The pressure it puts on us
Consider a man whose idol is sport. This is what he lives for. He must, at all costs, be considered great. His god calls for him continually to strive and sacrifice, and if he doesn’t, his life will be worth nothing.
It is for this reason that many sportsmen and women have been prepared to cheat. The God of success didn’t deliver a commandment which forbids lying. That’s why the first of the Ten Commandments is ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’ It’s not just the first commandment – it’s the all-important commandment. If you disobey this, you will disobey any of the others should your new god demand it. When you find out why someone is prepared to lie, you have found that person’s god.
What about the person who lives to help others? Surely it is good to help others? It is, but if you take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing it will crush you. If helping others is your life’s purpose, then, if you come into circumstances in which you can’t help others, you are going to feel that your life is no longer of any value. You have lost the reason for your existence.
The pop singer Madonna eloquently describes the pressure that comes from making fame your idol:
I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy . . . I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting . . . Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.1
Madonna’s quest to be worshipped as a goddess turned her into a slave. This is where idolatry takes you. False gods offer no rest, forgiveness or atonement – if we fail, we alone bear the consequences, and often there is no way back.
By contrast, the true God offers rest. Salvation is not what you do for God, but what He has done for you in Christ. A Christian doesn’t work to be accepted; he works because he is accepted. His salvation is guaranteed. He knows that, while he can lose good things, he can never lose the ultimate thing, his relationship with God. Nothing can threaten that.
The pride it breeds within us
False gods only bless those who are good enough. Whether we think of secular gods like fame, money or beauty, or religious gods such as Allah, Shiva or the gods of the cults, you only receive their blessing by being better than others.
If popularity and acceptance are what make your life worth living, then whenever you meet someone less popular than you, you will think you are more valuable than that person. If you’re popular you’re obviously better.
The gods of religion only accept those who are good enough. Religion is a works-based enterprise. If you ultimately attain salvation it will be because you have earned it, and you will therefore have something to boast about. You will look down on those who are less diligent or devoted.
What a contrast all this is with the true God! He doesn’t accept those who are worthy, because no one is. God receives people on the basis of grace not merit. He saves the guilty not the good. This leaves us with nothing in which to boast. Stripping us of pride, it gives all the glory for our salvation to God. As Timothy Keller puts it, to be accepted by God ‘all you need is need, all you need is nothing.’2
The prospect it takes from us
A false god leaves you with no hope for the future. Beauty fades, fame passes, for nothing in this world lasts. Isaiah 14 talks about the demise of the king of Babylon. This man gloried in his power, but he left it all behind and found himself in hell. There he was greeted with contempt by the rest of the damned who asked, 'Have you also become as weak as we? Have you become like us?' (v 10). He lived for power, but his god abandoned him.
In Luke 16:19-31 the Lord Jesus spoke about a man who lived for riches. When he died he arrived in hell. He is referred to only as 'the rich man'. His identity was bound up in his wealth, and yet this could do him no good in hell, for he had to beg for a drop of water to cool his tongue.
Whether it’s power, money, beauty, family, career, pleasure or anything else, all these gods rob you of any hope beyond the grave.
No salvation is to be found in the false gods of religion.. Only the true God can save. In Isaiah 45:22 God issues this appeal:
'Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.' (NKJV)
The God of the Bible alone is the living God. He has proven Himself to be a loving God by providing salvation for us at infinite cost to Himself. Look to Him for salvation and accept no imitations.
- Lynn Hirshberg, ‘The Misfit,’ Vanity Fair, April 1991, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp. 160-169, 196-202, cited in Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power Let You Down, Hodder, 2009, p. 72.
- Keller, Counterfeit Gods, p. 88.