My mountain bike skidded to a stop, kicking up a billow of dust on the trail behind me. Something had caught my eye as I’d ridden down the hill and I wanted to investigate. The trail I’d been riding had a steep incline on its left side and perched on it was a large, old tree with its branches spread wide. The rain of many winters had taken its toll and had carried off much of the soil foundation. Large gnarled roots sat exposed to the elements revealing evidence of significant soil erosion. I guessed the whole tree would eventually slide down onto the trail if nothing were done to correct the problem.
Looking at the tree that day, I couldn’t help but think of the story of Gideon. Sadly, the end of Gideon’s tale is nowhere near as inspiring as the beginning. The firm foundation of Gideon’s faith slowly eroded over time as he allowed an idol to creep in and take center stage in his life. The story winds down with the Israelites quickly forgetting that it was God who led them to victory over the Midianites, not Gideon. Here is the first part of the story from Judges 8.
22 The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” 23 But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.”
While Gideon may sound humble here for refusing the position of King, what he did next shows he was a wee bit off base. Chapter 8 continues 24 And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)
25 They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26 The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels,[a] not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.
While it’s not the uplifting ending I’d hoped for, it is a jolting wake up call for those of us trying to apply the story to our lives. Gideon and the Israelites wanted a tangible symbol of their victory. The ephod was meant to be a vest worn by the high priest and used to relay God’s guidance and instruction to the people. It wasn’t meant for use outside of these purposes. What was intended as a tool to draw people closer to God had become an idol instead.
It seems easy to recognize their folly, doesn’t it? Priscilla Shirer draws some modern comparisons that don’t let us dismiss this story as quickly as we’d like. The week 6 Lesson of Gideon: Your Weakness, God’s Strength is full of examples of subtle idols that may have crept into our lives in the twenty first century. As I read her examples, many more flooded to my mind. Several are ones that have been snares in my own life. I’ve chosen a few that might make you squirm a bit. Rest assured, I have no specific person in mind for any of these. If you feel the discomfort of conviction as you read, ask God to show you how He’s calling you to respond rather than feeling offended or annoyed.
Scenario 1: Laura loves people and enjoys socializing. Whether she is staying late after Bible Study, attending a dinner party with her husband or enjoying a hike with girlfriends, she always makes time for other people. Sometimes she has a hard time being “present” with people because she’s worried she’s missing out on another conversation going on nearby. Laura gets so busy spending time with others that she often has overlaps in her schedule that require her to leave early or arrive late. Weekends become especially hectic as she squeezes in several social events each evening sandwiched between full days running her kids around to their activities. One Friday night, her kids finally decide they need a break and they beg for a family movie night at home. Laura can’t stand the thought of foregoing the neighborhood get together down the street. Her “fear of missing out” causes her to be fidgety and distracted instead of enjoying a peaceful night at home.
Scenario 2: Bob and Sue have a great, new pastor at church and they’re so excited to invite their friends to hear him preach. The Bible has come alive for them in a new way since he joined the staff. They look forward to the Sundays when he speaks. One Saturday they have an especially late night and when they wake up the next day, they’re too tired to make it to church. They find out later that a different pastor was preaching and are relieved they didn’t miss their “favorite.” Over time, they begin checking in advance to see who will be preaching. They make less of an effort to attend church when he’s not speaking. Two years later when the pastor announces he’s taking a new position at a different church, Bob and Sue seriously consider following him, despite the fact that the new church is over an hour away.
Scenario 3: Jason works hard and feels blessed to be his family’s provider. He sees himself as a steward of all God has given him and does his best to take care of things and to make them last- whether that is his car, his clothes or his house. He spends a lot of time on the weekends working in the yard or taking care of maintenance on the house. He adores his kids, but sometimes feels frustrated when they track mud inside or leave sports equipment in his car. There is nothing that feels better to him than having a place for everything and everything in its place. He often feels inadequate when he spends time with friends who have larger homes in more manicured neighborhoods than his. He works hard to make the house look nice and to feel comfortable. He can’t figure out why his kids never want to be at home or to invite friends over.
Scenario 4: After having her third child, Amy resolves it’s time to get serious about taking care of her body. She joins a gym, meets with a nutritionist and begins a weekly regimen of exercise and healthy eating. After a few months, she feels great both physically and mentally. Amy has more energy and focus, not to mention a slimmer, more toned physique. She’s quietly pleased when friends comment on how great she looks. When it’s time to sign up for her women’s Bible study, Amy hesitates, fearing that a morning away from the gym may interfere too much in her fitness regimen. She decides to sit out the study and do it by herself on her own time—that way it she won’t miss her favorite class at the gym.
Scenario 5: June and John are a recently retired couple with 4 adult kids living all over the United States. They love to travel and pride themselves on never missing a significant event in the lives of any of their 8 grandchildren. When they’re not with family, they enjoy visiting exotic new places and traveling with friends. Lately, June and John haven’t been motivated to go to church when they’re in town. Most Sundays they have a hard time finding old friends and barely recognize most of the people sitting around them. The bulletin is full of classes and activities, but most will cut into their desire to keep their schedule open, free and spontaneous, so they don’t want to commit. They lament their lost sense of community and feel that their church has become too big and impersonal.
Scenario 6: Francesca’s days are full and busy balancing a part time job, a baby and a toddler. There’s nothing she enjoys more than having a few minutes at the end of the day to unwind and enjoy a glass of wine with her husband when he gets home from work. At first, it’s a treat they look forward to on Fridays as a celebration for the end of the week. Over time, they begin cracking open a bottle mid-week when the day has been especially crazy. Evenings just seem easier to manage after a cold glass of Chardonnay. One week, Francesca’s husband is away on business and she finds herself counting the minutes until she puts the kids to bed. That evening as she enjoys a glass of wine on the couch, a friend calls to check in. Francesca jokes with her, “Do you know what’s the most expensive thing about having kids?” “What?” Her friend asks, innocently. “All the wine!” She laughs into the phone. She is surprised when her friend is silent on the other end of the line.
Scenario 7: Mike has a huge servant’s heart. There is nothing that brings him greater joy than meeting the needs of others. Over the years he’s served in a variety of capacities at church and in the community—serving as an elder, working on a long-term missions project in the inner-city, heading up outreach for Men’s Ministries, teaching 5th grade Sunday School and more. Lately, Mike has become so busy serving that he feels exhausted and lacks some of his usual joy. Getting out of bed for worship on a Sunday mornings is daunting after serving all day at the inner-city mission every Saturday. Waking up early to spend time with God daily or attending the Men’s Bible study once a week seem like luxuries he can’t afford.
Scenario 8: Kari loves her kids and wants to see them develop their potential. Whether it’s out on the soccer field, in the dance studio, in an after school class or at piano lessons, she’s determined to give them every opportunity available. Afternoons are crazy as she drives carpools, helps with homework and takes care of the household. With three active kids, she rarely has time for the things she says she values like spending time with friends and studying the Bible. Weekends are full of activities for the whole family and when they aren’t up early for a sports game, the family loves nothing more than sleeping late on Sundays. Kari is proud of her kids and all that they’ve accomplished, but sometimes she worries that they don’t care much about attending youth group or other church activities. She finds solace by deciding they’ll have more time for that later, when they’re older. Besides, they’re so busy with all of the activities, they don’t have time to get into trouble or run with the “wrong crowd” anyway.
Scenario 9: Josh loves sports- whether it’s watching, playing or coaching. His car radio is pre-set for every sports talk show he can find. He loves to watch Sports Center at night and spends his breakfast poring over the sports pages. He knows practically every statistic from every major sporting event in a given season. He arranges weekends around his Saturday golf game and Sunday football games on TV. He’s willing to go to church with his wife most of the time. He even agrees to go to a special men’s event at church when a well-known sports figure is speaking. During the talk, the speaker quotes a verse from Joshua, “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you maybe careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Josh can think of a lot of things he meditates on during the week, but none of them involve the stuff the speaker is talking about. He’s disappointed the guy didn’t focus on his sports career more in his speech.
Idols give us a false sense of security, comfort or self-worth. Often the things that become idols in our lives start out being something good. There is nothing wrong with exercising, socializing, traveling or volunteering. However, when they govern our decision-making processes or have authority in our lives that is higher than God, they can become idols.
If you see a glimmer of yourself in one or more of these scenarios, please consider praying about it and asking God what changes He might be calling you to make. Remember, the goal here is to prevent ourselves from ending up like Gideon, who created an idol that had enough ties to his Jewish faith that he felt justified having it. Erosion happens slowly over time, like the tree in the picture.
If you see a glimmer of someone you love in one of the scenarios above, let me caution you against appointing yourself as a personal holy spirit for that person. Rather than having him/ her read the scenario, commit to praying for the person and the possible idol you see in his/ her life. Wait to see if God gives you an opportunity to have an honest conversation when the time is right.
Personally, I’d like to end the study of Gideon on a high note. I want to be cognizant of the potential idols in my life and to recognize that my weakness is a platform for God’s strength. Here are a few ideas on how to keep the potential idols in our lives at bay:
-Make it a priority to spend time with God in prayer every day
-Read the Bible daily
-Be intentional about studying the Bible with others
-Be aware of our weak points and ask for accountability and prayer support
-Pray David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23-4 regularly and be open to what God reveals:
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.