Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters by Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City is a penetrating analysis of human nature, as well an insightful study of God’s Word. Like Martin Luther, Keller believes that the command “have no other gods before me” is purposely the first of the Ten Commandments because every other sin in one way or the other comes from putting something else or someone else before God.
With the help of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the United States in the 1830s, Keller defines idolatry as “taking some ‘incomplete joy of this world’ and building your entire life on it.” Idols, for example money, are addictions which hide their true proportions from their victims. The addicted then takes more and greater risks to get an ever diminishing satisfaction from the thing he craves until a breakdown occurs.
Counterfeit Gods explores how people, both non-Christians and Christians, have made money, sex, and power their gods. The author does so both by providing examples from our society and insightful studies of Bible characters. He shows us how we can make idols of countless things in our lives– ideologies, human approval, reputation, security, our career, spiritual gifts, our children, our family, our house, our race or culture, even moral living (as Keller argued in The Prodigal God.) In fact, anything can become an idol if it’s more important to us than God. Whatever controls us is our idol, even our lord! This kind of idol in and of itself is usually not necessarily wrong, and that’s what makes it so difficult to identify in our own lives.
An idol is what we desire the most in life. The Bible is filled with the theme of idolatry. Two Jewish philosophers who knew the Scriptures intimately concluded: “The central principle of the Bible is the rejection of idolatry.” The Bible uses three metaphors to describe how people relate to their idols – they love idols, trust idols, and obey idols.
Making an idol out of something can bring terrible consequences in your life. Making an idol out of work may mean that you work until you ruin your health, or you break the laws in order to get ahead. Making an idol out of love may mean allowing the lover to exploit and abuse you, or it may cause terrible blindness to the pathologies in the relationship. An idolatrous attachment can you lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold to it. It may drive you to violate all good and proper boundaries. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.
Why is getting our heart’s deepest desire so often a disaster? In the book of Romans, Paul wrote that one of the worse things God can do to someone is to “give them over to the desires of their hearts” (Romans 1:24.)
Here’s another interesting observation that Keller makes: the Bible is full of stories of figures such as Joseph, Moses, and David in which God seems to have abandoned them, but later it is revealed that He was dealing with the destructive idols in their lives and that could have only come about through their experience of difficulty.
I especially appreciated the questions Keller provided to help us identify our own personal idols: (1) What do I find myself daydreaming the most about in the course of the day? (2) What do I have nightmares about, i.e. what do I fear losing the most? (3) How do I spend my money (“where your treasure is there your heart is also”)? (4) For believers, which of our prayers, when they go unanswered, get us the most upset, angry, and discouraged? In asking myself those questions I’ve come to realize that ministry at times has been my idol. As the old saying goes, I’ve focused more on “the work of the Lord than on the Lord of the work.”
Keller states emphatically that not only must our idols be removed, but they must be replaced by something else. Otherwise, they will return. In his concluding chapter he takes the reader to Colossians 3:1-5, the passage that speaks of “greed, which is idolatry.” There Paul exhorts believers to set their hearts on “on things above” – on Christ Himself. This is imperative if we are to rid ourselves of our personal idols. This obviously means we should have an intimate relationship with the living God through Christ. It means we should keep Christ, rather than our idol, on the throne of our life. It means we should be patient because pursuing our relationship with Christ is a life-long pursuit, which is facilitated by the spiritual disciplines – prayer, meditation on the Word, corporate worship, etc.
I would encourage you to read this 177 page book. It will challenge both your heart and mind, and if you’re a preacher, it will provide fodder for numerous sermons on various characters in the Bible. My brief summary hardly does justice to such a profound little book as Counterfeit Gods.
Now for one more quote by Keller: “The living God, who revealed Himself both at Mount Sinai and on the cross, is the only Lord, who, if you find Him, can truly fulfill you, and if you fail Him, can truly forgive you.”