Soul Idols

Artemis

The temple of Artemis in ancient Ephesus was truly spectacular. It was roughly the size of Newlands Rugby Stadium, with over a hundred columns (sixteen stories high) and huge statues of Artemis, the pagan goddess of fertility. Much of Ephesian city life revolved around the temple and a profitable industry had emerged in the selling of silver artifacts and curios to the multitudes who came to worship.

In Acts ch.19, Demetrius (one of the leading silversmiths) speaks out against the Apostle Paul and the negative impact his ministry is having on business: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.” (Acts 19:25-26)

Sometimes it’s the opponents who give the best summaries of Christian teaching![1] But it’s also pretty clear that Demetrius was more concerned about his personal prosperity, than his goddess of fertility. Money, status and power were the real idols in his life.

Modern day Cape Town doesn’t have a massive temple to a pagan goddess but, just like Demetrius, we will be drawn to worship a variety of idols. These wont be made of wood or stone. They will be what the Puritans called “soul idols”:“No man can serve two masters…when you are more careful and industrious to please men, or yourselves, than to please God; to provide for yourselves and posterity, than to be serviceable unto God; more careful what you shall eat, drink, or wherewith be clothed, than how you may honour and enjoy God….more industrious to promote your own interests, than the designs of God; ….rise early, go to bed late, eat the bread of carefulness, that your outward estate may prosper, while the cause, and ways, and interests of Christ have few or none of your endeavors, this is to idolize the world, yourselves, your lusts, your relations, while the God of heaven is neglected, and the worship and service due unto him alone is hereby idolatrously given to other things.” [2]

So, when your mind and heart is really set on something other than God; when anything is more valued; anything is more trusted; anything is more loved than God, you’re dealing with a soul idol. How then can we identify our own personal soul idols? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself [3]:

  • What do you daydream about? I don’t mean once or twice. I mean the things you habitually think about when you are on your own. The things which bring joy and comfort to your heart. Archbishop William Temple said: “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” Think about what your thoughts turn to, effortlessly, when there is nothing else demanding your attention. That’s one way of identifying idols.
  • How do you spend your money most easily? Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” (Matt 6:21). Money, in and of itself, is sometimes an idol. But people usually desire money so that they can fuel some other type of soul idolatry. So look to where the money is flowing to discover idols. It could be you discover that some good things (like family, personal security, leisure activities) have started to become the dominant thing in your life. “Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love.”[4]
  • What makes you most angry? A fisherman looking for fish seeks out movement on the surface of the water. In your search for idols, think about the things that move you the most and which provoke the most painful, out-of-control emotions.

Those three questions may be the beginning of a very healthy spiritual self-diagnosis. But once you’ve done that, how do you defeat these soul idols? Are you willing to leave them as they are? Imagine being told that an intruder was in your house, robbing you of your possessions and threatening your family. Would you take action or just roll over and go to sleep, hoping things will be OK? Soul idols will rob you of your joy and threaten your eternity. Take action!

What will be the key weapon in this struggle? In short, we fight idols by building a bigger and bolder love for Jesus Christ. The old Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers[5] wrote a famous essay called: “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”. The title says it all: the one who cultivates a new and greater affection, desire, love for Jesus, will expel the idols of the soul: “Let us try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world. For this purpose, let us, if possible, clear away that shroud of unbelief which so hides and darkens the face of the Deity. Let us insist on His claims to your affection – and whether in the shape of gratitude, or in the shape of esteem, let us never cease to affirm, that in the whole of that wondrous economy, the purpose of which is to reclaim a sinful world unto Himself – he, the God of love, so sets Himself forth in characters of endearment, that nought but faith, and nought but understanding, are wanting, on your part, to call forth the love of your hearts back again.”

It seems that, over the years, the Ephesian church lost sight of this. The same church that Paul planted in that city; the same church which had heard him preach so powerfully against idolatry was later addressed by the Lord Jesus in the first of seven letters to the churches, in the Book of Revelation: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Revelation 2:4-5

They had “forsaken” their first love: Jesus. How are you growing in your love for Jesus? Pray that you never forsake this love. Pray that your love and affection for Him grow so that you can expel the idols of your soul.

 Written by Murray Anderson

 


[1] See also Acts 17:7

[2] David Clarkson (b.1622) from his powerful essay “Soul Idolatry Excludes men out of Heaven”. You can download the essay here: http://tonyreinke.com/2009/04/24/david-clarkson-soul-idolatry-excludes-men-out-of-heaven/

[3] For more detail see also Tim Keller’s excellent book: “Counterfeit Gods” (Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)

[4] Tim Keller: Counterfeit Gods, p168.

[5] b.1780

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