Dropping the Idols and Not Letting Go Until He Blesses You

Grabbing for Glory

ruth and I by the bird in west sayvilleLast week  we talked about Jacob reaching after the glory of the things around him that attracted him and how through power we cannot attain glory.

Last week I also was pointed to a terrific speech given by Andy Crouch about power and idolatry.  In the speech he asserts a number of valuable insights about divine power, our use of power, and where this leads:

  • God uses power for the flourishing of his creation.
  • When we misuse power we create idols. Idols are the result of human creativity misapplied to human vulnerability.
  • Idols promise us two things: “you shall not surely die” (that the idol makes us no longer vulnerable and contingent upon God for our life) and “you shall be like God” (that the idol is a cheap and fast way to glorify ourselves).
  • Those who make idols become like them, and die by them.

The Apostle Paul has a primer on idolatry in Romans 1. We see glory in the creation. We see God’s glory shining through the created things that God made and we attempt to mine the glory from the creation trying to separate it from its author. We want the glory, we don’t want the source of the glory, the author of the glory, the owner of the glory.

Saint Augustine in his Confessions comments on. Our dependence and our greed are natural to us right from the start.

The comforts of human milk were waiting for me, but my mother and my nurses did not fill their own breasts; rather you gave me an infant’s nourishment through them in accordance with your plan, from the riches deeply hidden in creation. You restrained me from craving more than you provided, and inspired in those who nurtured me the will to give me what you were giving them, for their love for me was patterned on your law, and so they wanted to pass on to me the overflowing gift they received from you. It was a bounty for them, and a bounty for me from them; or, rather, not from them but only through them, for in truth all good things are from you, O God.

St. Augustine (2007-04-01). The Confessions, Revised (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 1) (Kindle Locations 757-762). New City Press. Kindle Edition.

Wanting the Glory but not the Owner

We don’t need to ask why we want the glory. We all know this and experience this in many different ways. Glory bleeds through beauty. Glory bleeds through power. Glory bleeds through wealth. Glory bleeds through opportunity. Glory bleeds through everything we see. What we want is to possess it in a that non-contingent way we cannot. To possess it as eternal possession within our identity. We don’t want to be receivers of glory, because receivers only receive, they can’t control. We want to make sure it is ours not not be taken away by anyone, ever.

Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” is such a potent image of this twistedness deep inside of us. The universe collapses into the union of me and my precious and I will exert all the will and power I can find to preserve this hellish romance.

If seen from this vantage point hell makes perfect sense. Hell is the place where God finally surrenders us to our idolatries. Hell is an island where God sends Gollum to live secure with is precious forever. It is Gollum’s paradise and everlasting torment all at the same time. He begs to go there and bitterly despises it all at the same time.

Stories of this reverberate throughout the Bible. Adam and Eve want lordship of the garden and knowledge of good and evil and when they grasp it they hide from God. The Prodigal Son of Luke 15 wants his father’s stuff but he doesn’t want his father.

Worldviews abound that divinize the creation but withhold from this deity the attributes of personhood. We are terrified that all that we find so glorious is finally owned by someone other than ourselves.

Religion is the Last Refuge for God and Truth Resisters

Dallas Willard in one of the recent obituary pieces is quoted as saying “I’m sure Jesus is the kind of person who would be the first to say you must ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads.”

We deny the most obvious truths about ourselves, that we are short-lived, vulnerable, continent creatures and grasp at unobtainable notions of imagining we control our destiny and thinking we can mine this creation, the people and our circumstances around us for the glory we seek AND secure it for ourselves.

When this is threatened as it will inevitably be by the age of decay sooner or later, we turn to religion.

Marc Maron is a comedian whose greatest commercial success has been a podcast called WTF (don’t listen to it if you can’t tolerate the F-bomb). Most of what he does on his podcast is do celebrity interviews most often with comedians. These are not the polite kind you’d see with Barbara Walters. He gets into their stuff and their issues and starts rummaging around. What he’s looking for is the pain and the loss which often fuels their comedy and their art. Maron is not a Christian but isn’t a hater of Christians.

I remember on one episode he was laying down some of his own observations about his own life, living in substance abuse recovery, and talking about recovery with so many people. He essentially said if you’re messed up and you’re using drugs, alcohol, sex, success, whatever, to try to survive. At some point you’ll have to get into a recovery program or therapy just to survive. If you’re REALLY messed up then you might have to become a Christian to survive. In other words moderately messed up people can get over with more conventional means, the deeply hurt go all the way to the lunatic extreme of Christianity.

We’ve seen this in Jacob’s life. As long as circumstances afford the illusion that Jacob can manage his own life he doesn’t seek God much. When the difficulties exile from Isaac’s household and of Laban and his family well up he begins to seek God. He begins by first trying to use God to solve his problems. We will remember that God has indeed promised to be with him, and that Jacob has turned God’s blessing into a bargain, but God will not be satisfied with a consumer relationship with us. God himself is going to bring Jacob into the kind of change that Jacob really needs but doesn’t seem to want.

Angel Escort

God intervened on Jacob’s behalf to spare him from uncle Laban, but the treaty they created when they parted meant that Jacob could not go north, he could only go south and this meant once again having to deal with Esau, the threat from which he fled 20 years before.

Coming back into the land there is a curious passage where Jacob meets God’s angelic messengers. This is a narrative way to define the space we are entering into. Jacob saw the angels when he left, now he sees them again as he enters.

I like John Calvin’s picture of this scene:

After Jacob has escaped from the hands of his father-in-law, that is, from present death, he meets with his brother, whose cruelty was as much, or still more, to be dreaded; for by the threats of this brother he had been driven from his country; and now no better prospect lies before him. He therefore proceeds with trepidation, as one who goes to the slaughter. Seeing, however, it was scarcely possible but that he should sink oppressed by grief, the Lord affords him timely succour; and prepares him for this conflict, as well as for others, in such a manner that he should stand forth a brave and invincible champion in them all. Therefore, that he may know himself to be defended by the guardianship of God, angels go forth to meet him, arranged in ranks on both sides. Hebrew interpreters think that the camp of the enemy had been placed on one side; and that the angels, or rather God, stood on the other. But it is much more probable, that angels were distributed in two camps on different sides of Jacob, that he might perceive himself to be everywhere surrounded and fortified by celestial troops; as in Psalm 34:7, it is declared that angels, to preserve the worshippers of God, pitch their tents around them.

Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Vol. 2: Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (185). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Bribery Again

Jacob sends an emissary down to find Esau and to deliver a deferential speech that positions Jacob as Esau’s servant. The messenger goes, but comes back with some very grim news. Esau didn’t respond verbally to the message, his response was to muster 400 men and to march towards Jacob. The intent to Jacob was clear, Esau’s hanger has not diminished and he is bringing his army to destroy Jacob.

Jacob quickly fashions a plan. He’ll send flocks out ahead as tribute, as a sort of bribe to pay off Esau. What’s more he sends in front of him his family.

John Calvin reads this as Jacob staying behind to pray. I’m not convinced. Why? Because Jacob sends his family out in reverse order of his love. First go out the slave wives and their sons, then Leah and her sons, then finally Rachel and Joseph, with the fearful Jacob bringing up the rear. To me we again see the failure of fatherhood so commonly present in the families of Genesis.

Jacob, Jabbok, Wrestled

After Jacob’s twisted interpretation of “women and children first”, he is assaulted by a man by the Jabbok river. Hebrew scholars will note that Jacob, Jabbok and the Hebrew word translated “wrestled” are all punned together here. Jacob’s name can mean something like “heal grabber” or “maker of twisted deals” and this is what we’ve seen from him all along. It is at this river that God himself will confront Jacob to change him.

Jacob and “the man” wrestle all night long. This is interesting because we know Jacob to be a strong man, one who could uncover the well where he met Rachel for the first time. God and Jacob wrestle all night long. Jacob won’t give up, God won’t let him win. This has been the story of their relationship.

The climax of the encounter comes by morning when “the man” asks that Jacob let him go. The man wants Jacob to let him God, but Jacob won’t until the man blesses him. This is Jacob, using his power to secure a blessing. At this point God reveals himself by reaching down and dealing Jacob a crippling blow.

Couldn’t he have done this hours before? Of course. This is precisely the point. What the man has now done is kept Jacob at the river all night long, wasting valuable time that could have been spent fleeing from Esau, and now he takes away fleeing Jacob’s last resource, the ability to run. Jacob is now helpless in the hands of this man, and will be completely helpless before the threat of his brother Esau. Jacob is now out of resources to make life work. Jacob must now completely, fully, utterly depend on the blessing of God.

God Fights with Two Hands, for and against us

John Calvin in his commentary then notes in this story the ambiguity of our relationship with God.

Moreover, it is not said that Satan, or any mortal man, wrestled with Jacob, but God himself: to teach us that our faith is tried by him; and whenever we are tempted, our business is truly with him, not only because we fight under his auspices, but because he, as an antagonist, descends into the arena to try our strength. This, though at first sight it seems absurd, experience and reason teaches us to be true. For as all prosperity flows from his goodness, so adversity is either the rod with which he corrects our sins, or the test of our faith and patience. And since there is no kind of temptation by which God does not try his faithful people, the similitude is very suitable, which represents him as coming, hand to hand, to combat with them. Therefore, what was once exhibited under a visible form to our father Jacob, is daily fulfilled in the individual members of the Church; namely, that, in their temptations, it is necessary for them to wrestle with God. He is said, indeed, to tempt us in a different manner from Satan; but because he alone is the Author of our crosses and afflictions, and he alone creates light and darkness, (as is declared in Isaiah,) he is said to tempt us when he makes a trial of our faith. 

But the question now occurs, Who is able to stand against an Antagonist, at whose breath alone all flesh perishes and vanishes away, at whose look the mountains melt, at whose word or beck the whole world is shaken to pieces, and therefore to attempt the least contest with him would be insane temerity? But it is easy to untie the knot. For we do not fight against him, except by his own power, and with his own weapons; for he, having challenged us to this contest, at the same time furnishes us with means of resistance, so that he both fights against us and for us. In short, such is his apportioning of this conflict, that, while he assails us with one hand, he defends us with the other; yea, inasmuch as he supplies us with more strength to resist than he employs in opposing us, we may truly and properly say, that he fights against us with his left hand, and for us with his right hand. For while he lightly opposes us, he supplies invincible strength whereby we overcome. It is true he remains at perfect unity with himself: but the double method in which he deals with us cannot be otherwise expressed, than that in striking us with a human rod, he does not put forth his full strength in the temptation; but that in granting the victory to our faith, he becomes in us stronger than the power by which he opposes us. And although these forms of expression are harsh, yet their harshness will be easily mitigated in practice. For if temptations are contests, (and we know that they are not accidental, but are divinely appointed for us,) it follows hence, that God acts in the character of an antagonist, and on this the rest depends; namely, that in the temptation itself he appears to be weak against us, that he may conquer in us. Some restrict this to one kind of temptation only, where God openly and avowedly manifests himself as our adversary, as if armed for our destruction. And truly, I confess, that this differs from common conflicts, and requires, beyond all others, a rare, and even heroic strength. Yet I include willingly every kind of conflict in which God exercises the faithful: since in all they have God for an antagonist, although he may not openly proclaim himself hostile unto them.

Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Vol. 2: Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (196–197). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

The Only Safe Harbor

We began by talking about idolatry. We want glory and we use our power to try to secure it and this creates idols. Jacob has been making idols all of his life by clinging to his craftiness, to his wealth, to his pride, to his dreams, to his wives, to his skill, to his flocks, etc.

Jacob has been demanding blessing from everyone and everything except for the only true source of blessing and the only safe place to demand blessing, from God alone. In any emergency we grab hold of the things we imagine will save us, connections, money, medicine, power, anger, relationship. We cling tightly to them turning them into idols. Here all is withdrawn from Jacob until he is left alone to cling and make the right kinds of demand, the only demand worth his life to the only one worthy of such a demand, God alone.

Did Jacob really know what he was doing? Probably not. Even the demand itself was far within the electing relation through which God had pursued him. What Jacob discovers in this moment is in fact the surprising grace of God that someone, at the river, Jacob is renamed, reborn, reworked into someone who doesn’t cling to craftiness, or a crooked deal, or sons, or wives, or wealth, but one who wrestles with God.

Consider the Prodigal son of Luke 15. It isn’t until he’s out in the field, dying of hunger, envying the slop he’s feeding to unclean pigs that he finally turns around. Even his speech in this moment echoes the self-serving machinations of Pharaoh in Exodus. He concocts a plan to rescue his sorry hide by trying to manipulate his father. What he doesn’t understand is that, like the river Jabbok, the road that leads towards his father’s home is exactly the place he needs to be for grace to accost him. The father will not hear of the son’s self-serving, self-salvation plan. He puts the robe on him and the shoes on his feet. This son will not save himself, the father will save him. All the son needs to do is undo the rebellious exile of “I want your stuff but I don’t want you” and cling to his father who will shelter him in the banquet of the fattened calf.

A Stronger, Expulsive Love

What is required for us to abandon our idols and cling exclusively to God alone? The idols need to be shown to be worthless by God being seeing to be overwhelmingly better than what we were clinging to before.

Thomas Chalmers was a 19th Century minister who is remembered for what would be considered a very cryptic title for a sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” where he makes this point.

The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself? The heart cannot be prevailed upon to part with the world, by a simple act of resignation. But may not the heart be prevailed upon to admit into its preference another, who shall subordinate the world, and bring it down from its wonted ascendancy? If the throne which is placed there must have an occupier, and the tyrant that now reigns has occupied it wrongfully, he may not leave a bosom which would rather detain him than be left in desolation. But may he not give way to the lawful sovereign, appearing with every charm that can secure His willing admittance, and taking unto himself His great power to subdue the moral nature of man, and to reign over it? In a word, if the way to disengage the heart from the positive love of one great and ascendant object, is to fasten it in positive love to another, then it is not by exposing the worthlessness of the former, but by addressing to the mental eye the worth and excellence of the latter, that all old things are to be done away and all things are to become new. To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place. But when they take their departure upon the ingress of other visitors; when they resign their sway to the power and the predominance of new affections; when, abandoning the heart to solitude, they merely give place to a successor who turns it into as busy a residence of desire and interest and expectation as before – there is nothing in all this to thwart or to overbear any of the laws of our sentient nature – and we see how, in fullest accordance with the mechanism of the heart, a great moral revolution may be made to take place upon it.

Wrestle as he might Jacob cannot escape God or Esau, so God changes Esau. Esau will not harm Jacob so that Jacob can become Israel. 

Bankroll For Your Just In Time Moment

Marc Maron is right. You must see your situation as truly desperate to become a Christian. In order to abandon your idols you must see that they are worth nothing, in fact they are encumbrances to you on your path to what is far more valuable.

Even if you only realize this when you find yourself completely lost of resources, bankroll this thought so that when that day of poverty arrives you will remember it then, because that day of ultimate poverty will arrive.

There will be a day when you like Jacob will be fearing for your life and all that is precious to you, it happens to all of us sooner or later. In that moment you will discover all the idols and crutches you’ve leaned on to be absolutely worthless. I pray you will have not lived with them too long so that they, like Gollum’s ring, will have entangled your heart and made you like them. In that moment it’s vital to reach out and grab onto the only one worth grabbing onto and demanding “I will not let go of you until you bless me” for he surely will.

If you are granted time in this age beyond that moment you will know joy, and you will know peace, and your feet will stand upon the foothills of the age to come and in that moment you will be made useful to the one who rescues us from our silly idols and gives us the joy of clinging to him.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dropping the Idols and Not Letting Go Until He Blesses You

  1. Pingback: Clean Narratives and the Rape of Dinah | Leadingchurch.com

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