Root Idols: Seeing the Hutch for What it is

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(While this is a stand-alone post, it is also part of a continuing conversation)

In Luke 4 Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights, and finds himself tempted by the enemy of our souls, the devil. There is incredible allegory between Genesis 3 and Luke 4 (but we won’t cover that here). At the end of the temptations, in verse 13, it says, “When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.” The word that the NASB translates as “every” is used all over the place, and its meaning is clear: it is also translated as “all”, “whole”, “all manner of”, and “everything”. Somehow, in the span of 13 verses, we are given a glimpse of every temptation. Yet only three altercations are recorded.

The first was the temptation of turning a stone into bread to provide for the extreme hunger he was no doubt feeling. Then all the kingdoms of the earth are laid out and the pride of ruling the world is offered to Jesus on the condition of worshiping the devil. Lastly, standing atop the Temple, Jesus is tempted to demonstrate his Kingdom power by throwing himself down to have angels rescue him.

The three root idols that temptation (and had Jesus succumbed, the action of sin) seems to flow from are: Provision, Pride, and Power.

Root Idols

I believe that every activity of sinfulness in my life stems from one of these three roots: provision, pride, or power. In fact, one action of sin (like lying) may stem from all three. Perhaps controversially, I believe that the wrath of God burns more fiercely toward our idols than our actions, since they are the root.

Without a lengthy dissertation as to why I believe this, two quick points: The first two commandments are directed specifically at idols – placing something other than God on the throne of our hearts; and, secondly, the three words used across the Bible that we translate as “idol” are used almost 150 times – and nearly all of them are warning or rebuking the people of God who associate with idols. And the imagery is not weak – some of the most graphic sections of Scripture are reserved for addressing idols.

One of my pastors from early in my marriage said it best: Even our morality is sin, as it is our attempt to attain heaven without Jesus. I think it’s Tim Keller who seeds the idea when he says, “An idol is any good thing we make an ultimate thing.” I would couch both quotes in the context of the above paragraphs by saying: Any action that doesn’t center glory and credit on God is most likely the product of a root idol, regardless of whether the action appears good or evil on the surface. In fact, Jeff Vanderstelt says it similarly:

If our lives are not producing the fruit of the Spirit, then it is something other than Jesus that is fueling the fruit of our lives – we have some root other than Christ that is bearing fruit in our lives.

Stone into Bread: the Idol of Provision

I think David Platt opens this conversation best when he says, “If we follow Jesus, ‘self’ is no longer god, and safety is no longer our priority.”

What he assumes is that when Jesus is not seated on the throne of our heart, self-preservation, comfort, safety-nets, and other provision-based priorities take over. When Jesus is not on the throne of our heart, we cozy up next to the idol of Provision and ask, “Are my needs being met?” This plays out in many ways: where we grocery shop, the way we drive home, what school we put our kids into. It also plays out in more subtle ways: How a pastor preaches, how nice a church building is, how nice the people sitting next to me are, how renown the kids program is – how “safe” or comfortable I feel in the bubble of that space.

In Luke 4, Jesus finds himself tempted to step outside of God’s provision and become self-reliant, providing for himself where God apparently doesn’t provide. I honestly believe if we really take this seriously it will shatter many of our lives. Our entire North American culture is predicated on the priority of provision. Laws are written that literally make it illegal to not provide for yourself by your own means. This isn’t to promote or advocate laziness, big government, or anything as petty as that: it is to truly question the root of why we do what we do – is it because we are so confidently resting in God’s provision that we move and work for his glory? Or is it because we need to provide for ourselves?

Like a fish in water, we often don’t realize the depth to which the idol of provision dictates our American lifestyle. Luckily, we receive grace upon grace and the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal layer after layer as long as the invitation is open and space is given for Him to do so.

All the Kingdoms: the Idol of Pride

The second temptation is for Jesus to step outside the proper alignment with God and assume a position he wasn’t called to hold just yet. For Jesus it was just a question of timing. There is no doubt that now all authority is subject under Christ and he is ruler over all. Similarly, often the idol of pride is a misunderstanding of the position we are called to hold now. In John 13 Jesus makes it clear that our role is servant, not lord (a whole chapter of the manuscript is dedicated to this).

It may be the temptation to use some skill to accumulate praise for myself instead of God. It may be the temptation to seek the praise of man instead of the promises of God. Regardless, it is setting myself up as worthy when I are not.

Pride is insidious in that we are most often most blind to it. The moment we look at our lives and say, “I don’t really struggle with pride,” is often the moment we have succumbed to the idol of pride. Pride is also most easily exposed: what makes you offended? What would affront your reputation? What would make you feel worthless? You put your pride into these things.

Where Provision asks, “Are my needs met?”, Pride asks, “Am I noticed?”

Thankfully, pride is perhaps the most regularly talked about idol of the bunch. There are plenty of incredible resources that pry into pride and I’ll leave a more in-depth look for a different time.

The Temple Peak: the Idol of Power

Lastly, Jesus is tempted to use a demonstration of power to win attention for himself, shortcut God’s plan, and assert himself as something special. The high point on the temple was visible to most of the city of Jerusalem. Certainly a rabbi jumping off, only to be caught up by angels and delivered safely to the ground, would cause quite a stir. And it wasn’t that Jesus didn’t have this power at his disposal – he did! It was that such a use of power was out of alignment with the creative purpose of his time on Earth.

We are each placed in positions that give us access to a certain amount of power. Regardless of whether it is power over our children or power over an entire State, we have some innate power associated with our existence. In whatever role we occupy, we will be tempted to misapply that power for personal gain. The Bible probably speaks most clearly against this than the other two: abuses of power are so widely denounced in Scripture that I won’t even begin to list the references here.

More than the misapplication of power, the temptation was also the thirst for power. The Tempter taps into something wired within the human Jesus that wants to attain more power that whatever existing power is afforded to him here. He wants to be a superhero, like each of us dream about as kids. Is there a bent in my life to accumulate more power for myself? Is there an allure to use my power to bring attention to myself?


Provision asks, “Are my needs met?”

Pride asks, “Am I noticed?”

Power asks, “Is this it?”

Start peeling back the layers, really dig: are we advancing our kingdom or God’s Kingdom? On what foundation have we built our behavior – rotting idols or the Solid Rock?

I think if we do pry, we’ll find that some roots are rotten; others just need to be properly pruned and kept in check. If you took a crowbar to your weekly schedule and starting asking why you do the things you do, what would turn up? Would it be something that flows out of your Identity in Christ? Or something that you picked up from culture, or church, or parents, or something else?

When I post next on this topic, we will look at how to “re-arrange the furniture” – how we stop the cycle of placing idols on the throne of our heart and allow the Holy Spirit to do the necessary surgery to make our heart his home. We will explore how to “Refute Idols with Identity”.

K Livingston
K Livingston
I believe in dreaming big, working hard, cheering loud, standing tall, bowing deep. All of it because I believe Jesus = life.
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