It was John Calvin who famously wrote in his Institutes: ‘The human heart is a perpetual idol factory.’ Was he right? After all he wasn’t right on everything. In his day people believed that the Earth was the centre of our solar system. Calvin and Luther both adhered to this theory. It took some time for people to accept Copernicus’ theory that it was the Sun at the centre of the solar system and not the Earth. This reordering of the accepted view was so radical it was called a revolution. It literally changed the way we look at the stars.
Calvin and Copernicus didn’t see eye to eye on cosmology but they were both revolutionaries in their own fields; Copernicus in cosmology and Calvin in theology, at which point we put Copernicus on the shelf and dive into Calvin’s words.
The human heart, in terms of our will and emotions, has been long studied by thinkers and continues to be so today. Calvin saw it as the place where the idols of our lives are made and it is here we put Calvin to one side and open the Bible.
What is our heart like?
The most popular view of the human heart today is to see it as the place where truth and honesty live. ‘Go with your heart’ or ‘follow your heart’ is the common advice and rests on the idea that your heart is essentially a good place. But the Bible tells us something very different. ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jer. 17:9), with the following verse telling us, ‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind.’ And when the Lord spoke to Israel through Ezekiel he made it clear that it is in our hearts where we ‘set up idols’ (Ez. 14:7).
So, far from being a good place with pure motives that is free to be true to itself, our hearts are deceitful places under the Lord’s scrutiny. In the light of popular thinking about the heart today the Bible’s understanding is a revolution of Copernican dimensions.
What is idolatry?
Idols don’t come from Apple, Adidas or Audi. Nor do they originate with the Pro 14 or Premier League. Idols come from inside of us, from our hearts. Just as pain is a symptom of a diseased heart, idols are a symptom of spiritual heart disease. Idolatry is the heart disease of replacing God as the centre of all things with anything else and it is something that our sinful heart gravitates towards so naturally.
Anything may become an idol but usually it is ourselves and our longings for satisfaction and love. In doing this we make ourselves god and shut out the living God. The Apostle Paul wrote about this in Romans 1:25: ‘They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped created things rather than the Creator.’ This is serious, as Paul also tells us that this is in part why ‘the wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven.’
Because of this we see how radical the phrase, ‘Jesus is Lord’ becomes. The confession of Christ as Lord is central to any true claim to be a child of God. ‘If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9). It has to be. It is the massive and necessary shift in belief that dethrones self and enthrones Christ as the centre of our lives. This can only come as a result of God’s power working on our hearts. ‘No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1Cor. 12:3). This is the ultimate, ‘Copernican revolution’ and from this comes renewed behaviour.
Confessing ‘Jesus is Lord’ may cost us everything; career, comfort, health and even life itself. It may strain friendships, empty our bank accounts and take us far away from all that we regard as familiar and safe. But within this recentering on God there is true joy, purpose and identity. In reality it is, ‘coming home’ to where we belong and are most loved and secure.
This place of true belonging is always under threat in our hearts. They do not automatically shut down as ‘idol factories’ when we come to Christ. The recent Covid-19 crisis has shown that we are part of a culture that idolises pleasure and possessions. The things we own and the fun we crave are what Augustine called our ‘disordered loves’, that is the loving of anything other than God himself. Restaurants, pubs, non-essential shops, concerts and games are the ‘created things’ of Romans 1 that tragically make life worth living for many in Wales today. Confessing ‘Jesus is Lord’ does not inoculate you as a Christian from making idols in your own heart. We need to be alert and on our guard.
Guard your heart
I have often wondered if we are sometimes too quick to blame our sins on the devil’s temptations. ‘The devil made me do it’ becomes too easy a ‘cop out’. We must take responsibility for our own hearts and how we guard them, to feed them with the sense of God that comes from his Word and through his Spirit. Our hearts need to be captured daily with a view of the glory and kindness of Christ and not by counterfeit, lesser loves.
One growing challenge for Christians is online porn. It brings misery, shame and self-loathing to both men and women. Porn is always a heart problem and a complex problem. It exposes the ‘disordered loves’ of our hearts and often strangely our longing for love, significance and fulfilment. Porn tempts the Christian’s heart to find comfort in being turned inwards to self, instead of upwards to Christ. It is the most basic of sins, the first sin in Eden that tells the lie that true life is found outside of God. It takes a Christian to a very dark place.
But God is merciful to idolators. He calls us back to himself and to dignity and freedom, and in Jesus our Lord he makes the way back possible. Calvary is the place where ordered love is seen and may be known. This is why hope is always available for any Christian caught in the disordered love of porn. For sure there is much more to say that we do not have space to do now, but we must never forget the power of Calvary’s love to quell the darkest disordered loves in our hearts. A Christian heart captured by a big view of Jesus’ love is the happiest place on earth. Make it yours.