Showing Up – Turning From Idols

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In the last chapter, I identified a number of redemptive offers, alternative hope offered from religious, political, social or economic perspectives.  At the end of the chapter I observed that these alternative solutions have several things in common.

  • They encourage people to assume a victim identity. The world is then divided between a powerful minority who act as the oppressors and a weak majority who are oppressed.
  • Hope is found in human saviours. Their primary role is as educators, bringing the truth and exposing the secret reality.
  • However, salvation is something possible through self-help, especially when this happens collectively.

In that chapter, we began to see why those offers of hope ultimately fail because they are the offers of empty idolatry. We put our trust in false saviours who cannot save. In this chapter we want to spend a little bit more time thinking about how we expose the lie.  Remember that our aim in all of this is “subversive fulfilment.”  This recognised that there are points of contact, a shared hope that can only be fulfilled in Christ but also that there are points of departure. People have sought fulfilment in the wrong places and therefore not only do they need to turn to Christ to find fulfilment but they also need to turn from the idols (the subversive bit).

In Jeremiah 2:13, the prophet utters these words from the Lord

“For my people have done two evil things:
They have abandoned me—
    the fountain of living water.
And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water at all!”

Notice that sin is both the failure to trust in God and the active decision to seek alternative sources of life, refreshment and hope.  God is the one who offers permanent living water but we choose to dig our own wells, yet those wells or cisterns are unable to provide water. 

Jeremiah goes on to show how this has led to a form of slavery, equivalent to the previous period of slavery in Egypt and about to be fully realised by a new exile to Babylon.[1] The very people they put their trust in, who they looked to save them became their oppressors, they were ensnared in and trapped.[2]

This is important to recognise as we look at our own contexts. It is fascinating that Islam is looked to in many inner- city communities as offering salvation and yet the underpinning theme of Islam is submission and servitude. This is reflected in the overall philosophy of the religion, people are called to submit as the slaves or servants of Allah an impersonal God in the hope that he will somehow, someday be merciful but without confidence of this. Islam as it is practiced in many cultures also leads to a particular submission of women who are expected to wear the veil and be secluded away from society and often sadly for the vulnerable where those with disabilities have no status or value in the community.

Similarly, we frequently see how political trajectories often end in disappointment. Populist politicians who get out early enough find lucrative positions to enjoy future wealth on the back of the fame they have discovered.  Meanwhile the politicians who appeared to speak for the oppressed and to be authentic disappoint. Corbynism offered straight talking hope, a man willing to spek up for the people against injustice. Yet, an anti-racism campaigner oversaw the infiltration of a mainstream political party with the toxic plague of anti-Semitism and the “straight talking anti-politician proved as able to dissemble when questioned as the rest of the political classes.

Prosperity Gospels turn out to be nothing but Ponzi schemes. They may offer liberation from poverty but in fact, it is only a few people who make it to the top of the pyramid. The reality is that if they have got rich, it has not been through putting their faith in God but through having many poorer people put their faith in the pastor and handing over their tithes.  Far from setting people free, such lies enslave people to their religious leaders.

We are reminded again of Romans 1-3. The overall theme of these chapters is that far from the world being divided between the good guys and the bad.

“No one is righteous—  not even one.[3]

23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.[4]

I believe that there has to be a point in any gospel conversation where the person we are talking with stops thinking of themselves as primarily the victim and realises that they are the problem. How does that happen? Well, first of all, it involves gently walking through specific situations with them and helping them to see their own agency and responsibility in the situation. This is not to deny the reality of the oppression and harm that they have faced.  Rather it is to highlight their own culpability. To be clear, this is not about shifting blame from victim to abuser.  We should never create narratives to take responsibility away from such people nor add to abuse with blame and shame.

Yet, even if I have experienced bullying and abuse this does not excuse my own sinful behaviour in other contexts.  I am reminded at this point of an author I read some time back dealing with the issue of abuse in the home. The author was experienced in counselling abusers towards repentance. They noted that often the person would claim that they were “out of control” and yet when they talked through the situation, they helped the counselee recognise that at various points in the abuse they had demonstrated by their choice of context (not losing it in public) and the boundaries they set on how far they went, knowing how to restrict their abuse to a tongue lashing or inflicting pain but stopping short of  causing serious injury or death that they were very much in control.

It is helpful to invite someone to recognise that as well as the systemic problems that they see, that much pain and suffering starts in the home and starts with us.  My ultimate problem is that I am a law breaker and that I have failed in the relationships where it counts. God’s Law is summed up by two requirements, first that we love him whole-heartedly and second that we love our neighbours as ourselves. The two are interlinked. I love my neighbour best when I honour and worship God. I demonstrate my love for the God I cannot see by my love for my brother and friend who I can see.

Yet, most of us when reminded of this truth know deep down that we fail on both counts. God is not number one and central in our lives. We live day to day as though he does not exist.  Similarly, when challenged on this, I have to admit that far from loving others as I should, I have let down those I love the most, frequently and I have hurt those closest to me, often those who have poured so much love into my life with the things I think, do and say, not to mention the things fail to do and say.

Furthermore, Romans 1 and 2 are both clear that we are without excuse in our failing. WE have the benefit of both General Revelation and Special Revelation to show us what God is like, why he is worthy of our love and how to demonstrate this love for him in our love for each other.

Of course, these conversations are dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit to begin bringing conviction of sin. I don’t think we really can get people to accept their culpability simply by trying tell and explain, certainly not by badgering.  Their blindness to their own sin is spiritual and so they need their spiritual eyes opened. Only God can do that and without prayer we labour in vain.  Yet, as the Holy Spirit softens hearts, it is my view that we will rarely need to spell out to people that they are sinners. This will dawn on them as God shines light in their lives.

When this realisation comes, there is also the dawning realisation that they have been, to use the language of Romans 1, handed over. Far from being wise they are fools, far from being in the k now, they are ignorant, far from being free, they are trapped, enslaved to their passions and used by others for their own benefits.

This dawning realisation is about conviction of sin, recognising the ugliness of the idols they have worshipped, and the empty futility of the false hope offered to them. There needs to be a rejection and repudiation of these alternative redemption offers. I find the words of confession offered by the prodigal son helpful here. Remember how the younger son has demanded his inheritance and headed off to a far country in order to spend it. He runs out of money and famine strikes so that we find him taking a job looking after pigs.

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’[5]

Notice the crucial thing here is that he recognises his status.  He is in a worse position than servants. He is horror struck at what things have come to. The repentant person needs to realise that there is no beauty, goodness or hope in their circumstances. It means realising the emptiness of the other redemptive offers. The cisterns are cracked and dry.  More than that, the lost son owns up and admits that he is at fault. He is “no longer worthy…” Repentance is more than grief at my circumstances it involves putting my hand up and owning my culpability. It means saying:

“I have sinned.”

This is the point when hope can be fulfilled in Christ.

[1] Jeremiah 2:14.

[2] Jeremiah 2:18.

[3] Romans 3:10

[4] Romans 3:23.

[5] Luke 15:17-19.

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