My daughter Katie just graduated from college.
As I watched the graduation processional and listened to the commencement speaker, I thought of my own college graduation, decades ago. I had paid little attention to the speech. I thought I had it all figured out. I was about to move to Boston with a great job, ready to take on the world.
I got to Boston and focused on my career, confident that climbing the ladder of success was God’s plan for me. I worshiped the Lord, but I unconsciously worshiped other things as well. Things like money and success. My intellect and people’s good opinion of me. An examination of my checkbook and my calendar would have revealed my misplaced priorities.
I wish I had heard the commencement speech delivered by the late David Foster Wallace in 2005, at the Kenyon College graduation. Wallace, though not a religious man, understood worship:
“Here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. …
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.”
This idea that we are all worshipers, bowing down to idols of our own making, did not originate with Wallace. The Bible expresses that idea throughout its pages. In fact, Psalm 115 says, “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands… Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” We become what we worship – it both owns and changes us.
As Christ-followers, we do not worship the idols of the nations as the world does. We serve and trust God. But our hearts are still divided and even as we worship God, we also unconsciously worship other things. We trust in things besides God. And if we let them, those things will also control us.
One of my idols is being right. I think I know what is best. And because of that, I want everyone else to think I’m right too. I feel humiliated when others see my mistakes. I also worship the good opinion of others. I pride myself on being intuitive about people, caring about their needs, being the perfect friend. But I can’t please everyone and I end up feeling like a failure.
My failures are devastating because these things are too important to me. And rather than admit the struggle I have with them, I defend myself and justify my actions. I contend, ‘I’m being misunderstood. My motives aren’t wrong. Everyone would agree with me. My response was only natural.’
The more I justify my own actions, the less I see my need for the gospel. The less I’m willing to acknowledge my weaknesses, the more embedded my idols become. As I defend them, and myself, they increase their hold on me. It requires humility to confess my sin, ask for God’s forgiveness and receive his help. But the good news is that Christ has bought my freedom. I have been taken out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of light; idolatry need not be my default setting anymore.
While many believers, including myself, have regularly quoted John Calvin who said that our hearts are perpetual idol factories, I don’t think Calvin was referring to believers. Mike Leake has a beautiful way of describing the difference. He says that we were once serial idolaters, but now we have a new nature. Our idol factory has a new owner, the Holy Spirit, and it is no longer designed to produce idols. But the transition is slow and halting, so the factory sometimes goes back to its old patterns, producing idols as it did before. The difference is that now making idols is a defect. Idols are no longer celebrated. And producing them is not inevitable. As the workers become more familiar with the new owner and his ways, different products are created, like love, joy, peace…and self-control.
So if you are a Christian, you worship the Creator of the universe. He alone has ultimate value. And because of that, you are free from the slavery of worshiping other things. You need only ask for help.
If you are not a Christian, don’t think that just because you aren’t religious, that you aren’t worshiping anything. Everyone worships. But how do we know what our idols are? Tim Keller calls our idols counterfeit gods. He says, “A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
Consider what preoccupies you. What frightens you. What drives you. What you cling to and what you pursue. And ask yourself if you’ve ever truly felt satisfied and fulfilled for more than a few moments. The things of the world cannot bring lasting peace. They were not intended to.
Celebrities like Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, and Robin Williams took their lives at the height of their careers; success and fame cannot fill the voids in us. And whatever you trust in, whatever you worship, whatever you build your life on, besides God, will eat you alive. It will enslave you. It will promise you more than it can ever deliver. And ultimately, it will abandon you to hopelessness in the end.
Pay attention to what you worship.