and use of God’s blessings even contributes to our confidence of eternal life.What John means by “Do not love the world” is do no place “the world” before God himself. Do not be attached to the world in a way that weakens and can destroy faith, obedience and loyalty to the Father. That is John’s concern. Which leads us to an important principle: We cannot love the world correctly until we love the Father completely.
The same principle can be applied to idolatry. The natural state of man is to love his idols above God and place faith, confidence, and loyalty in it. However, the response that John gives is that we do not solve the problem of idolatry by simply running away from the idol. We solve the problem of idolatry by running to God. Truly, we cannot love the creation that God has given us correctly until we love the Father completely. How do we know whether we truly love God instead of the world? We know we love God and not the world when we deny our fallen motivations and desires and seek God’s glory in everything. If the glory of God is your pursuit in all of your endeavors, you will discover that God will detach you progressively from your idols, not so that you become an ascetic, but so that you can enjoy God and His creation properly.
Therefore, as the apostle John stated, keep yourself from idols (cf. 1 John 5:21) by loving God completely and seeking the glory of God in everything.