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Has a Good Gift Become an Idol? Four Diagnostic Questions

March 23, 2017

We feel our hearts being tested when something bad happens. But did you know that a good gift will also test your heart?

I have heard Augustine credited with pointing out that we are supposed to rejoice in God and his image bearers, and use the things of this world. Instead we prefer to use God and people, and rejoice in the things of this world.

It makes sense to us why this is wrong: Idolatry is foolish! The things of this world cannot save us. Yet we choose to find our joy and salvation in things, and not God. I saw this tendency to idol-worship play out in my heart on a recent trip to Mexico.

An Unexpected Good Gift

It was early January in Chicago. The festive snow of December had melted, everything was brown, and the wind was bitterly cold. My husband was preparing to spend five days in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for work, and I was wrestling with envy and self-pity. I felt like I needed a vacation. I was tired and emotionally drained, and my toes were frozen. I needed warmth and rest, not five days of single-parenthood to our four kids.

[Tweet “Earthly pleasures are meant to draw our hearts to the One who gives ultimate pleasure, God himself.”]

Well, two days beforehand we decided that I would go with him. It seemed too good to be true! Was I really going to receive an unexpected vacation in paradise? God was being so good to me! My self-pity was gone, and I was instantly rejoicing! With our four kids in capable hands, I set off for Mexico.

An Unexpected Test

On the plane, I examined my heart. Where did the self-pity and envy go? Did the good gift really change my heart? The Lord revealed to me that it hadn’t. I was troubled by my circumstances and needed a savior. Then God had given me a good gift, and my response was to trust the gift for my deliverance. I was rejoicing in the gift and not the Giver. I had to ask myself some questions:

What profit am I expecting Cabo to give me? Deliverance.

And the rest he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to worship it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:17)

What is Cabo drawing out of my heart? Adultery.

You ask…to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people!… (James 4:3-4)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Did I want my prayer to be, “Deliver me Cabo, for you are my god”? My heart was being tested. I had a choice to make before the plane touched the ground.

Two Ways to Respond to Good Gifts

Option 1: Rejoice in the gift and use God.

What would I do with the good gift of Cabo? I could:

  • Trust in the beauty and comforts of a resort location to deliver me from my troubles
  • Mediate on the majestic scenery of Cabo, the palm trees, the rock formations, the humpback whales, and the tropical fish, and declare it to be worthy of my praise
  • Proclaim the glories of Cabo to the other guests, drawing their attention to the wonders that had captivated my heart

God and my husband had been useful to me in bringing my god, Cabo, and me together. I would serve them so long as they continued to provide me with the delight of my heart – the peace and rest of Cabo. Then I would go home and lose all I had gained before the plane touched the ground.

The Lord opened my eyes to see the delusion I had bought into. Cabo is not my savior, God is! Cabo is beautiful and praiseworthy only to the extent that it reflects the beauty and worth of the one who made it. The right response to the good gift of Cabo is to worship God.

Option 2: Rejoice in God and use the gift.

Instead of rejoicing in Cabo, I could:

  • Use the good gift of Cabo to lift my eyes to rejoice in the good God who made Cabo to aid in my enjoyment of him and his image bearers
  • Use the revelation of my sinful inclination to idolatry as an opportunity to repent and fall on the grace offered to me in Jesus
  • Use the time away to rest and reflect on God’s goodness and mercy, especially in sending Jesus Christ to save me from my sin and secure eternal life for me

I could then bring home a fresh radiance of intimacy with Christ that would energize my time with my children and those I am privileged to serve. What is the right response to the good gift of Cabo? Worship of God (Nehemiah 9:6). How will I use Cabo to rejoice in God and his image bearers? I will enjoy him in it (James 1:16-18).

When we see that good gifts are from our unchanging heavenly Father, who is always loving and merciful to us and has made us his children, we want to be like him. We want to see him through the gift and be filled with him. That filling will spill over onto the people around us, and we will have good things to share with those we are called to serve.

Four Diagnostic Questions

My time in Cabo opened my eyes to the majestic God who loves me and is Lord over me. He does not exist for my benefit, like a divine Santa Claus who dispenses things more enjoyable than himself. Rather, the pleasures of this earth are meant to draw our hearts and gaze to the one who gives ultimate pleasure, God himself.

I don’t “need a vacation”—I need the God who gives vacations. He is able to warm my soul and give me rest in any location. My trip to Cabo taught me that he is what I need, and I need to remember him, lest I forget and turn his good gifts into gods.

Here are four diagnostic questions to help you rejoice in God, not his gifts. Fill in the blank with any good “thing of this world” you have been given.

  • What profit am I expecting ____ to give me?
  • What is ____ drawing out of my heart?
  • What is the right response to the good gift of ____?
  • How will I use _____ to rejoice in God and his image-bearers?

The Author
Rachel Lehner

Rachel Lehner is married to Peter, has four children, and serves in women's ministry at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church. Among other things, she loves helping with math homework and reciting Dr. Seuss from memory.

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