In my last post, I suggested some of the opportunities that our homes provide for serving God in mission within his world. But a home doesn’t just create opportunities for mission, it also creates opportunities for idolatry. Instead of being a place where God is worshipped and served, home can itself become a god we worship—or a shrine for the worship of other gods.
It seems to me as if almost everyone in Christian circles has been talking about ‘idolatry’ lately (partly thanks to some excellent books like We Become What We Worship by Greg Beale, Greed As Idolatry by Brian Rosner, and Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller). Defining and identifying what counts as an ‘idol’ can be a tricky task, especially when the thing in question is not a literal, physical statue in a shrine. Tim Keller’s definition of an idol is
anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
… anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.1
I think it’s a helpful definition in that it includes both the devotion that we give to an idol and the satisfaction that we look for from an idol.
I wonder, though, whether Tim Keller sets the bar a little too high in describing the place something needs to have in our lives before it counts as an idol. The true God is certainly a jealous, monogamous God, who makes an exclusive claim on our worship, but false gods are not always like that. Most idol worship is polytheistic, not monotheistic: an idol can still be an idol, even if it has only a piece of our hearts.
With that in mind, I’ll be operating (in this post and future ones in this series) with a definition a bit more like the one that Brian Rosner comes up with: idolatry is “an attack on God’s exclusive rights to human love … trust … and obedience”.2 In other words, an idol is anything we love in a way that competes with our love for God, anything we trust in a way that diminishes our trust in God, and anything we fear or obey in a way that takes away from the way we ought to fear and obey God.
If that is what makes something an idol, here are a few of the idolatries that come to mind for me—false gods I’m tempted to worship in the decisions that I make about home, the way I feel about it and the way I use it:
- Worship of possessions: A home can easily become a kind of barn for storing the possessions we crave to accumulate—so much so, that you have to keep building the house bigger to fit all the things that you want to own into it. According Clive Hamilton’s Affluenza, the average new house built in Australia in 1970 had 40 square metres’ floor space per inhabitant; by 2005, it was 85 square metres per inhabitant.3 That’s a lot of extra space for a lot of extra stuff!
- Worship of status: With the craving for possessions goes the anxious pursuit of social status. When we make decisions about where to live, what size and style of house to choose, and how much to spend on renting it, buying it or redecorating it, it’s easy for thoughts about seeking first God’s kingdom to become crowded out by aspirations for being viewed as important, successful, stylish people.
- Worship of safety, comfort and privacy: A third temptation I struggle against in thoughts about house and home is the temptation to view home as a kind of nest—a place to keep others out of and a place to retreat into away from the world, with its pressures and pollutions. Of course, safety, comfort and privacy are good things, and they’re part of what make a place a home. I don’t think the ideal family home is a kind of tent with no walls; if a family (or any household, for that matter) is going to have any identity and integrity, it needs to have some boundaries around it. But if you want to be hospitable and missional, those boundaries need to be the sort that you are prepared to let people through.
- Worship of familiarity and the need to settle down: Finally (and closely related to the nesting instinct that views the world not as a mission field, but simply as a threat to be excluded), there is the temptation to latch onto a house as if it were our home forever. Once again, of course, the instinct to do this grows out of a good desire. Stability is a great blessing: it is a wonderful thing when you get a chance to put down roots and settle into a community of people, building relationships over time and becoming a genuine local. But this good desire can become an idol if it means you would never be prepared to move somewhere else for the sake of the gospel. (Sometimes, of course, our problem can be the opposite one: we can be so driven by the fear of settling down and becoming boring that we never really end up having neighbours or a community that we contribute to; we never really put down enough roots to grow something. But that’s another post altogether …)
There’s four obvious examples to get things started. What else should go on the list?
1 Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, Dutton Penguin, New York, 2009, pp. xvii-xviii.
2 Brian Rosner, Greed as Idolatry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2007, p. 173.
3 Clive Hamilton, Affluenza, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005, p. 20.