Resisting the Trap of Idolatry

Idolatry isn’t a topic I write on every day. And some of our regular readers might be holding their breath a bit to see what I might say. The context for this particular post is multi-faceted. It begins with an article I read, bolstered by a pivotal memory in my own journey, and then supported by a time of listening in my church service on Sunday in the context of a recent support session.

The article was for one of my courses and it focused on the integration a Christian psychologist was making with Object Relations theory and the biblical concept of idolatry. The author made use of the work of theologian Richard Niebuhr who said that an idol was, “any cause or object to which the self gave itself in devotion from which the self derived life’s value and meaning.” Perhaps a simpler way to say that is: “Be careful who or what you worship because you will become what you worship; you will become like the object or the one you worship. Everyone has an ultimate object of love and loyalty.” The psychologist was suggesting that the deficits in a person’s life become these deeply engrained objects of desire that ultimately take on the shape of an idol. The journey towards dis-empowering the deficits in one’s life involved naming and severing links with what had become idolatrous.

This article reminded me of a memory about twelve years ago or so. It was before I was in my role with New Direction. I had two young children and I did a lot of walking with our double stroller. These were often times of introspection as I hungered for a deeper sense of confidence and freedom for myself. As I’ve shared previously on this blog, one of the realities in my life was a series of significant losses and rejections. And one in particular just seemed to haunt me. As hard as I tried to deconstruct the power of this rejection, it seemed that I was always drawn back into the pain, loss and longing for a restoration that, in human terms, was unlikely to occur. One day as I was walking, it came to me as clear as can be: “This is an idol that is taking over your life.” While I had done my best in the past to confess, repent, turn away, do whatever I could to break the hold this other individual seemed to have in my life, nothing seemed to help. But this word, this awareness, in a mysterious way I can’t really describe made a way for a tangible breakthrough. I still needed to exercise mental and emotional discipline, but the overpowering pull had been quieted.

This past Sunday, we had the opportunity for an extended time of listening during our time of corporate worship. As I opened my mind and heart, one of the things that came to me was this idea of the idolatry of ambiguity. Rather an odd phrase don’t you think?

Part of the context, I think, was working with some parents whose adult child has become rather immersed in what I might describe as a gender queer sub-culture. Having had opportunity to view this individual’s blog and follow some of the other links, I found myself encountering what seemed to be a pretty dark place. The motif of alienation seemed to be glorified to the extent that there didn’t seem to be a desire to actually reconcile or overcome the sense of alienation but rather to revel in it. The motif of victimization seemed to be so strong as to be a resting place rather than an early stage of the journey toward the triumph of a survivor who has refused to allow a trauma to define them. The motif of self-harm and suicide hung like a heavy perfume in the air – both mourned and exalted. The ethos of elitism and exclusion permeated the tortured beauty this community sought to express. This particular sub-culture seemed intent on perpetual deconstruction – a refusal to submit to any category of anything. Nothing really exists except what is and what is – is the beauty of ambiguity.

As I’d familiarized myself somewhat with this sub-culture, I remember feeling fairly uncertain about what I could offer these parents in the way of encouragement. Their child was autonomous – no longer living at home – and merely coming for a visit with a seemingly guarded and cynical heart. What do you say to someone who lives in a paradigm that seems so antithetical to your own?

As we talked, it was so interesting to witness the ways that God showed up. After all, he is the Master of pushing back the darkness to reveal the light. And in the specific context of their particular family, concrete conversation catalysts to connect to the heart, to humanize the interaction, to invite value articulation, and to move towards the light, became clear.

As this came back to my mind, during those silent moments in worship, again the words came, “idolatry of ambiguity”. In the first sense, this word gave some shape to this sub-culture that I’d glimpsed. But in the second sense, it came with a gentle nudge and correction for me.

It won’t come as a surprise that New Direction has embraced the reality of paradox, tension and some ambiguity in our journey towards understanding our calling to promote generous spaciousness as a helpful posture in our conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality. We have intentionally deconstructed some of the certainties that may have been energized more by fear and anxiety than by love. We have felt God calling us to be content and confident in our conviction that we are to stay in the midst of the tension rather than trying to promote a particular resolution. We have articulated the belief that living in the tension can be spiritually formational as we have opportunity to be enlarged in our capacity for hospitality, for humility, for patience, and for grace.

I continue to believe that we are on track with all of these things. I believe we are walking out what God has asked of us – for the sake of unity in the church, for the sake of encouraging the spiritual journeys of LGBT people, and for the sake of our public witness in a pluralistic culture.

But any good thing that becomes the primary focus has the potential to become an idol.

So I feel like the word on Sunday morning, “the idolatry of ambiguity” was the gentle warning of a loving Father reminding me of the vulnerability we have to making a good thing, the only thing. New Direction isn’t about glorifying ambiguity – it is about glorifying Jesus. New Direction isn’t about refusing to come to a place of resolution – it is about nurturing spaciousness where people can explore, search and wrestle in the journey towards their resolution with God. New Direction isn’t about exalting alienation – it is about breaking down enmity and polarization, dismantling any sense of “us and them”, and calling us to find common ground as image-bearers of God.

Idolatry of ambiguity means you never really know who you are because you see every construct as oppressive. At New Direction, we know who we are in Christ – and because of that confidence, we can fling wide our doors to everyone. Differences don’t threaten us – because we know who we are. We can offer hospitable, safe, and spacious places for people to express themselves, ask questions, and challenge systems – because we know who we are – and whose we are. We can listen to the opinions and positions of others with an openness to learn and grow – because we know who we are. We can be humble, inclusive, and generous – because our priority focus is Jesus. And Jesus invites us to pour out our lives for others – no matter who they are, what they believe, what they’re involved in, or where they’re going. Because Jesus LOVES all of us!

That is freedom. And life. And light.