I’ve really appreciated reading Tim Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods. It’s helped me to identify the idols in my own life, that is to say those things that I look to instead of God to give me what only He can give. But more than a personal challenge it’s helped me to understand how we might connect the message of the gospel to our friends who, in many ways, appear to enjoy better lives than we do as Christ followers. Published just as the financial markets crashed it couldn't have been more timely.
In a chapter that looks at the idol of power Keller talks about how we are unable to heal ourselves. Try as we might we need Another to heal our hearts so that we no longer look to power to give us the security, identity and purpose that God alone can give. The same could be said of every other idol (success, political ideology, beauty, the opinion of others, children, relationships, morality….), we need God to work in us to heal our addiction to false gods.
Keller uses an extract from CS Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to illustrate this superbly well. He writes:
One of the main characters (in the book) is a young boy named Eustace. He clearly had a lust for power but he expressed it in the mean and petty ways that only a schoolboy could; in teasing, torturing animals, tattling and ingratiating adult authorities.
One night Eustace found an enormous pile of treasure in a cave. He was elated and began to imagine the life of power and ease he would now have. When he woke, however, to his horror, he had turned into a hideous dragon. “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”
Becoming a dragon was “a cosmic natural consequence”. Because he thought like a dragon he had become a dragon. When we set our hearts on power we become hardened predators. We become like what we worship.
Eustace was now an enormously powerful being, far more powerful than he had ever dreamed, but he was also fearful, hideous, and completely lonely. This, of course, is what power for its own sake does to us. The shock of his transformation humbled Eustace and he longed to be a normal boy again. As his pride faded the idolatry in his heart began to be healed.
One night Eustace the dragon met a mysterious lion. The lion challenged him to “undress”, to try to take off his dragon skin. He managed to peel off a layer but found that he was still a dragon underneath. He tried repeatedly but made no further progress. The lion finally said:
“You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…he peeled the beastly stuff right off…and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.
The lion of the fairy tale, Aslan, represents Christ and the story bears witness to what all Christians have discovered, that idolatry – seeking to find our ultimate joy in something other than God (in Eustace’s case, his idol was power) – leads to spiritual and, more often than not, emotional and relational death. What’s more it points to the fact that we cannot save ourselves. Try as we might to modify our behaviour, as hard as we try to find our security and value in God we can't do it. We might see modest change but deep down we remain the same.....we need Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
However, as Keller points out, if we let the futile experience of chasing after other God’s humble us and we turn to Christ then out of death there can be resurrection. We can emerge, finally, fully human with a tender heart that is reoriented towards God. But….it’s a work of grace that He does as we yield ourselves to Him.