If John Calvin was right when he said that our hearts are idol factories (and he was), then seeking sanctification within a community means we must help one another inspect the stuff coming off the assembly line.
Whether you are a preacher, teacher, small group leader, counselor, discipler, or evangelist, it’s your job to teach others how to turn from idols, too.
Yet, if we intend to help others turn from their idols, we have to get proficient at it ourselves. Psalm 115 shows how.
You can apply the four sections below in several formats. For preachers, they provide a framework for deconstructing idols in a sermon. For small group leaders and disciplers, they provide four destinations toward which to steer a conversation. For evangelists, they focus you on the person’s heart, where God works, rather than their surfacy objections or doubts.
1. View idols for what they really are
“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” (Psalm 115:4-8).
Before you can turn from an idol, you have to recognize how empty they are. You have to see that they promise things they can’t deliver. You have to see that they are dead. You have to see that they are not God.
More than that, you have to develop a pejorative view of idols. You have to see how silly they are. You have to see what would be the comedy of idols, if they didn’t cause such tragic effects.
The psalmist brings all this to view by itemizing their lifeless body parts.
2. Diagnose the idol
“Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (115:8).
First and foremost, idols are dead. That is loud and clear in verses 4-7. And those who make idols are like them in that they are also dead.
But every idolater is dead in a certain way that resembles the dead idol they worship. How such a person embodies the symptom reveals the idol in the heart.
When you embody the characteristics of an idol, you become a caricature of that idol. The funny thing about caricature paintings and drawings is that they embellish certain features and downplay others. The big ears are drawn extra large, and the squinty eyes are depicted merely with a line.
Our idols have the same effect on us. Our idols cause us to embellish certain aspects of our life and downplay others. The result is that we become a caricature of our idol.
Once I saw the back windshield of a car with two big Apple logo stickers, and three little Apple logo stickers. That family doesn’t have five people, it has five Apples. The family is a caricature of their computer.
Would it be overstating the point to say that that family has become like their idol?
So the question for you and I – and for those we wish to point to Jesus – is which values of the world characterize us? What aspects of this fallen world are visible in our life? What do we resemble?
3. Identify the purpose for the idol
Why would we turn to an idol in the first place? Verses 9-11, in pointing to what the Lord can only provide, betrays our purpose for turning to idols in the first place: help and protection.
“He is their help and their shield” (115:9b, 10b, 11b).
We use idols to help us get something we think is good and to ward off something we think is bad. Typically, we expect our idols to do both. Money helps us acquire things we like and it buys our way out of trouble. A spouse provides a relationship and sexual privileges, and protects us from loneliness. A career gives you identity, and saves you from purposelessness and poverty.
The ironic fact that we use idols displays what is really happening when we worship an idol: we worship ourselves. As soon as an idol stops delivering help and protection for us, we turn to a different one. Our faithfulness to our idol lasts as long as that idol’s faithfulness to us. Which proves that the idol is not the thing we love so much as ourselves. Ultimately, we are self-worshippers.
4. Transfer your trust in the idol to trust in the Lord
Unless, of course, we are God-worshippers. What does it mean to worship God? Verse 1 tells us: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.”
But then verses 9-11 describe how we live in such a way as to give God glory: we go to him for help and protection, and we trust in him alone.
“…trust in the Lord, he is their help and salvation” (115:9, 10, 11).
The necessary result – and the genuine fruit that you have turned from idols to the living God – is that you stop working for yourself, and you let God work for you. You trust him. You let him help you. You let him protect you. You don’t do that for yourself. You don’t create an idol to do it for you.
This, of course, is epitomized at the cross. Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He lived the holy life we could not live and died the death we deserved. We can only receive his work on our behalf by grace, through faith, and not by works.
When you stop working for yourself through your idols, and let God work for you, you have no choice but to give God glory. And that’s just the way God-worshippers like it.
Being conformed to who you worship
The long-term effect of worshiping God, rather than idols, results in resembling a person, rather than a thing. That person is Jesus. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
As my former professor, Dr. Greg Beale, put it: you resemble what you revere, either for ruin or restoration.
Let’s resemble Jesus so that the image of God would be restored in us. And let’s point those heading for ruin in his direction, too.