Stages of Idolatry [Interpreting the Present Time]

The other day in the Jonathan Edwards’ class I teach, we had a great discussion on the role of suffering in increasing assurance of salvation. The consensus was that, yes, suffering can increase assurance of salvation, but that we must be discerning about how our hearts respond to the pain.

One of the guys in the class (Tim) noted that suffering often involves the removal of something we treasure, and we run to God, not for his sake, but in order to get our idol back. One thinks of the people who make bargains with God in dire straits (“If you’ll just get me out of this, I will…”). The priority is the removal of pain, not the increase of holiness.

I’ve seen this reflected often in my own life, as God refines me by uprooting some of his treasured gifts to me in order that I would delight in him above all else. So then, here’s the progression:

1. We are walking in faith, delighting in God.
2. God blesses us with good and perfect gifts, which we enjoy for his sake.
3. We begin to treasure those gifts above God, but with no discernible negative consequences.
4. God uproots the gifts so as to remind us of our ultimate Good.
5. Persistent clinging to God’s gifts results in greater chastisement, and eventually we come to hate the very things we formerly treasured.
6. We will continue to spiral downward until either we utterly destroy ourselves, or we repent and God heals us.

So then, when we find ourselves steadily marching down the road to perdition, how do we respond? Do we simply want to return to Stage 3, idolizing God’s gifts with no consequences? “Remember the good ol’ days when we could sacrifice to Baal and enjoy a fruitful harvest?” Or will we repent and return to Stages 1 and 2, where God’s gifts are enjoyed for his sake?

This line of thinking applies not only to individuals, but also to societies. When a society has been penetrated with the gospel such that many of its members walk in trust and obedience to the living God, a thousand blessings are likely to flow. Sowing to the Spirit results in reaping from the Spirit.

However, God’s gifts are often greater threats to true worship than anything else. When God is gracious to us, failure to honor him as God and give thanks is a heinous offense. However, the consequences of this new idolatry do not come right away, just as the blessings of the former obedience did not appear immediately. First we sow, then we reap.

Therefore, for a time, we are both reaping the good fruit of former obedience and sowing the seeds for future judgment. In other words, as a society, we are at Stage 3 in the progression above. God is long-suffering with us, but he will judge in due time. And, as Romans 1 teaches us, his judgment will often take the form of a “giving over” to our idolatrous passions. He punishes us by giving us what we want, knowing that no creaturely image will ever replace the satisfaction supplied by the incorruptible glory of God.

What this means, then, is that, as individuals and as a society, we must be on the lookout for two types (or rather, stages) of idolatry. In the first, we will pay lip-service to God while treasuring his gifts above him. Idolatry is just gaining its foothold in our hearts.

In the second stage, we have jettisoned God all together, overtly worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, and being judged by God accordingly. At this point, we have come to despise many of the good gifts that formerly delighted us, as they have fallen to husks and ashes apart from a vital connection to the God who gave them. No one wants to eat an orange that’s been sitting on the counter for 6 months.

In a subsequent post, I’ll try to make some contemporary application. But before then, any questions or comments? Any pushback or tweaking? Comment away.

8 thoughts on “Stages of Idolatry [Interpreting the Present Time]

  1. One add-on, or tweak: suffering is not necessarily the result of idolatry or unbelief.

    I know you didn’t say that but my heart is sensitive for the suffering person who may be fragile, yet their suffering is not the result of idolatry. And to them we must be careful to comfort them with the comfort God has comforted us.

    Sometimes the call to repentance in order to alleviate suffering rings like condemnation in the ears of fragile saints who don’t know the cause of their suffering but have done their best to repent of sin with no alleviation of suffering.

    And so the person who has cancer may not have had the idol of good health. And the person whose child has died may not have had their children as an idol. And the person who’s depressed may not have idolized joy or had unbelief. Yet God certainly uses these times to bring assurance to these suffering saints, albeit painful, bittersweet assurance.

    Again, I want to affirm that you did not say suffering was always the result of idolatry in the least.. I just wanted to add this on, to give comfort to someone who might read it and hear condemnation for their suffering when they may have needed comfort.

  2. Abigail,

    Great clarification. No disagreement at all.

    What’s remarkable to me is that even though not all suffering is owing to sin, all suffering does hold out the possibility of greater holiness, sanctification, and assurance, as God casts us back onto himself as the deepest and most lasting source of satisfaction.

  3. Try this on:

    We need sanctification because we treasure things of less worth than God. This is wicked.

    For us to be sanctified we need to have the light of truth shone on these such that we see them for the weak value that they really are.

    Trials are the most prominent means that God uses to shine the light of truth on these in our lives. Some we don’t even know are there until the trial comes that takes them away. Others we know are there, but we don’t fully know the extent of our valuing of them.

    Therefore trials are an inevitable and lifelong gift of God’s mercy. One by one he turns us away from trusting in things other than him.

    Eventually only one treasure remains, life itself. So the time of death can be a great temptation to leave God – or a great receiving of his mercy and turn one last time to him.

    What do you think?

  4. Hi Tim,

    Abigail Dodds here, from Sunday School:) Thanks for your reading the Word this Sunday. It was moving.

    I hope it’s ok if I respond to this.. Joe, please jump in to add corrections if needed.

    I love the heart of what your saying, because it is humble and its greatest longing is for God in Christ to be our highest Treasure. I can never ever disagree with that.

    That said, I hope you’ll allow me to do the same basic “tweak” that I did before. When you say, “Therefore trials are an inevitable and lifelong gift of God’s mercy.” I say yes and amen. However, the “therefore trials” following the preceding paragraph which shows how trials can be used to reveal idols, makes it sounds then like all trials are necessarily the kind that remove idols. I don’t know if I’m reading that right or not..

    Yes, I agree this is part of God’s use of trials (ie removal of idols). I just don’t think it’s His only use of them. Some other uses include producing steadfastness, giving us fellowship with Christ to share in His sufferings, and to test our faith (as with Job).

    You may be wondering why I feel the need to make the distinction of suffering/trials as the result of sin (ie God’s discipline in removing an idol), and suffering for other reasons. After all, we all sin, so in some ways our own sin will always be part of our trials.

    It’s because if all trials are the result of idolatry or personal transgression then the repentance of that sin would include the relief of the trial. So, for a person suffering for the sake of the Gospel, or because God is developing perseverance or because their faith is being tested, the trial may never be lifted until they meet Jesus.

    And we don’t want to be their Eliphaz or Bildad, continually pointing them to repentance that gains them no relief. We may cause them to despair of God’s goodness. We want to say, “Yes, God is causing this, but it is for your good and will result in future glory that you can’t imagine.” And things like, “Continue to persevere through this trial! Christ Himself sympathizes with you in it!” We need to bolster them to persevere to the very end.

    Certainly in our own lives we should look for idols and sin as a first course of action when we sense God bringing a trial, but when looking at others, we must tread lightly and carefully, in order not to crush the faith of the weaker brother who may face a trial for the rest of his life, with no relief. (Hopefully there will be some relief by the comfort and love given through Christ’s body, but no end to the trial).

    I hope that’s helpful. I know your heart is very compassionate, so I don’t mean that you were trying to say what I’ve just defended against.. I’m just cautioning us; that when we speak of trials/suffering we don’t necessarily associate them with sin to be repented of. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that every person who suffers a trial is a sinner in need of repentance and guilty of great sin (but Christ), yet, the trial may be for other reasons and may not be alleviated with repentance.

    With love for Him and His body,

  5. Hello Abigal,

    In what I wrote, I was not assuming that repentance would bring “relief” from the trial. The trial is not like punishment, meant to go away once we find just the right thing to repent of. The only thing that makes the trial go away is the wisdom of God deciding when it has accomplished its purpose.

    As God always does “a thousand things at once,” then it is probably near impossible for us to figure out all his purposes behind our trial. Our role in a trial is to submit to his merciful refining in our lives, even if we don’t know all the specifics of that refining.

    So then, when I think of trials sanctifying us from sin, I don’t think of that as a separate purpose category for trials. Since we always have sin, we always have need of that. And as he does that, he is always bringing about perseverance, proven character, hope, steadfastness, identification with the sufferings of Christ. These are all part of his sanctifying us.

    How should we care for the souls of our friends as they go through their trials? It needs to be rare when we would tell a friend that his own sin brought on their current trial, even when circumstances warrant it (say, they have an affair and now their spouse doesn’t want to live with them). Even then, the detached pronouncement of “it’s all your own fault” is usually not very helpful to their soul. Instead we want to help them see more clearly what God is shining light on in their own hearts and the grace he is showing them. Looking for the grace of God in those times is hard work. We want to help them repent as God exposes sin, see and rejoice in God’s grace to them, and develop and keep warm affections and longings for their Savor.


  6. Couple thoughts Joe…
    First, stage 6 looks like it could be flushed out more. The “we repent and God restores us” feels like an oversimplification. I am looking for the result of our evil choices ; the discipline. It feels to easy to just spiral down, repent and start over again.

    Second, what are the signs of being grateful for the gift and not the giver? Thank you for the BLESSING vs. thank YOU for the blessing. The most obvious is the object of our thanks, but what other signs and warnings ought we to watch for in our “gratitude”?

  7. Good points all. Let me make a couple of clarifications:

    1. I agree with Tim that repentance from idolatry exposed by suffering does not always result in the relief of that suffering. Sometimes the repentance simply allows us to cope with it (see 2 Corinthians 12)

    2. Abigail’s caution about treating all suffering as discipline for specific sins is well-taken. We mustn’t turn into Job’s friends. What those three were saying wasn’t totally wrong; Deuteronomy promised curses for disobedience. But it was incomplete. My post is seeking to primarily address the kind of suffering owing to rebellion, not the less clear kind that is simply sanctifying.

    3. I still have questions about Tim’s last comment about attributing the suffering of another to specific sins. I think we should be careful about this (see no. 2), but we should be prepared to call a spade a spade. If I have time, I’ll try to write a full post on this.

    4. Finally, JW’s question: “repent and heals us” was too vague. Healing doesn’t necessarily include the removal of all of sin’s consequences (e.g. a drug addict may still have to go to jail, even if they repent). But it always includes restoration of fellowship, even if the pain persists.

    But there is a difference between pain embraced for the sake of sanctification and pain borne because of refusal to repent of known sin. The latter can always turn into the former, but repentance and return is always the condition.

    The question about gratitude is too big for now. I’ll try to return to it later.

    Thanks for the engagement. Hopefully tomorrow’s post on the application to societies will clarify where I’m going with this.

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