So, I wanted to chat about something a bit different. It’s been really helpful for me, and I hope it will be for you, too. It’s about why we do certain things, about why we make certain decisions.
I’m starting to get a little older now, and for many of you, you are as well. You can look back at your life and see certain things about yourself and, maybe like me, can see choices made by you or others that had big implications. I’d like to talk about something that I learned about how people work, and I hope that you’ll stay with me here. I’d like to share some stories. My hope is that this will make a positive impact on you, as it has for me. These stories are true.
So, years ago there was this woman named Hetty Green. She was massively wealthy. Regardless, she lived in a run down apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, which at the time was a rough town of docks and warehouses on the coast of New Jersey. Hetty had so much money that when the banks needed to be bailed out, some of them went to her for loans. Regardless of her wealth, Hetty was an extreme miser. She had a son, and her son’s leg got injured while sledding. Rather than taking the child a doctor, as needed, she took him to a charity clinic where improper treatment led to gangrene. Eventually, the boy’s leg had to be amputated. Now, to be clear, and perhaps like yourself, I’m not against some careful finances, and I don’t panic at every ache and pain in the body, but this was over the top. Someone had lost focus on what was important. When a choice had to be made, that person made the wrong decision, which had profound implications for someone else (and likely the relationship between a mother and her son).
Why am I taking up your time regarding all of this? Well, you and I face decisions in life. What we do can have lasting consequences. As many of us, who read this website believe, there is coming a future time in which the world will be much more savage than it is today and the decisions we face will be much more serious for us and those we care about. Keeping that in mind, I believe that it’s important for us to understand why we make some of the choices we make and why we say some of the things that we say.
Okay. Here’s another story. So, some decades ago, there was this skinny kid in middle school (we’ll call him “J”), who started to find his self worth in exercise. This continued for him into high school. He eventually felt good about himself and thought that he was a little bit special because of his physical abilities. There’s nothing seemingly that bad about that; exercise is good, and it’s good to work hard. J eventually graduated high school and went to a college, which had tens of thousands of other students. It got harder for him to think of himself as special or uniquely good at something when there were 10,000 other kids to compare himself to. Regardless, the kid doubled down on what he did to feel special. (Let’s see where this goes.) Eventually, by his second year in college, he could do stuff like four one-armed chin-ups and bench press two 110-pound dumbbells when he only weighed about 175. J worked out 13 times a week. He worked out five days in the gym, and seven days a week he did push ups and sit-ups at night. (At this point, you may be noting that someone was going off the rails.) Okay. So here comes the relevance of this small example– the point when a decision was made. J was sitting at a table studying when a tall German friend of his from class comes by and sits at his table to do a bit of studying himself. The two got to talking about exercise. To J’s surprise, the friend didn’t know that J worked out a lot. Accordingly, and in good nature, J felt compelled to show his friend by challenging the friend to an arm wrestle. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that J’s joints, which had been in regular pain from the constant over exercise, finally had enough. J managed to lose the first arm wrestle but doubled down to arm wrestle with his left arm and left the experience still friends, but he had two torn rotator cuffs and a severe and permanent curtailment of his ability to aggressively exercise. There are things in our life about us that are not just things. They have some special place in our heart. Okay, so what’s wrong with that? I agree that some things should be in a special place, but others, perhaps without us consciously realizing it, move to a higher priority than they should have. So, if one were to agree with this, what’s the impact? Well, briefly stated, these things that we have or are, which likely may be good things, instead of serving us become something we serve. That’s a big deal. The problematic results: We overreact when these things are threatened or not respected. We may start to do things that we shouldn’t do to advance or increase the special things that we have or are. Unknown, perhaps even to the person himself or herself, the person may unbalance or misdirect their life by making many small decisions that are improperly biased in favor of this thing. To explain it in religious terms, we have an idol in our life.
Not many of us, I suspect, have a carved wooden idol from some tropical country that we worship. No. However, idols (if I may use that language for convenience sake) are prevalent here, but they are invisible and usually comprised of things that many people view as good things. Idols might be our good reputation, wealth, charity, unique ability at work, or skill in sports. They could be our knowledge of information about history, science, sports, or anything else. It could be the good grades we received while in school, our current or prior great looks or popularity, or our life experiences, fame, hunting ability, the car or cars that we own, our house, our job, our beautiful spouse or stellar kids, our connection to someone else (maybe someone famous), our good memory, or intelligence (a word I had a hard time spelling and found using a spellchecker). Our idols are good things that become overly magnified. They, thereby, cause us to make poor decisions at critical moments or unbalance our life and possibly send us in the wrong direction. They can weigh us down with burdens we are not meant to carry or distract us from things that we should do. Somewhere, someplace, a line between positive “drive” and “idolatry” is crossed, and the results can have major implications.
So how is this relevant to you? I guess what I’d like you to consider, if you would, is whether there are things in your life that are unbalanced, which could impact your decision-making process now or at key points in the future. Is there something that you have or are that you would improperly protect? Is there something that you would overly resist letting go of, which would therefore place you in inappropriate risk or cause you to do something that you shouldn’t? Are your relationships or decision-making process being hurt because of something that improperly controls you? Idols put us in a prison of our own making.
Let’s take it a step deeper. Idols are actually multi-tiered. The ones identified above, including wealth, cars, sports, appearance, and so forth are considered by some to be “surface idols”, but there’s actually something underneath. Time for another story.
I knew this guy in high school. He was a rotten student, but somehow he got into college, where he remained a rotten student. He eventually struggled through. Some years later, he’s a municipal bond trader. I meet up with him with other high school friends. This guy, who wouldn’t study in school now is completely focused and dedicated to his job. He works long hours, and I was shocked to find that he doesn’t take vacations; he only gets a couple days off here and there when the stock market is closed. How did this guy go from being a slacker that partied all the time to being a guy who was overly devoted to his job, even to the extent that he wouldn’t even take vacations?
Another example to consider: I was working this job and had a boss. The guy was completely out of shape, and there was no perceivable evidence to me that the guy’s physical health or abilities were something of any substantial value to him. Of course, he would talk about cholesterol and things like that, but when it came to making decisions, health always got pushed aside. One day, after knowing him for multiple years, I found to my surprise that this guy used to play ice hockey and was good enough to play at the college level. He, at the time, was passionate about it. So, I thought to myself, “How is it that this guy, who was so passionate at sports and who devoted so much of his life to and excelled over his peers, somehow now completely ignore not only hockey but even his health to the extent that now in his early 40’s, he is challenged by climbing a flight of stairs?” I realized that the same passion and devotion in which he played hockey in his youth, he now puts into his career. When it came to what he was passionate about, everything else fell away. The hockey was just a temporary expression of something deeper.
For convenience sake, let’s call these deeper things “subsurface idols”. Maybe you know the underlying reason why you or someone you know has a surface idol. For myself, I have found that subsurface idols are easier to identify when viewing a person as they progress through different phases of life. You may see a common thread that seems to be woven in.
Some people, including a decent guy named Tim Keller who helped me realize these problems in my own life, have identified that the subsurface idols are often power, control, comfort, and approval. If we can understand these things as they apply to us, we can remove problems from our life and strength us, plus other good things may happen too.
Here’s how to explain this. Let’s take the surface idol of money. Some people hoard it, and some people flaunt it. If someone’s subsurface idol is “approval”, it may be that they will be overly inclined to buy things that advance their status among their peers. If someone’s subsurface idol is “control”, it may be that they will hoard their money or overly put in into something that maintains their control over others. I can’t tell you what is the subsurface idol, if any, of the hockey play turned boss or of my friend turned worker. It could be that more than one idol is at play or that the reason was something else entirely. Think, however, about yourself and how your passions have changed over the years. Perhaps you will find something. It’s also possible that you’re not like me, and there is nothing problematic to find.
While most of the time these tendencies we have will not have critical implications, sometimes it may be a matter of life or death for us or someone we know. Most of the time these tendencies we have will not lead us to life and death situations; however, they likely will cause our lives to be unbalanced, which is a common slow train wreck of tragedy.
Just the knowledge of a tendency can be helpful. It helps me to know that I like to be in control and that I sometimes say things or act in certain ways to do this. What if you are the same? What if, for example, you are in control of a group or are “next-in-line” to be so? If you have the subsurface idol of “control” and at some point in the future another person is proposed to enter your group who would be of substantial benefit to the group, this person might possibly threaten your position of control. Under these circumstances, is it possible that your idol will cause you to think or do things that you shouldn’t?
Some less survivalist tending people we know may have a subsurface idol of “comfort”. These people may have a hard time leaving certain comforts of modern life when the conditions demand it. In discussing with them whether it is necessary to prepare for risks, they may make up all sorts of reasons for their decision to take no action. It, however, may be that for them to accept a future or course of life that would require leaving modern comforts behind is more than just about their loss of certain comforts, it’s about attacking something that gives them purpose in their lives. It may be attacking something that they grasp onto to justify themselves above people they know. You will have a hard time reaching this person, unless you (and perhaps more importantly they) understand what could be a key underlying factor in their decision-making process.
What if you or someone in your group has a subsurface idol of “power”. This person may get a kick out of having power over others. In a situation where laws and societal constraints are loosened, will a person like this be more likely to do certain things or act in certain unfavorable ways? Know yourself and know others.
I hope you’ll think about what was written above and how it may impact you. Is there some tendency in your life? It may be hard to ferret it out, but think about your life over the various phases of life. You may discover additional aspects of these things, as you consider and re-consider over some longer period of time. Maybe someone you know and respect could have some helpful input for you or could benefit from your insight. Think about people around you and how these issues may influence them. Maybe you can help set them free. Also, as you interact with people, you may start finding yourself thinking of these issues as you consider them. This may help you in interacting with them, understanding them, and predicting how and what they will do in the future and why. There’s another layer of the onion. Something is below the subsurface idols. We’re getting closer to some religious content, so if this will greatly offend you, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you will find some good in the above and it will have a positive impact on your life. I hope that you, like me, are now more able to see the prisons we made for ourselves and the things that have enslaved us. I want you to be free.
To be clear, I’m in no way saying that I’ve conquered my battle against my subsurface idols. Mine are approval, control, and power. (I think roughly in that order.) Now, I have a better understanding of the nature of the war at issue. Okay. Here comes the religious content. The question arises of why I have subsurface idols in the first place. I think the answer is partially found in what the idols do for me. They are essentially tools of self-justification. Deep inside of me, and I think others, is a competitive desire to justify myself– to prove myself worthy, of value, and possibly better than others. So why do I have this need? I think it is because deep, deep inside, I know that I need to prove myself. Why? Because I am lacking and because I have need of justification.
That’s where Christianity comes in. Christianity says that you are correct; you don’t measure up. In fact, you are infinitely far from God. Like a single blade of grass in a field of grasses turning to the blade next to it and correctly saying, “I’m closer to the Sun than you”, we also compare ourselves to our peers using yardsticks (our idols) of our own making. As each blade of grass is infinitely far from the sun, we also are infinitely far from God and God’s standard of holy perfection.
Regardless, God loves you with infinite love and wants you to be free of the sin that binds you. His infinite love is balanced with His infinite holiness. His holiness prevents Him from the complete communion with sinful people, like me. Therefore, He did what was only possible for Him to do; He sent His only Son to live a perfectly holy life and then take the death penalty to pay our debt of sins. Your justification to God can be had by accepting that you are a sinner before God and you don’t make the grade and then accepting Jesus’s death to justify you to God. By doing this, your sins will be remembered no more by God. (Heb. 8:12).
I think that to help you in your fight against your surface and subsurface idols, a key is found somewhere in (1) accepting God’s free gift of justification for us, (2) finding out what our subsurface idols are (i.e. power, control, comfort, and approval) and, (3) knowing/considering/thinking/appreciating that Jesus, as God (who’s record you now have allotted to you as though adopted by God), has ultimate power and control and has the full approval of God the Father and dwells in heaven– a place of ultimate perfection and comfort.
With love, and for your freedom.