Allegiance to the Wrong God

May 18, 2015

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, recounts the story that took place when he was pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley (California). A very brief report of the story appears in his book The Dangerous Act of Worship (p. 64), but he shared an expanded version in a talk a few years ago:

A gentleman came to him a bit confused and befuddled, because his wife had just become a Christian. His purpose for the visit was to get the Cliff Notes rendition of the faith—“just bullet points, please”—so he could hold his own in the nightly conversation he and his wife were having. He made it clear to Mark that he was a very busy, very successful businessman who really didn’t have time for this, so “just bullet points, please” and like, right now, so I can move on to the next thing on my list. Mark resisted the urge to hand him a pamphlet or two, and instead gave an honest reply. “I can see you are a busy and successful person, so I don’t think what you’re asking for is a good idea.” The gent, frustrated, shot back, “Why not?” Mark told him, “Look, if I were to give you some bullet points, and you were to really understand them and act on them, it would totally mess up your life. You don’t really want that, do you?” The man gets credit for honesty, because he said, “No.” And he left, and Mark wondered if he had been too hard on him.

But the businessman with the Christian wife came back a couple weeks later, looking just a little more desperate and coming across a bit more insistently, again asking for a brief outline of the Christian faith. Mark again refused, saying, “This isn’t something I can pass on to you here on the church patio between worship services.” “Well then, can I come in to see you for twenty minutes this week?” Mark said, “No, I think it would require more time than that, and besides, I have to tell you, the gospel will ruin your life as you know it. Do you really want to open that possibility?”

[Do you get what Mark was doing? Without sharing the gospel—yet—he was asking questions that he hoped would help this man to recognize his first big obstacle: his allegiance and loyalty to a way of life that made no room for God.]

The very successful and extremely busy businessman came back again, and this time for an hour-long appointment. What unfolded over the next several months was the examination and reordering of his priorities, his focus, his passion, and eventually even his money toward God and God’s purposes rather than his own.

I share this story because it made a big impression on me at the time I heard it, and its challenge has rung true. It has been a long time in my own life since this radical, initial turning—the Bible calls it repentance—took place, and it is easy to forget how life-altering it is. God met me and changed me from the inside out. But keeping at the center of my life God, around whom everything else revolves, remains a struggle to this day. What does this look like in my experience?

No, I have not sculpted idols of wood, gold, or silver, like the ones rebuked in Habakkuk 2:18-20. As mentioned last time, my possessions in competition with God are more likely to be financial or electronic or gourmet. But even more central is the Other God, the fundamentally wrong one:

The self. Myself. Yourself. Ourselves. Our self has been deified when our authority for decision-making comes only from within, what I want or how I read the situation or what is to my advantage. We do this all the time; it is as natural as breathing, which is precisely the point. Our own nature—with ourselves at the center calling the shots, keeping things in our control according to our own definitions and desires—is our snake in the grass (to borrow from the imagery of Genesis 3:1).

Let’s be clear at the outset: God does not need anyone’s faith to verify his power or authority.

God does not need my allegiance in order to be fully himself, fully divine.

But I, in one sense, dethrone Almighty God in my soul when I follow the bad habits first introduced by Adam and Eve in the garden, that is, when I

  • fail to worship God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and eternal maker of the universe and my Creator, too

  • fail to acknowledge God’s superior wisdom and gracious provision at decision-points in my life

  • fail to listen to God when I get input contrary to his Word; this static is the pervasive worldview in which we are immersed that contradicts God’s intentions

  • dismiss the Word of God as not applicable because I am special, an exception to the rule

  • allow my own emotions and desires to redefine life and happiness to accommodate them

  • think only in the short-term of what I want, rather than consider the long-term wisdom of aligning myself with what God wants.

Does any of this sound familiar? My attempts to define myself as the center of the universe, the fount of wisdom, and the deserving beneficiary of freedom without limits are not just narcissistic but spiritually dangerous. This form of idolatry, reduced to its essence, is precisely what was imbedded in our nature when Adam and Eve took the first rebellious step in that direction (Genesis 3).

So what does this have to do with God? Everything! We’ll be working on this in the next few posts, but a view of self I have described is a living denial of the claims God has placed upon us. They can be summarized with these verses from Scripture:

For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods. (Psalm 97:9)

[God said to Job,] “Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

[God says to us,] “Be still, and know that I am God!”
(Psalm 46:10)

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades . . .
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)




2 Responses to “Allegiance to the Wrong God”

  1. Debbie Berkley Says:

    This is precisely where I am learning and growing the most at the moment. It used to be that when I wanted to do something, but I felt that God didn’t want me to do it, I would do it anyway, because what I wanted to do made more sense to me. But I am learning that God is never wrong (but I often am.) So now it is happening more and more that when I get that feeling, that thought that seems like my thought but isn’t, that God doesn’t want me to do what I want to do, that I think, “God is never wrong”–and I don’t do it. Learning to do what God wants instead of what I want is hard in some ways–I can feel frustrated at not doing what I want–but in other ways it’s exciting and I feel his approval, and that’s way better than my puny will, which so often turns out to be wrong anyway. You are right: allegiance to the wrong God (myself) usually leads to more problems, but allegiance to the right God leads to joy and unknown happiness down the road.

  2. Shannon Says:

    Thanks, Mary. Good and helpful reminder of the rut into which I (and probably many Christians) often slip.

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