Bob Dylan wrote some powerful songs about his faith journey in the late 70's. One song he composed popped up on the iPod recently. "Gotta Serve Somebody" simply says that no matter how independent, self-sufficient or in control we might try to be we still serve something or somebody.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody
That lyric struck a spiritual chord because it reminded me of some seriously head and heart messing stuff I have been reading from Tim Keller. Keller wrote a thought provoking definition of idolatry and how we can substitute even good things for God.
"Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry." (Tim Keller, "Talking About Idolatry in a Postmodern Age," www.thegospelcoalition.org)
That is disturbing for a guy who was taught from childhood that sin is a list that included but was not limited to movies, liquor, cigarettes, dancing, long hair and rock and roll.
Tim Keller's definition of sin takes all of the fun out of self-righteous comparison and judging. As I read Keller's examples of idolatry I saw how these subtle traps have played out with my family, friends, and colleagues. Most convicting of all I saw how chasing good things more than God has caused pain and brokenness in my own life. Here are Keller's thoughts from his book, "The Reason for God".
If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person's problems will be overwhelming to you.
If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.
If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you'll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You'll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.
If you center your life and identity on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the "escape strategies" by which you avoid the hardness of life.
If you center your life and identity on relationships and approval, you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism and thus always losing friends. You will fear confronting others and therefore will be a useless friend.
If you center your life and identity on a "noble cause," you will divide the world into "good" and "bad" and demonize your opponents. Ironically, you will be controlled by your enemies. Without them, you have no purpose.
If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don't live up to your moral standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating. (Tim Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), pp. 275-276)
Ouch. I mean seriously. Ouch.
Paul wrote these words to the Church at Colossae on the topic of idolatry.
"Don't be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world." (Colossians 3, NLT)
It is a hard truth to admit that we often worship the things of this world because they really can be good things. God in His loving grace does not desire for us to be deprived of good and pleasurable things. He simply wants us to place them in proper order. Later in the passage Paul gives one key to avoiding idolatry.
Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like Him. In this new life, it doesn't matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and He lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:10-11, NLT…take a moment to read verses 12-17 to see what the results of this action might look like)
Another key is to remember a campfire song from the Jesus movement that was, to borrow the approach of Law and Order, "ripped" from the Gospel of Matthew. (Matthew 6:33)
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;
and all these things shall be added unto you.
Everybody is going to serve somebody or something. Who (or what) are you centering your life on today?