Every heart has a throne. And on that throne sits something (or, perhaps, someone). Every day, without fail, each of us comes to that throne to present ourselves as obedient slaves.
Most contemporary people scoff at this. “Slave? I’m not a slave to anyone! I’m free, and I do whatever I want.” To which the Apostle Paul would calmly respond, “Oh, really?” Or, to use his words:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience [to God], which leads to righteousness?
“Either” is a pretty clear word. Either we present ourselves to be God’s slaves, or we present ourselves to be sin’s slaves. As the prophet Bob Dylan once said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Most of us, of course, don’t do this consciously. We do it reflexively and instinctively. Something is at the center of our hearts. It’s that thing that commands our obedience, that thing we feel is most important to us, that thing that we’ve just got to have to be fulfilled. Whatever it is you can’t live without…that is your master.
So what do we do when we notice that something other than God has crept onto the throne of our hearts?
1. Identify the usurper.
Christian counselors often talk about four “core idols” that dominate our hearts—power, control, approval, and comfort. Which one of those speaks loudest to you? What is your idol of choice? Which replacement god has your ear?
Notice that none of those four idols are bad things on their own. It’s when they become ultimate in our lives—commanding our obedience and ruling our emotions—that they displace God as our Master and become wicked. As John Calvin said, evil is not typically desiring something bad, but desiring something good too much. It’s not loving a bad thing, but elevating a good thing to a God thing.
Paul provides a simple test to identify your core idol(s). “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” The Greek word for passions is intense: it means a desire that completely overwhelms. To find out what idol has snuck into your heart, ask yourself, “Where are my emotions most out of control?”
What makes you angry—not just mad, but uncontrollably, vehemently angry? What causes you fear—not just everyday anxiety and worry, but panicked, terror-stricken, paralyzing fear? What drives you to sadness—not just disappointment, but despairing, inconsolable sadness? What in your life, if threatened or lost, drives you over the emotional edge of anger, fear, or sadness? That is king of your heart.
2. Consider its destination.
In Romans 6:16, Paul doesn’t just say that we all serve someone. He says that whatever master we choose leads to a certain destination. And every master besides God leads to death.
If your offer yourself as a slave to approval, your life will be plagued by constant self-pity, envy, hurt feelings, and inadequacy. If you are a slave to comfort, you won’t be able to say “no” to the pleasures of food, or sex, or drugs, or pornography. If you are enslaved to power, you’ll become domineering, harsh, even abusive. If you are enslaved to control, you’ll worry all the time; you’ll lose your temper a lot; or you’ll manipulate others to get your way.
That’s why Paul ends Romans 6 by saying, “The wages of sin is death.” It’s not just that sin leads to hell when we die. In the context of Romans 6, Paul is saying that when we allow idols to be our masters, we’ll get a glimpse of those hellish wages now. As Tim Keller says, “Sin is a master that always pays, on time and in full.” Sin starts fun. It never ends that way.
3. Put God back on his throne.
Once we identify our core idols and recognize their destructive destination, we need to kick them out. We don’t do that through moral resolve; we do it by accepting the grace of a completely different Master.
“The wages of sin is death,” Paul says, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). There is a Master who doesn’t require us to work to get his pleasures. He gives them as a gift. Every other master threatens, “If you don’t work hard enough for me, I’ll make you miserable.” Money says, “Fail to obtain me, and you’ll be poor and cursed.” Relationships say, “Fail to obtain me, and you’ll be alone and miserable.” But God says, “I give you all of my joy and my blessing as a gift. You don’t have to work for it. You can’t earn it. It’s not a wage, it’s a gift.” The blessings of God are received, not achieved.
The irony of serving idols is that they promise so much and deliver so little. They promise freedom and life, but the wage they pay out is captivity and death. Jesus, on the other hand, is the fountain of freedom and life itself. He is more reliable than money, more satisfying than any romance, more worthwhile than any victory, more enduring than any earthly honor. So we say, with Isaiah, “What kind of idol can even compare with a God like this” (Isa 40:18)?
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