Counterfeit Gods

The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters

by Timothy Keller, 2009

Another EXCELLENT book by Tim Keller! All of us replace loving God first and most with idols like money, sex, and power, but also approval, acceptance, love, success, security, comfort, and control. Worshiping idols rather than God leads to disappointment, addiction, meaninglessness, hopelessness. He wrote this book after the 2008 subprime mortgage debacle when so many lives were ruined by the lust and greed of a powerful few.

He elaborates stories from the Bible: Jacob and his idol, Rachel; Naaman and his idol, power; Abraham NOT making an idol of Isaac; Zacchaeus’s transformation through the grace of Jesus given to him; Nebuchadnezzar’s final acknowledgement and worship of the One, True God; Jonah and how difficult it is to rid ourselves of our idols; Leah trying to win Jacob’s love with son after son; and lastly, Jacob again, wrestling with God and God blessing him.

Here is Wayne’s book report on Counterfeit Gods:

“~ if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…. CSLewis
~ Communion with God does not come in response to a changed life;
a changed life comes as a result of communion with God — and this, by grace alone. This is the Gospel. …. Tim Keller
~ My story: My life was built on two false premises… That the approval of others was the most important thing in my life, and that I could control people’s opinion/approval of me through my performance. My life had become a never-ending cycle of goals and anxieties, dominated by a constant need to prove myself lest I be exposed as not good enough — a cruel and impossible imperative. At the bottom of a pit of my own making, I began to understand that Jesus fully and permanently met the demands of the impossible imperative — that God happily accepts me as “good enough” because of the gift of Jesus Christ. And so, I am no longer driven by the threat of being found wanting – by God, or men. Instead, I’ve found myself free to entrust the entirety of my life to a God who has proven himself utterly good, present, and loving…. Peace, wide and deep like a river, has become the dominant force in my¬†everyday life.”

We bought this book–it is so full of wisdom and truth. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“The reason for our confusion is that we usually read the Bible as a series of disconnected stories, each with a “moral” for how we should live our lives. It is not. Rather, it comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.”

“We learn that through all of life there runs a ground note of cosmic disappointment….no matter what we put our hopes in, in the morning, it is always Leah, never Rachel.

He quotes C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job; but something has evaded us.”

“If you get married as Jacob did, putting the weight of all your deepest hopes and longings on the person you are marrying, you are going to crush him or her with your expectations. It will distort your life and your spouse’s life in a hundred ways. No person, not even the best one, can give your soul all it needs. You are going to think you have gone to bed with Rachel, and you will get up and it will always be Leah. This cosmic disappointment and disillusionment is there in all of life, but we especially feel it in the things upon which we most set our hopes.”

There are 4 ways to deal with this: blame the things that are disappointing you and try to find better ones which is “continued idolatry and spiritual addiction,” blame yourself, blame the world and become cynical and hard and empty, or fourth and the only good way: “reorient the entire focus of your life toward God.” C.S. Lewis writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world [something supernatural and eternal].””

He talks about “deep idols,” “People with the deep idol of power do not mind being unpopular in order to gain influence. People who are most motivated by approval are the opposite-they will gladly lose power and control as long as everyone thinks well of them.”

In order to change and rid oneself of deep idols: “There is only one way to change at the heart level and that is through faith in the gospel.”

“Jesus gave up all his treasure in heaven, in order to make you his treasure–for you are a treasured people (1 Peter 2:9-10)”

“Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding and identity, our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without a complete change of heart will be superficial and fleeting.”

In The Idolatry of Success: “One sign that you have made success an idol is the false sense of security it brings. The poor and the marginalized expect suffering, they know that life on this earth is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Successful people are much more shocked and overwhelmed by troubles. As a pastor, I’ve often heard people from the upper echelons say, “Life isn’t supposed to be this way,” when they face tragedy. I have never heard such language in my years as a pastor among the working class and the poor. The false sense of security comes from deifying our achievement and expecting it to keep us safe from the troubles of life in a way that only God can.”

He quotes Chris Evert talking about retirement from tennis: “I had no idea who I was, or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by my being a tennis champion. I was completely lost. Winning made me feel like I was somebody. It made me feel pretty. It was like being hooked on a drug. I needed the wins, the applause, in order to have an identity.”

In A Culture of Competition: “Modern society, then, puts great pressure on individuals to prove their worth through personal achievement. It is not enough to be a good citizen or family member. You must win, be on top, to show you are one of the best.”

“From the earliest years, an alliance of parents and schools creates a pressure cooker of competition, designed to produce students who excel in everything…The family is no longer what Christopher Lasch once called a “haven in a heartless world,” …Instead, the family has become the nursery where the craving for success is first cultivated.”

In Some Great Thing about Naaman: “No one can control the true God because no one can earn, merit, or achieve their own blessing and salvation.”

Under The Signs of Political Idolatry (note this was published in 2009): “When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel….Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil….The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.”

Under Turning a Philosophy into an Idol: “An ideology, like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things. Ideologues believe that their school or party has the real and complete answer to society’s problems….The most recent example of a major ideology that failed is communism…In short, ideologues cannot admit that there are always significant negative side-effects to any political program. They cannot grant that their opponents have good ideas too.”

When describing Nebuchadnezzar: “Though circumstances often appear to favor tyrants, God will eventually bring them down, whether gradually or dramatically. Those in power should see that they have not achieved power but have only been given it by God, and that all human power crumbles in the end.”

…”Most of the forces that make us who we are lie in the hand of God. We should not “take pride in one man over against another,” wrote the Apostle Paul. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:6-7)”

Again talking about Nebuchadnezzar in A Resurrection from the Death of Pride: “One of the great ironies of sin is that when human beings try to become more than human beings, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings. To be your own God and live for your own glory and power leads to the most bestial and cruel kind of behavior. Pride makes you a predator, not a person.”

In talking about Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “The lion of the fairy tale, Aslan, represents Christ, and the story bears witness to what all Christians have discovered, that pride leads to death, to breakdown, to a loss of humanity. But if you let it humble you rather than embitter you, and turn to God instead of living for your own glory, then the death of your pride can lead to a resurrection. You can emerge, finally, fully human, with a tender heart instead of a hard heart.”

Under Idols in Our Religion: “Why did our culture largely abandon God as its Hope? I believe it was because our religious communities have been and continue to be filled with these false gods. 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. These toxic effects of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.”

He discusses one of Wayne’s favorite verses: Jonah 2:8, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” He writes: “Idol worshippers were the people God had called Jonah to go to in Nineveh. But then he said something remarkable about them, that idolaters “forsake their own chesedh.Chesedh is the Hebrew word for God’s covenantal love, his redeeming, unconditional grace. This term had been used to describe God’s relationship with Israel, his people. Now Jonah says that idol worshippers forsake “their own grace.” It came to him like a thunderbolt that God’s grace was as much theirs as it was his. Why? Because grace is grace. If it is truly grace, then no one was worthy of it at all, and that made all equal. And with that realization, he added, “Salvation comes only from the Lord!” It doesn’t belong to any race or class of people, nor do religious people deserve it more than the irreligious. It does not come from any merit in us at all.”

Jonah illustrates how hearts don’t change easily – he was angry at God for forgiving the Ninevites: “His apprehension of God’s grace in chapter 2 had been mainly intellectual. It had not penetrated his heart. Jonah stands as a warning that human hearts never change quickly or easily, even when a person is being mentored directly by God. Just as Paul had to confront Peter about how he had failed to use the gospel on his racism, so God’s work with Jonah is incomplete.” …

“When an idol gets a grip on your heart, it spins out a whole set of false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness. It redefines reality in terms of itself…In the end idols can make it possible to call evil good and good evil.”

Jonah sits under a plant and fumes and God withers the plant and Jonah is angry enough to die. “God confronted him about this. God did not say that anger is wrong, since he himself regularly speaks about his own “fierce anger” against injustice and evil. However, Jonah’s anger was unwarranted and disproportionate.”

“Idolatry distorts our feelings.. Just as idols are good things turned into ultimate things, so the desires they generate become paralyzing and overwhelming. Idols generate false beliefs such as “if I cannot achieve X, then my life won’t be valid” or “since I have lost or failed Y, now I can never be happy or forgiven again.” These beliefs magnify ordinary disappointments and failures into life-shattering experiences.”

In The End of Counterfeit Gods, Nothing Is More Common: “The seventeenth-century English minister David Clarkson preached one of the most comprehensive and searching sermons on counterfeit gods ever written. About idolatry he said, “Though few will own it, nothing is more common.” If we think of our soul as a house, he said, “idols are set up in every room, in every faculty.” We prefer our own wisdom to God’s wisdom, our own desires to God’s will, and our own reputation to God’s honor.”…”The human heart is indeed a factory that mass-produces idols.”

“Is there any hope? Yes, if we begin to realize that idols cannot simply be removed. They must be replaced.”

Talking about Jacob wrestling with God before he meets Esau: “Every human being, then, needs blessing. We all need assurance of our unique value from some outside source. The love and admiration of those you most love and admire is above all rewards…Jacob’s life had been one long wrestling match to get blessing. He had wrestled with Esau to hear it from his father’s lips. He had wrestled with Laban to find it in Rachel’s face. But it hadn’t worked. He was still needy and empty inside. The relationships within his own family were stormy. His idolatry of Rachel and her children had poisoned the lives of Leah and her children, and it would bear bitter fruit in the future.”

“Jacob was saying something like this.

What an idiot I’ve been! Here is what I’ve been looking for all my life. The blessing of God! I looked for it in the approval of my father. I looked for it in the beauty of Rachel. But it was in you. Now I won’t let you go until you bless me. Nothing else matters. I don’t care if I die in the process, because if I don’t have God’s blessing, I’ve got nothing. Nothing else will do.”

Under The Weakness of God: “Have you heard God’s blessing in your inmost being? Are the words, “You are my beloved child, in whom I delight” an endless source of joy and strength?”

In the Epilogue: Finding and Replacing Your Idols, he states that what we daydream about, what we spend our money on, how we respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes (if despair and explosive anger, it may be an idol), and lastly, “look at your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong.”

To replace idols, set “the mind and heart on things above…means appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done for you…Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol. That is what will replace your counterfeit gods.”

“When we repent out of fear of consequences, we are not really sorry for the sin, but for ourselves…But when we rejoice over God’s sacrificial, suffering love for us–seeing what it cost him to save us from sin–we learn to hate the sin for what it is. … Fear-based repentance makes us hate ourselves. Joy-based repentance makes us hate the sin.”

To make the Gospel the “video” (not just the audio) of our lives takes spiritual disciplines such as “private prayer, corporate worship, and meditation…Spiritual disciplines are basically forms of worship and it is worship that is the final way to replace the idols of your heart.”

Thank you, Tim Keller, for another fantastic book full of the Gospel Truth!