All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols–worship him, all you gods! (Psalm 97: 7)
One Chinese Church leader once said: “We must live to be forgotten.” This is a hard saying, but deeply profound. John Calvin, the great theologian, didn’t want an epitaph because he wanted to ascribe all glory to God. Most of us would like to be remembered dearly. In an age of information technology there are myriads of means & methods of communication, like podcast, website, facebook etc. The list is endless! As Michael Oh used to say to the ANF staff, the internet “is both a blessing & a curse.” These are God-given tools, but also a means of self-promotion. When a good God-given gift is placed in the hands of fallen men, the gift quickly turns into a god-thing. Anything or anyone that we love more than Jesus is idolatry! Since we are in love with the self –more than Jesus, social media, thus, becomes a tool to feed the egocentric nature. Once more, a God-given gift becomes a tool for self-promotion & adoration, all under the banner of God! This is very subtle topic & a delicate one. The temptation is strong and real in human hearts.
At the heart of idolatry is worship! When western missionaries come to my country (India), their pre-disposed conclusion is, “India is a land full of pagans & idols.” This may hold true, but when I went to Los Angeles in the spring of 2005, I discovered that America has more idols than some third-world countries do. A family ritual time in the Western world is when they all get together in front of a television set with their eyes glued to the screen for two long un-interupted hours etc (Note: Their attention span is very short on Sundays during a sermon). If you disturb that movie time, people get disappointed. It’s disappointing because it’s an idol. Idols disappoint us miserably when they fail to deliver the ultimate joy. People worship multitudes of things everywhere. Deceitful idols promise us more than they can deliver!
“Be careful of making a good thing, such as marriage, sex, children, health, success, or financial stability, an ultimate thing, or what Jesus called our ‘treasure’…. And be careful not to worship a good thing as a god thing for that is a bad thing” (Mark Driscoll- What Christian Should Believe– pg.346-47).
What does all this have to do with hero- idolatry? In a recent interview Francis Chan was asked this question:
“Jesus has always blessed his Church with gifted teachers. Unique to our day is the increased accessibility of these teachers. How should we make the most out of these resources while at the same time being committed to the local church? Could you give practical advice on the way forward?”
He replies with these sobering lines:
“I have benefitted greatly by hearing biblical preachers via podcast. I’m glad that there is so much solid teaching available. However, I am struggling with the celebrity status that comes from this kind of exposure. It’s not healthy for the preacher, nor is it healthy for those who talk about their ministry heroes so often (I am guilty of this). In many ways, we are conforming to the pattern of the world. While it is good that people are talking about what they have learned from “Piper, Driscoll, Keller, Chan, etc,” I am concerned about how much we speak those names rather than the name of Jesus. It has gotten to the point where I believe we have taken glory away from Jesus. Personally, I am intentionally trying to mention human names less and speak often the matchless name of Jesus.” (Francis Chan: On Celebrity Status & Holy Spirit).
Despite the over-abundance of information and the number of years we spend on educating ourselves, we have been very slow to learn in spiritual matters. This is a humbling truth! Haven’t we almost educated ourselves to imbecility? We are bombarded with information everywhere, some of which are infested with false teachings, and our people often fall prey to it. Prophet Jeremiah incisively warned his people: “How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8: 8).
The Apostle Paul, a very learned man himself, wrote: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Corinthians 1: 20). He goes on: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Corinthians 3:5).
Indeed we should be glad that there is an overabundance of solid-biblical-teaching that we can distribute, especially in the 10/40 window where Christians suffer not only from persecution, but also from theological famine. This must be a concern for every Christian. “While it is good that people are talking about what they have learned from “Piper, Driscoll, Keller, Chan, etc,” we should all be deeply concerned for the health of our own souls about how much “we speak those names rather than the name of Jesus.” Loving our heroes more than Jesus would be idolatry. Is it not? It is unhealthy for our souls when the words of dead theologians begin to sound sweeter than the very words of Jesus Himself. It makes one wonder if this is no different from ancestor worship in Japan? It is so typical of western Christianity to idolize godly men as they do in Hollywood (it’s no less the same in different parts of the world today). In a land of opportunity & individualism, people rise to celebrity status very quickly. The culture isn’t helpful either because it enforces the worldview of Christians. Thus, Christians end up worshiping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1: 25). And this is a fine line.
In pursuit of His glory & the fame of His name, not ours.
I, personally, have greatly benefited from John Piper’s ministry since 2005. I respect him a lot. I was invited to speak at a Pastor’s Conference hosted by Adopt Training & Missions House in Manila (2008) by Dr. Dan Tauzon. A co-worker & a friend had attended the conference on the last night of my assignment. After the conference, he came and embraced me saying: “You have John Piper’s passion.” That was a huge compliment. But only around last year, I realized the potential danger for my own soul. The reality of people seeing someone else in me, rather than Jesus, hit me and humbled me greatly. If someone said anything bad about Piper, I’d be totally devastated because that would be like talking bad about my Dad. But, it’s also wise to ask like Paul: What, after all, is Piper, Driscoll, Keller, or Chan for that matter! And what is a preacher/teacher? True. They are, after all, only servants through whom people might come to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. One thing I will say though! What I admire about John Piper is his passion for the Bible, by God’s grace, and I believe there’s room for emulating godly men like him in an age where much preaching is laden with psychological self-help and motivational speaking. He writes:
“In spite of all the legitimate warnings against hero worship, I want to risk waving a flag for holy emulation—which includes realistic admiration. Hero worship means admiring someone for unholy reasons and seeing all he does as admirable (whether it’s sin or not). Holy emulation, on the other hand, sees evidences of God’s grace, and admires them for Christ’s sake, and wants to learn from them and grow in them. This theme is strong in the New Testament.
- “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
- “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).
- “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).
- “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
- “[Do] not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12).
- “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness” (2 Timothy 3:10).
- “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:14).
- “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity” (Titus 2:7)” (See Desiring God)
We become like who we worship. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6: 22). That’s the eyes of the heart! “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3: 18). Ultimately, we are called to look like Him, as godly men continue to inspire us. But true transformation comes about only by “beholding the glory of the Lord.”
Unknown Forgotten Leaders In The Persecuted East. Many Christians (missionaries included) will have passed through the 21st century only to be remembered by close relatives and a few people that they were able to minister to. Missionaries who gladly gave their all have made Jesus very valuable to us all. Their lives were never considered great in worldly terms, but they did their part faithfully, and God does not forget them. “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Hebrews 6: 10). “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10: 42).
Furthermore, the real heroes of our faith are not out there where the media can easily reach, but somewhere, unknown, in prisons, often in severe hardships, trials & persecutions. They bleed & make Jesus known, carrying about the mark of the Lord Jesus in their bodies. You will neither find them on television nor hear them on radio stations, or at large gatherings. You may never hear of their names, because they are not famous. They are not “hip & cool” as we would like them to be. Rather they make Jesus famous by being like Him in His death, embracing suffering, in places where people are violently resistant to the Gospel. They are among those whom “the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11: 38). They make Jesus look exceedingly great and precious! I know someone might say this is a matter of missiology and contextualization. But my point is, our heroes in the West do not know any of the sufferings that the Apostle Paul and these persecuted Christians go through everyday.
Do we hold them as true heroes of the faith? Would we want to be like them, in their suffering? Those are sobering questions! But they look like Christ; and the very words of the Apostle resonates well in their life-styles: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1: 24).
As you reflect on these things, I leave you with this beautiful, practical & helpful quote:
” Years of ministry, labor, pain, joy, heartache, learning, listening, preaching, and praying take place for even those [Church] planters the rest of us eventually recognize as successful. It is wonderful for planters to have heroes, but like anything else, heroes can become idols. For the planter, the idols must be shattered while the heroes still remain inspiring. If he harbors visions of grandeur, he must go through the rude awakening to get to his great awakening. He must learn that Driscoll’s context is particular to Seattle, that Keller’s context is particular to New York. Could you imagine Driscoll planting Redeemer or Keller planting Mars Hill? Each planter must stay rooted in Scripture and find how God wants to speak through him in his particular context. When that happens, you will not need to be the next Driscoll or Keller because you will be truly who the Lord Jesus Christ wants you to be as an undershepherd of his people in the church he is building for the sake of his name and his glory” (Andrew Lisi)
Also read this well-rounded article on: The Personality-Driven Life (First Things).