Discerning the idols of your heart necessarily involves more than what upsets you

Yesterday my computer decided to go into an endless death loop. A frustrating problem with the tracker pad led to some bigger problems until, eventually, it ended in a cycle of failed attempts to repair itself, rebooting and further failed attempts to load again.

I’m sure you’re not overly bothered about my technological problems nor my luddite tendency to want to smash the computer against the wall when such things set in. But there was a brief period of time – over an hour or two – where I thought it might be curtains.

I wasn’t particularly concerned for my sermons and files. Pretty much all of those exist in the cloud so, unless the internet dies, they’re about as secure as anything can be. Nor was I bothered about our photos and music. They either exist in other formats or are backed up elsewhere. Not much danger of losing all that either.

But I was bothered about two things. First, the thought of having to shell out for a new computer. But second, and probably worse, the time it would take me learning how to use it and organising it to suit my needs. Even when I get a new phone that hasn’t cost me any initial outlay, I hate having to learn how to use it. It’s the time and energy expended faffing around with it I can’t stand.

Some would want to say that my frustration at the possibility of losing all my stuff, or not wanting to shell out or wasting time learning a new machine are all evidences of potential idols in my heart. I’m not sold on that. I mean, sometimes things are just frustrating. Sometimes, things are so important that were you to lose them, shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘ah well’ almost seem to suggest that you didn’t care about the thing in the first place. I can’t imagine a person who loves their wife reacting that way should they lose them. I appreciate my computer shouldn’t (and doesn’t) occupy quite that level of import, but it is genuinely a bit more important than a mere wave of the hand and ‘c’est la vie’ would imply.

I suppose it’s possible that, if I get inordinately angry at my time being wasted sorting out this computer and (potentially) having to deal with a new one, it might be evidence of an idol in my heart. But the word ‘inordinately’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. If my frustration is warranted under the circumstances, it is more likely evidence that my time is being taken up by things that are taking me away from even bigger priorities. Time, of itself, isn’t that important to me. It is that the time taken on one thing that I wish I didn’t have to deal with at all is taking me away from the things that I really do think matter.

It is fair to say that my hope and contentment is not wrapped up in my computer. Losing it would be an annoyance – an inevitably time-consuming, probably expensive, irritation – but it wouldn’t represent the end of my world. I would not reel into a depression and I wouldn’t sulk about it for weeks on end. I am pretty confident my computer does not occupy a place in my heart that rightly only belongs to Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have idols in my heart. It just means a) if I do, my computer is not it and b) we perhaps need a more robust measure for figure out what it is. I don’t think we can draw a straight line from stuff that makes us angry and upset when we don’t have it and our idols (as some want to do). Some things we are rightly angry and upset when we don’t have them. God was angry and upset when his people were unfaithful to him and I don’t think this is evidence that the Lord idolised his people. It is evidence that he loved them. And rightly so!

Idols are those things that take the place in your heart that only Christ should have by rights. The evidence that something has usurped the place Jesus ought to have is not how upset I am when I don’t have them. I’d be (rightly) very upset should I no longer have my children, for example. The sign they might have become an idol to me is less my upset if I don’t have them – which is only right and proper if I love them – but the decisions I take to serve them at the expense of the things Christ calls me to do. It is in forsaking the things of Christ in favour of seeking and serving whatever the thing is that I love more than him.

That, I think, is the key to idolatry. Not that I love other things, but that I love them more than Christ. Not that I enjoy other things, but that I enjoy them more than Christ. Not that I choose to do certain things, but that I do that before the things Christ calls me to do (even forsaking the things Christ calls me to do in favour of them).

What makes things tricky to discern, of course, is when Jesus wants us to do things that we turn into idols. He wants us to love our families, he wants us to share the gospel, he wants us to help other believers grow. If we love him, we will rightly want to do these things. But how do we know when these good things, things Jesus himself wants us to do, have become idols?

We know when these things have become everything to us when maintaining my ministry is more important to me than doing the work that Christ calls me to do for his sake, then I’ve got a problem. If I make one aspect of ministry – be it evangelism, discipleship, preaching, whatever – everything, to the detriment of other things the Lord also commands me to do, I might well be in danger of making that thing an idol. Obviously the Lord wants us to share the gospel, but if we only do that we aren’t actually being faithful to him. It’s interesting that he says, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’ not, commandment, but commandments (plural). If we have made one command all encompassing, at the expense of other similarly weighty parts of the Christian life, there is every reason to believe that we are making an idol out of one bit of our ministry.

Our call is to faithfulness. Being faithful to Christ doesn’t mean just being faithful in the stuff we like, we favour or we feel naturally gifted in but being faithful to him in all things. That necessarily means putting Jesus first in all things. And if we put Christ first, we will rightly love our families, our churches and our friends. We will do all the work he calls us to do gladly, not just the bits of it we fancy. We will do all those things because these are the things Jesus calls us to do. And if we love him, we will want to be faithful to him.