“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Augustine, Confessions).
“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées).
Certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. . . . Therefore speak to them and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.'” (Ezek. 14:1–5)
The new hearts we have in Christ are yet-to-be-perfected hearts, and when God is functionally “not enough,” our anxieties and fears take over; then we go on the hunt for designer gods and pseudosaviors. What does this look like?
At the beginning of Ezekiel 14, we get to eavesdrop on a fascinating conversation that took place between the prophet and God. Here’s the back story: Instead of showing and telling God’s story of redemption to the nations, Israel had progressively been drawn into the worship of the gods of the surrounding nations.
Israel’s drift into idolatry didn’t happen because the people became bored with the liturgy of their temple, enamored with the music of the worship bands in pagan temples, or impressed with the oratory of the new Canaanite prophet who had just moved into the neighborhood. No one in Israel went looking for a new worship service, but for new gods to service them. The center of their worship shifted from God to themselves. They began to worship worship more than they worshiped God—that is, their relationship with God became utilitarian rather than doxological.
When the glory of the one true living God is no longer our principal passion in life, worship becomes a pragmatic vehicle for fulfilling two basic quests in life: provision and protection. Instead of living for God’s glory and looking to Him to meet our needs, we exist for our glory and look for gods who will meet our demands.
How does God respond? Three phrases jump out at me in this pivotal passage—each of which highlights just how tenaciously God loves us in Christ and how relentlessly He pursues our hearts’ affection.
God’s Lament: “These men have set up idols in their hearts.”
We are quite capable of setting up physical idols anywhere. But whether it’s a golden calf in the courtyard or a new car in the driveway, the main real estate of idolatry is the heart. The works of our hands and the words from our mouths are simply the overflow of what’s gong on in the sanctuaries of our hearts. God’s cry, and command, to us is always, “My son, give me your heart” (Prov. 23:26). He will have our hearts, because God alone deserves our hearts.
God’s Promise: “I the Lord will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry.”
Though His patience is limitless, God’s love for His people moves Him to act powerfully and, if need be, painfully. How does God answer us in keeping with our idolatry? God allows us to taste the often destructive consequences of trusting idols. Only when our idols fail us will we begin to understand the futility and insanity of idolatry (Isa. 44). Idolatry carries a blinding and binding power. Only a power as great as the grace of God can possibly cut through the delusions and destroy the entrapments of idolatry.
God’s Hope: “I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.”
As I have been led, and at times dragged, into the process of gospel transformation, few words of hope have meant more to me than these. Why does God make life painful for us at times? Why does God often write stories we would never pen; observe a time line we would never choose; and answer our prayers in ways that feel like He is rejecting us? He gives us His answer: “I will do this to recapture the hearts of My people, who have all deserted Me for their idols.” No one loves us like God does in Jesus—even if it takes a Babylonian captivity to convince us.
God’s jealousy for our love is the greatest compliment He could ever pay us, but it’s also the costliest gift He could ever give us. It was costly to God because it required the life and death of His Son; it is costly to us because it means God’s love will never let us go. That can get very disruptive and messy. Sometimes we proclaim, “Nothing will ever separate me from the love of God,” not fully realizing everything implied. The God of love will not tolerate our love of idols. Hallelujah, and brace yourself.