We resemble the God/god we revere, and this will either be for our ruin or our restoration. If the people we serve are not deeply impressed with Christ, the gods they serve will leave them ruined. They will live lifeless, worthless lives lacking the transformation only God can bring.
Augustine recounted a chilling story about a friend whose life was almost ruined by an idol in his culture. Alypius arrived in Rome before Augustine did, and a prominent god in that culture was the savage gladiatorial events held at the coliseum where people hedonistically feasted on watching others die. At first Alypius refused the invitation from friends to attend the events, but he finally agreed to attend but with his eyes closed committing to “be there in body but absent in spirit.” But Alypius heard the roar of the crowd when a fighter was killed, and Augustine wrote:
He opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul. . . . He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.
Alyipus began to resemble the calloused games that fascinated his heart. Idols always ruin us, always ruin the people under our spiritual care. This is why we must constantly point people to the attractiveness of Christ so that they realize He is so much greater than the gods of this world. In Psalm 16 David compares the sorrows the gods offer with the ultimate pleasure God offers.
The sorrows of those who take another god for themselves will multiply; I will not pour out their drink offerings of blood, and I will not speak their names with my lips.
Lord, You are my portion and my cup of blessing; You hold my future. . . . In Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures. (Ps. 16:4–5, 11)
Sadly we know verse 4 to be true. Sorrows always increase when we pursue another god. The temptation, the offer from a god for joy, and a brief season of pleasure follow, but in the end only misery remains. If we lust after another woman, our mind enjoys it for a moment, but sorrow increases as we are left empty. If we enter into a conversation that is full of gossip, we feel the rush of being trusted with insider information, but misery comes quickly as integrity is exchanged for a conversation. If our heart chases after material things, we enjoy them for a season, but the sorrows increase as the shine on the new toys wanes.
Augustine self-disclosed the sorrow he experienced while pursuing other gods. One night, before he became a follower of Christ, he was out with some friends, and a drunken beggar came to them for money. In their self-righteousness Augustine and his friends discussed the sad state of the beggar, but later Augustine realized he was just as miserable. He was attempting to find fulfillment in fame and knowledge, but he went to sleep each night unfulfilled. They both were searching for fleeting joy, the beggar in a bottle and himself in fame. Only the beggar actually had it better. At least he was numb to the pain. Augustine came to faith in Christ and wrote of the experience:
I was still eagerly aspiring to honors, money, and matrimony; and You did mock me. In pursuit of these ambitions I endured the most bitter hardships, in which You were being the more gracious the less You would allow anything that was not You to grow sweet to me.
God is good and gracious not to allow a lesser unsatisfying god even to come close to quenching us because abundant joy is in Him. C. S. Lewis said, “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”7 David calls God his “cup” (Ps. 16:5) because he knows God is all he needs. David’s heart is fascinated with the beauty and greatness of God—and this is transformational.
Sin happens for us and for the people we serve when we forget that God is enough, when we want something other than Him. Sin is telling God that we need something more than Him, that the god can bring greater joy than Him. Gossip is telling God that He is not enough, that we need the juicy information. Clicking on the porn site is telling God that He is not the cup, that the porn site is needed to bring excitement or escape. Chasing a promotion motivated by greed is telling God that He is not enough.
Only God is enough. Only God delivers on joy.
After reminding the people of the greatness of God and the impotence of the false gods, the psalmist implores the people to “trust in the Lord” (Ps. 115:9). He knows their transformation is related to their trust in God and their fascination with Him. We resemble the God or god we revere, and with Christ this is for our restoration. If the people you lead will treasure Christ, He will transform them. And they will be filled with ultimate and abundant joy. The famous mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. . . . And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look . . . because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”
Adapted from Transformational Discipleship (B&H Publishing Group, 2012)