Entrepreneur Max Anderson reflects on his New York pastor and friend’s teaching on idolatry
Read: Counterfeit Gods
In those years when I first worked with Tim after leaving McKinsey, I would often see my old college classmates, either at reunions or in the city. I noticed a strange thing happening. They would ask me what I was up to professionally and I would start with: “Well, I was at McKinsey for a few years and now I’m studying theology at a church in Manhattan.”
I didn’t just share what I was up to. I wanted them to know the resume-worthy bit about McKinsey before sharing the bit about studying to become a pastor. At some level I didn’t want to be thought of as “a potential pastor”. I wanted them to know I had got one of the most prestigious jobs you could get coming out of an Ivy League school, and maybe suggest that I could return to it at any time.
I think I wanted the approval of these people enough to create my own spin zone. Why?
One of the most important concepts I learned from Tim is that idols are more than the golden calves you read about in the Old Testament. An idol, he explained, is: “…anything more important to you than God. Anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God. Anything you seek to give you what only God can give. Anything that is so central and essential to your life, that should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
In other words, an idol is a counterfeit God.
An idol is a “God,” Tim argued, in the sense that: “Whatever controls us is our Lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by the people he or she wants to please. We do not control ourselves, we are controlled by the lord of our lives.”
Surprisingly, idols aren’t just “bad” things. They are often good things that we make into ultimate things. Look at the two Tim mentions in the quote above.
Power is neutral – it can be used for good or for ill. But it is an idol to the degree you make sacrifices to attain it.
Acceptance is a beautiful thing that most people desire. But if acceptance, whether from a romantic interest, an employer or a coveted social circle, feels like something you cannot live without, then acceptance has become a counterfeit God in your life.
The roots of this “idolatry” can go deep, but if you are willing to do the work, you can learn a lot about yourself and what is driving you. Tim writes: “For example, money can be a surface idol that serves to satisfy more foundational influences. Some people want lots of money as a way to control their world and life, and such people usually don’t spend much money and they live very modestly. They keep it all safely saved and invested so that they can feel completely safe in the world. Others want money for access to social circles and to make themselves beautiful and attractive. These people do spend their money on themselves in lavish ways.
“Other people want money because it gives them so much power over others. In every case, money functions as an idol, and yet because of various deep idols it results in very different patterns of behaviour. The person using money to serve a deep idol of control will often feel superior to others and use money to obtain power or social approval. In every case however, money idolatry slaves and distorts lives.”
And, ironically (and disturbingly), idols can even be present in overtly “religious” people and environments: “Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace. It is a subtle but deadly mistake…Another form of idolatry within religious communities turns spiritual gifts and ministry success into a counterfeit god…
“…Another kind of religious idolatry has to do with moral living itself…Though we may give lip service to Jesus as our example and inspiration, we are still looking to ourselves and own moral striving for salvation…Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ.”
Ain’t that the truth.
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In every company, neighbourhood and community, religious or secular, idols exist because idols exist in every human heart. As humans, we all worship something. The question is who or what do you worship?
While working with Tim I was learning about the work of idols in our lives and I only gradually began to discover my own idols and turn from them. But the truth is I still have them. I still want to be accepted. I still want approval. As Calvin described it, the heart is an idol factory. The difference for me now is I’m at least somewhat aware of this hunger for acceptance I have.
I’m continually learning how that hunger is really only fulfilled by the one who offers unconditional acceptance, the one who truly doesn’t care where I’ve worked or what I’ve achieved. As Tim argues in the book, every other counterfeit God will make you sacrifice yourself on the altar for it. Christianity offers the only God who sacrificed himself on the altar for me.
Max Anderson is an entrepreneur and author. He is founder of Stagecoach Ventures and author of The Weekend Reader, a deep thinker’s guide to modern culture. He is author of Modern Meditations: Reflections from the Mid-Point of the Second Decade of the Twenty-first Century. Max is founder and CEO of The Lift Seminar - a personal accelerator for entrepreneurs, and a platform for teaching MBAs at the world’s top business schools the secrets of massive personal productivity.