Coop's Column - Prone to Wander

Rarely—almost never—do married persons make it their aim to get into an extra-marital relationship—to have an “affair.”

Rarely—almost never—do married persons make it their aim to get into an extra-marital relationship—to have an “affair.” Far more often, I suspect, they find that they’ve slipped into one, the result of having taken a fairly lengthy path of small, unintended steps. But the sad consequence—the decisive consequence— is always the same: They discover that their heart, which once was brimming with affection for their spouse, has now become drained of delight and joy over her or him. (Even though, of course, for appearance’s sake, they may try to keep up the polite externals of the relationship, acting out —on cue—its correct rituals and doing its appropriate duties.)

While all of this is happening, something else is taking place: the very affection which once flowed generously and freely toward their spouse, now gets redirected—siphoned off, as it were—and sent flowing in the direction of another person.

All of this takes place gradually and by tiny degrees, of course. Love and affection for the spouse slowly oozes away; love and affection for another slowly swells.

The same thing can happen in people’s relationship to God. The hymn writer called it “wandering”: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.”

The Bible calls the result of such wandering idolatry. Idolatry isn’t merely erecting some tangible, concrete image—a carved statue, a painting, or whatever—and then overtly venerating it. In fact, there need not be something concrete to bow down to at all. Idolatry happens when one values something too highly, expects miracles from it, and puts it in place of God.

Idols come in a variety of shapes and sizes nowadays: body image, work, relationships, athleticism, dreams for retirement, fame and applause, family, and power (intellectual, political, ecclesiastical, financial, etc.)—to name but a very few. The list is almost inexhaustibly long, for every person fondly crafts and keeps adding to his own set of preferred paganisms.

Make no mistake: Idols do have power. The lesser gods and goddesses of the 21st century continue to be ravenously hungry for our heart’s devotion. False gods still make high bid for our heart’s native desire to offer worship. Their determination to block us from living as fully and as humanly as God intends is unwearied.

But make no mistake about this, too: Idols do disappoint—unfailingly so. Foolishly and in vain, therefore, we keep offering them our heart’s devotion. We expect too much from them. We imagine they can deliver to us the miracles that only God himself can bring—new life, fresh hope, enduring purpose, deep-down and lasting joy.

Remember, too, that it’s as hard to spot a potential idol in our lives as it is to resist one once it’s been made and put on pedestal. The eyes of our hearts are too weak and short-sighted to see idols for what they really are: life-threatening dangers, and not merely innocuous playthings to which we once in a while go a bit overboard in offering them time, money, and attention. Os Guinness, keen Christian observer and critic of today’s culture, says: “Contemporary evangelicals are little better at recognizing and resisting idols than modern secular people are.” Thus he adds: “There can be no believing communities without an unswerving eye to the detection and destruction of idols.”

Which is another reason why we need to keep congregating as Christians in corporate worship. Doing so, we can become reoriented again. Before God’s face and in the presence of fellow believers, we can realign our priorities, set our heart’s allegiances right again.

No human being can optimally guard and tend her heart alone. We need one another—and we need our Lord—in order to hear well his command, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus. 20:3); in order to receive strength and determination to flush away our heart’s fondest idols; in order to refill our hearts with fresh affection for God again, and pledge to worship and serve him alone.

For it is in the sanctuary—that is, before the face of God and among his people—that we learn best to pray, “O Lord, above all things, help us to seek you and to know you; above all things, to relish and to love you; and to order all things as they are according to your wisdom” (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ).

God must take full precedence. Everything else must follow after. No less than everything.

Prayer

O God, who lovest us, set our loves in order.
(Thomas Aquinas, 13th Century)

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