Everyone knows the story of Jonah, right?
A disobedient prophet is swallowed and spit up by a big fish, preaches fire and brimstone against the evil city and then laments God’s compassion on them.
There may be a few more details along the way, but that’s the gist of it.
Which is why I was surprised to find this little gem, nestled in the middle of the book:
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
That stopped me in my tracks.
Talk about profound words from a reluctant prophet! Disobedient as he may have been, Jonah knew his theology, and it was spot-on.
(Would you rather watch the video? Just click play on the video below.)
An Idol Here… An Idol There
Jonah may have been talking about the crew on the ship that threw him overboard. That’s a logical assumption, since they had earlier begged him to pray to his God as they were praying to theirs.
Their gods obviously hadn’t helped much, and Jonah assured them that as soon as they tossed him in the sea, “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (1:9) would calm the waters.
Maybe he was also talking about the idols of the Ninevites, who he was sent to preach against. They were known for their atrocious acts of worship, including killing their own children for their gods. Though Nineva was a superpower in the ancient world, they knew little of the grace of Yahweh.
But perhaps, in a moment of rare introspection, Jonah was also talking about himself. After all, hadn’t he run from God’s presence so he could ignore the grace of God shown to Ninevites and Hebrews alike? If Jonah had named his own idols, what would have made the list? Control idolatry? Cultural idolatry? Ideology idolatry?
No matter what idols each character clung to, they were forfeiting the marvelous grace of God in their lives.
Not Just a Flannel-Graph Lesson
Name them or ignore them, we all have idols.
When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshiping.
~Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods*
As I read this chapter, I reflected on the idols in my own life. Maybe you have some in yours?
They are what we cling to in times of crises.
They are where we find our identity.
They are our Christianized security blankets.
They are as real today as they were 6,000 years ago.
Sure, ours are not chiseled in stone or set up in a corner of our houses.
They’re hidden in our hearts: the love of money, the pursuit of pleasure, the tantalizing assurance of moralism, the promise of a clean house, the illusion of success, the high of an overachiever, the security of a relationship. (Here’s a checklist of 20 powerful questions to check for idols in your heart.)
They give us false assurance that everything’s going to be ok.
But here’s the problem with idols: they’re worthless.
When our spouse loses his job, when our baby is born with Down’s syndrome, when our doctor’s verdict spells c-a-n-c-e-r, when our best friend is killed in a crash…. those idols don’t do a thing.
They leave us hopeless, alone, and afraid.
Good News for Idol-Worshipers
God’s love is greater than our idols.
Through His death on the cross, Jesus demolished strongholds and secured for us what no idol ever could: God’s grace.
When we fling our idols aside and embrace Jesus, we receive God’s grace.
If you want God’s grace, all you need is need, all you need is nothing. But that kind of spiritual humility is hard to muster. We come to God saying, “Look at all I’ve done,” or maybe “Look at all I’ve suffered.” God, however, wants us to look to him.
Jesus loved us so much that He died while we were still clinging to our idols, and He pursues us even as we harbor that secret love affair with idols in our hearts. In fact, God loves us with an everlasting love that will go to any height or depth to bring us into the fold.
So whatever idols you’re holding on to for dear life, won’t you let go?
You don’t have to travel the world or be swallowed by a giant fish to experience God’s grace.
You must only receive.
If you enjoyed this post, consider getting Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Keller delivers a message of hope for those of us who have identified idols in our lives and those who wonder if there’s more than what they’re living for. *If you use the links in this post, I’ll receive a small fraction of the price to support this blog at no additional cost to you. Either way, pick it up: it’s well worth your time.