January 24, 2014

Idolizing virtue

Years ago, a woman told me that she loved doing things for others because, “It makes me feel so good.” At the time, this seemed the wrong motivation. Now I understand that she possibly had two idols, one called “feel good” and the other called “do good.”

It is possible to worship virtue above God. A man tells of another who was generous with his money and kept his giving anonymous. However, when complimented by someone who knew what he did, he burst into tears, confessing that his giving was, “more to make me feel good than to minister to others.”

As John Calvin said, the human heart is an idol-making factory. As a Christian, I’m aware of a constant desire to do things, even things for God, for some other reason than love for God and for others. Feeling good is one of them, and being able to point to my goodness is another.

I know that any actions done in faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, are not “my” goodness. Just as Christ alone is the source of my salvation, He is also the source of my sanctification and obedience. I cannot save myself nor can I grow in the grace of God or do anything apart from Him. Anything that I have and do is a gift from Him, and to Him belongs the glory.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

Feeling good about doing good is not wrong, at least as long as that feeling does not become the main motivation for obedience or a boast to justify ourselves.

Perhaps the most extreme example is Job. He was a good man, righteous and obedient. Usually a person’s life is blessed when this is true of them, but Job’s life seemed under a curse. He complained and said things like this . . .

if I have concealed my transgressions as others do by hiding my iniquity in my heart, because I stood in great fear of the multitude, and the contempt of families terrified me, so that I kept silence, and did not go out of doors— Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!) Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary! Surely I would carry it on my shoulder; I would bind it on me as a crown; I would give him an account of all my steps; like a prince I would approach him. (Job 31:33–37)

Job had lived well. The reward was not comfort or “feeling good.” Instead, he experienced unexpected and unexplained suffering. He was right in saying he’d done nothing to deserve this, but perhaps his heart was more fixed on his own goodness and feeling good about himself than it was fixed on God. Instead of the pleasure of a life well-lived, he complained that God had abandoned him and was not listening to him.

In his situation, I likely would have reacted the same way. I’m not sure Job made an idol of virtue, but it is a challenge to trust and worship God even when our obedience results in disaster instead of a sense of “well done.”

A more obvious example of idolizing virtue is the parable Jesus told to some who were self-righteous, who truly trusted in their own goodness instead of worshiping God alone . . .  

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9–14)

I’m learning that God blesses those who come to Him without credentials, and who realize that great need and helplessness is our actual state. What have I that I have not been given? I depend on God for my next breath, never mind all virtue and good things. To worship and depend on His gifts to me and how those gifts make me feel — instead of Him — is idolatry.

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