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04-06-2014 message by Pastor Rich Doebler

For a couple weeks now we’ve been looking at “American Idols”—and we’ve seen that idolatry is not just something found in ancient times or primitive cultures. It’s not just bowing down before stone or metal objects, or praying to carved images.

Idolatry still happens today—in modern times, in our own culture…and (most alarming) in our own hearts. The sad truth is we’re not really that much different from ancient Israel, which—according to the Bible—mixed in with the nations around them, following their ways, adopting their customs, and worshiping their idols (Ps 106:35-36).

We’re like them because we’ve also been influenced by worldly customs and culture, allowing things to come between us and God—idols.

An idol is anything (any object, any pleasure, any activity—even any person or relationship)—anything that takes over and controls our lives (even good things—especially good things!).

Two weeks ago we looked at the false gods of culture; last week we talked about the false gods of self. We saw that all sins have their roots in idolatry—whenever we resist God’s way to go our own way, we are following a false god.

It’s easy to point the finger at others and say, “They’re so ungodly! They’re going against God. They’re worshiping at the altar of fame and fortune. They’re bowing before the gods of success or the goddesses of beauty.”

It’s easy to condemn and accuse others, but it’s even easier to miss our own spiritual shortcomings— and the idols that creep into our own lives. Those of us in the church can play the religious card and look down on others who aren’t part of our particular church culture!

Did you know religion can replace God? Religion can become an idol—a false god! Yet it’s hard to see the subtle distinction between false religion and true worship—between the good and the fake.

The word “religion” is defined in several ways. The dictionary says it is (among other things):

  • A system of believing about God (or supernatural powers).
  • A set of values or customs based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  • A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal and devotion.

In the Bible the word “religion” can mean something good—or bad. Biblical examples of “good”:

  • Children or grandchildren “should learn…to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” (1 Tim 5:4).
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: [A] to look after orphans and widows in their distress and [B] to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

The Bible also warns about:

  • “…self-made religion…” (Col 2:23, NASB) [NIV: self-imposed worship].
  • A man with “a loose tongue…deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
  • Jesus spoke about Pharisees—very religious, very strict Jews—who used religion like a club—to beat people up, condemning and judging those who didn’t follow their legalistic views.

“Religion” still has its modern-day Pharisees, of course: self-righteous, judgmental, super-spiritual people. They give “religion” a bad name! Like the Pharisees…

  • They are hypocrites. They work hard to maintain appearances, but like the original Pharisees, they neglect their true spiritual condition on the inside.
  • They are judgmental. They condemn or attack or scorn others who don’t follow their customs and beliefs.
  • They act religious. They practice form and ritual, but they forget about the heart of God—who cares about compassion and mercy for those who are hurting and needy.

Jesus pronounced “woes” on them as he described the things they did (Luke 11:37-53). They…

  1. Were concerned about appearances (cover-ups). You…clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. (39)
  2. Made mountains out of mole-hills…mole-hills out of moutains. You give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. (42)
  3. Were motivated by recognition and honor. You love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. (43)
  4. Were spiritually dead. You are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it. (44)
  5. Insisted people jump through spiritual hoops. You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. (46)
  6. Ignored their past to appear good. You build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. (47)
  7. Locked up spiritual knowledge. You have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering. (52)

Religion—or at least, that is, trying to look and act spiritual—can come between us and God. It can become an idol!

How can “religion” come between us and God?

1. When religion consists of ritual without reality—form without substance…

When we go through the motions, doing the “church thing”—but NOT from a sense of awe for God.

If you look good on the outside, but your inner spirit is a mess, then your religious activities can become idol worship—serving the false god of looking good.

Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah: “7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain…” (Matt 15:7-9; Isa 29:13).

Singing to God, praising the Lord, and praying are all good things. We need more! But if it’s only coming from our lips (outside) and not from our hearts (inside), then it’s a hollow, empty thing.

In his commentary on Romans [p15], N.T. Wright writes about watching workers cut down a large, 200-year-old beech tree. He said the tree looked fine—oh, maybe a little withering on the upper leaves, may a little fungus around the base…but wasn’t that to be expected? But when they cut it down, he saw the inside of the 4-foot-wide trunk. “The outer 2 or 3 inches were good, solid wood. But the rest of the trunk was stained a dark, mottled pattern… rot in the roots had started to spread inside, up to…10 or 15 feet. Before much longer it would have infected the entire tree.”

Then he goes on to compare the tree to humankind—which he says “is rotten at its heart.”

“It’s easy for people today to laugh at ancient idolatry. How funny they were back then, people think. They carved ‘gods’ out of wood and stone and worshipped them! But of course we do the same. The modern Western world has worshipped many idols… Twisted thinking, a darkened heart, and worship of non-gods: this is the disease, often unseen by the casual bystander, which will bring down the tree and anyone standing in the way. [p 18] [N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone (Romans: Part One), Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville, KY: 2004).]

2. When religion means trying to gain favor with people more than with God.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt 6:1)

Jesus specifically mentions helping the needy by giving in public “to be honored by others”; praying in public “to be seen by others”; and fasting with gloomy, sour faces “so people will know how spiritual they are.”

3. When our religious focus is on “what’s in it for me?” rather than “what can I do for others?”

When being blessed becomes more important to us than being a blessing, then religion becomes an idol, a false god. Paul, the apostle, writes about religious people who want truth on their own terms:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Tim 4:3

“Itching” ears desire to hear certain self-centered things—feel-good things that please, satisfy, or gratify the senses. When our religion is defined by pride and pleasure…or is about fulfilling our desires…or is a matter of convenience and ease…that’s when religion can become an idol.

Would you want a doctor who only told you good things? Who only gave you good reports? No, we want a doctor who will tell us the truth—so we can be treated and healed. If my doctor finds my cholesterol level is elevated, I don’t want him to keep it a secret. I don’t want him to say I’m fine when I’m not. So why would I want unsound doctrine that tells me only things that feel good?

If there is a spiritual illness, it shouldn’t be sugar-coated. But that’s what happens a lot because American Christianity often caters to what sells! And feel-good religion sells better than sacrifice and laying down your life!

In his book, Bad Religion, Ross Douthat sees this symptom in our society. American religion has turned what used to be called deadly sins into spiritual virtues. So he writes:

[Not understanding] that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin…religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes “self-esteem,” vanity becomes “self-improvement,” adultery becomes “following your heart,” greed and gluttony become “living the American dream.” [Ross Douthat in Bad Religion, p 5.]

4. When religion relies on favorite customs or traditions.

If you come to church depending on certain practices or things in order to have “legitimate” worship, it’s possible your religion has become tainted with idols:

The songs are too slow. Too fast. Too old. Too new. I’ve never heard that song before. I’ve heard that song 1000 times. The preacher shouldn’t wear a tie—he’s too formal. The preacher should wear a tie—he’s too casual. I hate the preachers’ tie. The preacher should use more stories. Less stories. More Scripture. He should give more altar calls. He’s always calling us to the altar. Services are too long. Too short. Too loud. I can’t hear. Our church is too big—I don’t know anybody here. Our church is too small—everybody knows me.

Bob Kauflin recently wrote in an article (“Idolatry in Corporate Worship”): “…our greatest problem when it comes to worshiping God doesn’t lie outside us, but within our own hearts. It’s the problem of idolatry.”

Any kind of religious custom or tradition can become an idol. It can be about coffee and muffins, about Sunday school curriculum, about the times of worship services, about the color of the new carpet—about anything.

True worship does not require a certain style or instrument (an organ, guitar, drums, etc.). If we put more stock in having “contemporary” music (or, on the other hand, “traditional” music), then we risk making an idol out of our religion.

There’s nothing wrong with having musical preferences. The problem when we act like Pharisees, thinking our preference is the right way—and then we become smug about how much more “spiritual” we are than others (with their “inferior…ungodly” tastes).

5. When doctrine is used as a stick to beat people up rather than a means of grace to save people.

Doctrine and theology are necessary and important. God’s Word is given so we can discover God’s grace and find eternal life through Jesus Christ.

But like anything, doctrine can be misused—sometimes in very destructive ways. Werner von Braun, one of the early NASA rocket scientists, once said, “Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.”

Doctrine and theology can be like that as well. It can be a knife to heal or a knife to kill. God intended it to heal the broken and sinful hearts of mankind—but far too many religious types have used it to beat people up, destroying their spiritual life.

Tim Keller (Counterfeit Gods, p 131) says when people elevate doctrinal truth to the position of a false god—(a) they trust in the rightness of their interpretation more than on God and his grace; (b) they think they are better than others; (c) they think they are saved because their theology is straight; (d) they forget that they are unworthy sinners who have been rescued by grace.

When that happens, religious doctrine becomes an idol because it comes between you and God— because you’re relying on your personal interpretations of doctrine as a ticket to heaven, instead of trusting soley on the grace of God.

6. When religion is measured by ministry success. — effectiveness

This can easily happen in the heart of a pastor. Pastors, being human, enjoy affirmation for what they do. “Oh, Pastor. You’re so humble [I know] and you work so hard [of course] and the church has grown so much.”

But religious pride can also happen in the heart of a church—within a congregation. When we measure how well we’re doing or how much we’re pleasing God by our attendance numbers or the effectiveness of our programs, then religion becomes an idol.

The Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14): To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else…(v 9)

When religious performance causes spiritual pride, it becomes an idol. Tim Keller goes further to say if our religion is defined by our spiritual gifts (or talents, or abilities, or performance), then religion becomes a counterfeit god.

Religion is an idol whenever we feel that God approves of us for what we do rather than for whom we trust. It’s an idol when it’s all about measuring spirituality or producing more results or having impact.

7. When religion is limited only to living upright, moral lives. — “good behavior.”

If we think our spiritual value is found in living a virtuous life—that we deserve God’s favor because we are good—or at least better than others—then our religion has become an idol.

Tim Keller (Counterfeit Gods) says if we think God owes us respect and support for our efforts to be good, then we’re trusting in a false god.

People think religion can give them peace within, but religion is only a belief system. It can be something good, but it can also be something that comes between us and God, something that prevents us from finding genuine peace.

This last week we heard news of another fatal shooting, this time at Fort Hood, an army base in Texas. Authorities want to learn why Ivan Lopez, Jr. would attack his fellow soldiers, and a number of leads are being investigated. But beyond speculation about his PTSD, his feeling unfairly treated, and so on, I read that his family members reported something he wrote on Facebook just days before. He said: “My spiritual peace…has gone away, I am full of hate.”

We cannot presume to know the mysteries of the human heart. But we know that everyone needs spiritual peace—peace of heart and soul and mind. We need the incomprehensible peace of God, which will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Religion cannot give that peace. Religious sounding words and religious ritual cannot give that peace.  Trying to live an upright, moral life cannot give that peace. Religious performance or doctrinal superiority cannot give that peace. All these things are false gods. They cannot give you peace.

What we need is God’s peace. Will you open your heart and your life to receive real peace from Lord Jesus Christ?