Book Review : Counterfeit Gods
The truth is we all worship something. Something gets us out of bed in the morning, controls our inner voice, and pushes us to strive in life. Money, jobs, kids, hobbies, celebrities, comfort, happiness, and the list goes on.
Everyone is driven by something. Everyone has an idol.
Counterfeit Gods is a book from Pastor Tim Keller on idols. Keller examines common worldly idols, concluding that the only true idol that matters is Jesus Christ.
Counterfeit Gods was written in 2009, during the heart of the financial collapse and US recession. Tim Keller, the author, is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Redeemer is one, if not the, largest church in New York City. He’s a remarkable preacher, writer. The story of Keller and Redeemer is amazing, but for another time.
It’s important to understand the climate under which this book was written. In 2009, the United States was in a rather deep recession. The financial markets were falling, the mortgage industry was being exposed for fraud, and the economy was in a recession. Keller was in the heart of that. Preaching to the very people on Wall Street and New York’s financial district who’s lives were being devastated.
What a great opportunity for this book to bring hope to those in despair. While this book’s message is timeless, we can’t ignore the circumstances or underestimate the need for hope during those challenging times.
What are idols?
Keller begins the book by defining idols. Keller defines an idol as:
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.
If we take Christianity out of it, an idol is the thing that drives your life. Everyone has an idol. Everyone worships something.
Idols can be outward facing. Like money, sex, or drugs. But idols take many other forms. “Inner” idols are extremely powerful thoughts and feelings we value. Examples include, respect, power, status, control, greed, and comfort. All of these idols operate inside our minds but ultimately drive our lives.
It’s important to understand that idols are not just “bad” things. Things typically seen as “good” can be turned into idols. Work, success, family, even religion itself, can be an idol. Anything can be an idol. In fact, the “good” things in life can become most sinister and deepest idols.
Why do we have idols? Idols give us security. A sense of fulfillment and purpose. We put our hope and faith in them because they fulfill our dreams and desires.
A common theme in the book is that even things that bring you joy in life will be ruined if they become idols. For example, it’s natural for people to want the best for their children and to protect them. But taken to an extreme, by not letting your kids fail, you could destroy their self worth and confidence. If a child doesn’t know what it’s like to fail, they may go through life with the fear of failure. They won’t know how to respond if they lose their job, or how to act when they are wronged in life.
Idols typically start with something which at the core is healthy. Wanting to be successful, for example, is noble and pure. We should strive to be successful in life. It’s when taken to an extreme, when success becomes an idol, that it destroys you. Perhaps you start working 80 hour weeks. Take on multiple side projects. Step on others to get ahead. Get involved in groups. Focus your life on work. If you’ve made success an idol, you’ll do whatever it takes to be successful.
How do you recognize idols in your life? After all, everyone needs money. Isn’t it natural that we work hard to become successful? The world is ultra competitive, isn’t it not only good but essential to work hard and compete? Isn’t spending time with family and loving your kids important?
Of course they are. But aren’t they also common idols? So what makes something an idol?
Things become idols when they control our lives. When we become depressed or paralyzed in fear thinking about losing them.
What are you afraid of? What if the stock market crashed and your investments were worthless? Would your life be ruined if you lost your job? What if your wife left you? Idols lie at the heart of your deepest fears.
Another way to tell if something has become an idol is to look at where you spend your resources. Where do you spend time and money? What do you think about when you have free time? Those areas of your life are where you start to realize your idols. Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.
After defining idolatry and recognizing idols, Counterfeit Gods examines common idols and provides examples of how all things, even good things, become idols.
Everyone wants to be happy. Exactly what being happy means is different for everyone — after all everyone has different idols. But ultimately, everyone wants to be happy. How we define happiness is how we prioritize our lives.
Keller gives multiple examples of how people idolize things with the ultimate goal to be happy. People become workaholics because it makes them feel better about their lives — how they are better than others. We spend hours at the gym to be attractive, good looking, and thin. Being good looking gives us confidence. We idolize about how we look and what other people think of us.
Keller concludes that all idols ultimately fall short of true happiness. If the workaholic loses his job, or the attractive people gain weight, they are devastated. Their self worth is dependent on their idol.
Sex is a very prominent idol. It’s disheartening to say, but the porn industry is a $1 trillion, growing industry. Why? People idolize sex. Our culture promotes sex. Apps exist to foster one night stands. Sex itself is not evil. After all, it is a gift given to us by God himself. But when sex is idolized, it turns into sin.
It is natural for us to love others. For example, I love my children dearly. But what happens when we idolize our children? We watch over them, protect them. We don’t want to see them fail, so we intervene in their lives and guard them from failure.
What we don’t realize, is our love for our children can ruin them. They become dependent on us. If they’ve never experienced failure as a child, they won’t know how to handle it as an adult.
Money is a huge idol in people’s lives. Wanting money or success is not an idol. But if you define your life by how much money you make, or prioritize money over all else, you’ll never be satisfied.
How do you know you idolize money? Does your retirement account give you comfort? If you lost it all today, would you fall into deep depression or despair?
Achievement is the alcohol of our time.
We live in an ultra competitive world. We need to work harder than ever before to remain competitive. For some, the desire for success — to be the best — gives them confidence and power. The more success we have, the more we want and the less meaningful it becomes.
If you are tempted by power and success, even if you are not religious, look at the life of Jesus. Jesus had the ultimate power. He raised people from the dead, cured illness, and performed miracles. He had the power to do anything. Yet he was a servant, a teacher. He sacrificed his life for the sins we commit.
Interestingly, today’s most successful leaders are humble, show empathy, and focus on doing good for humanity. They model Jesus. 2000 years ago Jesus showed us the ultimate example of leadership. Studying Jesus, understanding how He worked, how He thought, what He valued, how He treated people, will give you the mindset and toolset for success.
The way down is to go up, the way up is to go down. Always be humble.
A close cousin to success is power. We want to be in control of our lives, to have power and influence. In the end, power gives you a false sense of security.
Power is fleeting. One day you have it, the next you could lose it. What is interesting is that those in power tend to live in fear and anxiety about it. They have more to lose. As you make more money in a company, or have the power to influence large budgets or groups of people, you have a lot more focus on your decisions. If you let it, you could end up in fear.
Power is not just a personal idol. It’s also a cultural idol. Nations strive for power. National pride can lead to prejudice. To believe you are “better” than someone else. Pride leads to destruction, war, and a loss for humanity.
There are “hidden” idols in our lives that the book calls out. Some of them are personal idols, some are “corporate” idols.
Corporations idolize profits over people. It ultimately causes them ruin, but they do it anyway. It causes them to be unethical and brutal to people.
Cultures have idols. Today’s cultural idol is “self”. America was founded under the belief and fear of God. Over time, culture shifted from idolizing God to idolizing the country itself. Today, we idolize individualism and being “yourself”.
Religion itself can be an idol. Religion can become toxic. People who think they are “better” than others turn people off to religion. Some people focus their lives around doing “church things” — being involved in small groups, leading Bible studies, events, being involved in prayer teams, etc. You can make religion itself an idol.
Replacing your idols
We all idolize something. We cannot simply remove idols, we must replace them. We have to live for something in our lives. The question is — what are we going to live for?
Identify your idols
How do we identify our idols? Think about where you spend your time, money, and attention.
- What occupies your mind when you have nothing to think about?
- What do you habitually think about which gives you comfort, confidence, and strength?
- Where do you spend your time and money?
- What are you the most afraid of?
Keller concludes that true fulfillment can only come thru Jesus Christ. All earthly idols will ultimately disappoint. It is God’s love for us that He sent Jesus to die for our sins.
Keller tells us to set our hearts on Jesus. To put to death what belongs to your earthly nature — sexual impurity, lust, evil desires, money, and other earthly idols. When we truly set our hearts and minds on Jesus, we become free. Jesus paid the ultimate price for our sin and by loving and following Him, we have an eternity in heaven.
And that promise is the ultimate comfort and fulfillment for our lives.