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Recognizing Modern Idolatry 11: The Idol of Self, Part 1

Recognizing Modern Idolatry Day 11: The Idol of Self, Part 1

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV)

The apostle Paul gives believers a call to action in this passage that is certainly much easier said than done. Can any of us truly say that we have done nothing from selfish motives? I certainly don’t think so. In fact, we likely are more selfish in our day-to-day words and actions than we even understand. The devil is a master of luring us into patterns of sin that feel so “natural” to us as to be imperceptible; we are lured into self-obsession because it is inherent to our fallen nature. We begin life with an inward focus, thinking primarily in terms of our own wants, needs, and feelings. But in His Word, God calls His people to shift that focus outward to who He is and what He wants, and then to focus on the lives and needs of others. 

As children, many of us learned an acronym for the word “JOY”: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. This acronym is rich with truth from God as He repeatedly teaches us in Scripture that a life devoted to the self first is a life devoid of any real joy or meaning. Additionally, putting others first in our lives will always turn them into idols when the Lord is not at the center. 

Idolatry is a sin rooted in misplaced affections, so recognizing idolatry requires us to gauge how attached we are to the things of this world. When we are worshipping the idol of self, we will, sadly, often be the last ones to notice where our affections truly lie. We are born selfish; very young children are, by nature, consumed with what they want, what they need, and what they can do. The process of maturity, then, is the gradual replacement of self-focus for a focus on others. As we develop socially, emotionally, and spiritually, we learn to interact with the outside world as a member of a family and a community. But when we allow the idol of self to rule us, we have not matured into the person God has designed us to be. 

In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah demonstrates this immaturity and idolatry in a striking way. If you are unfamiliar with the miraculous story of Jonah and his message to the city of Nineveh, you can read it in Jonah 1-3. At first glance, it may not seem like Jonah’s story is an example of self-worship. After all, even though he tries to run away from God in the beginning, he does not succeed. When he prays for a second chance in the belly of the fish and God rescues him, he does finally preach God’s message to Nineveh. That’s what he is supposed to do, right? And everything turns out okay, right? I used to look at the story of Jonah as simply an example of why we should always listen to God the first time, and while it is absolutely true that we should obey immediately, I see now that there was more to learn from the story than I knew as a child in VBS. It turns out that the Bible gives one more chapter in the book of Jonah, Chapter 4, showing us a selfish prophet who throws himself a shameless pity party and yells at God for His kindness. After Nineveh repents of their sin and God cancels their impending judgment, Jonah responds in vehement anger:

“And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:2-3). 

God’s reply to Jonah’s self-centered diatribe of excuses is direct: “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). What right does Jonah have to tell God what to do and who to save? None! His failure to honor God and love others becomes even more evident in the story’s final passage:

“Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.’ And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’”

(Jonah 4:5-11).

This scene is truly bizarre. Jonah, a prophet sent by God to call sinners to repent and avoid God’s judgment, wants to die because his sinful heart cannot accept that they have repented and avoided God’s judgment. When God confronts Jonah for his foolish anger, he doubles down and makes meaningless excuses. In God’s kindness, though, He even sends a plant to give shade to Jonah as he nurses his anger. Yet Jonah’s selfishness keeps him from understanding that he is thankful to receive the same mercy he wants God to withhold from the people of Nineveh. Jonah’s fit of anger at God’s compassion on the Ninevites reveals his lack of concern for God’s ultimate glory and for the wellbeing of the people to whom he was sent to minister. If even a prophet who speaks God’s words can wander so far from the Lord in his heart, we should be very careful. The idol of self is insidious and poisons our effectiveness for the Lord by infecting every word we speak, every action we take, and every thought we think. 

As we pause our study on a serious note, here’s food for thought in a quote from tomorrow’s concluding post: “We were made to revere someone infinitely more interesting and awesome than ourselves” (Williams, “Self-Worship Is the World’s Fastest-Growing Religion,” The Gospel Coalition).

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