Feb 21, 2013

The Slippery Slope of Idolatry

Following in the footsteps of my two older brothers, I started skiing downhill when I was about eight years old. By the time I was a teenager, it had become my passion in life.

I ate, drank, and slept skiing. I got a season’s pass every year to the ski area near my family’s little cottage in Maine, and I skied every single day of Christmas and winter vacations, regardless of the weather. I skied other weekends too. And sometimes on weekdays, as I was a good enough student to skip school to ski from time to time without hurting my grades. Even my summers were, in some sense, influenced by skiing; the only reason I ever sought any sort of summer job was to earn money to ski or to buy new ski equipment. 

In high school I raced on the alpine ski team and also was in the school ski club. While by the standards of neighboring mountainous states like Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine I was a mediocre skier at best, according to the lower standards of the flatlands of eastern Massachusetts, I was pretty good. By my senior year, I was the best or second best skier on the team.

Thus, my skiing ability was a significant part of my sense of self-esteem, for I was not at all popular in high school. Although I loved competitive team sports, I was too small, weak, and slow to play organized baseball, basketball, hockey, football, or any other moderately “cool” sport. So the ski slopes were really the only place I felt like I was good at something.

As a result I was even more devoted to the sport. Or perhaps addicted was a better word. Even my decision of where to go to college was based on the proximity of campus to good skiing. I went to a college which owned its own ski area.

CONFRONTED WITH AN IDOL

Ironically, during my first week home over Christmas break of my freshman year, I broke my arm playing pickup hockey at a local rink. This, of course, prevented me from skiing that break. Then, between Christmas and New Years, I went to Urbana, a large tri-annual missions conference for college students sponsored by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. One of the speakers at that conference challenged the attendees to consider what their gods were. She spoke of our devotion of time and money, and our source of personal significance, as good indicators of what we worshiped.

As she spoke, I felt convicted that skiing had become a sort of god for me. Downhill skiing really was the object of my devotion: the idol at which I poured my time and money. And, perhaps more importantly, although I was a Christian and professed faith in Jesus, much of my sense of significance and identity came from my skiing and not from my identity as an image-bearer of God, loved by Christ.

I felt a very strong call to give up skiing. I knew, furthermore, that I couldn’t simply cut back on skiing; I wouldn't be able to. I was too addicted and needed to give it up altogether and get rid of my skis.

This was a difficult blow for me. I wrestled with God for three weeks about it, pointing out to God all the things that were good about skiing. It provided quality time with my brother. It provided an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of His creation in the great swaths of wilderness seen quite literally from the mountain top. Skiing also helped keep my body healthy and seemed like good clean recreation.  And God seemed to agree with all those points; He never said that skiing was in any inherent way sinful.

Nevertheless, He wanted me to give it up because it had become, for me, a competing god.

A BARGAIN WITH GOD

I still remember kneeling beside my bed in my dorm one morning, three weeks after Urbana, and conceding the battle. I told God that I was willing to give up skiing. But even as I did so, I still clung to one shred of hope. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that perhaps this was all merely my imagination: that I was having feelings of guilt that were entirely made up, and that God was not telling me to give up skiing. After all, God had not spoken to me with an audible voice. There had been no burning bush.

So I made a bargain with God. When I went to my knees that morning and prayed and told God I was willing to give up skiing, I told him that He would have to enable me to sell my skis for good money. Selling my skies would be both the sign that it really was God speaking and the help I would need to quit. I prayed that prayer in earnestness and sincerity, but with the hope that God would not help me sell my skis.

Fifteen minutes later, into my dorm room walked a friend of a friend visiting campus that weekend from Philadelphia. He saw the walls of my dorm room covered with ski posters and commented that he was thinking of taking up skiing. I replied that I was actually thinking of giving it up, and that my skis were for sale.

At almost exactly my height and weight, this young man was a good match for my skis. When he asked if they were good, I was honestly able to answer “yes.” We bargained back and forth on the price for each item, and fifteen minutes or so later he made a down payment and walked out of my room with all my equipment. I never saw him again, though a month or so later I got a check for the rest of the balance.

WHAT'S YOUR IDOL

As painful of a decision as it was for me to sell those skis and quit the sport, I can see now both why God wanted me to do that and also how much good He accomplished in my life through that decision. Only God deserves our worship, it is true. God also wants what is good for us, and worshiping false gods destroys us. Removing from my life one false god deepened significantly my relationship with, and obedience to, the true God.

I think we are all tempted to worship false gods. Money and prestige are gods for some. How hard it was for the rich young ruler to give up his! For others, it can be an activity, like skiing was for me. Running? Fishing? Biking? I am now a college professor, and for many students—and their parents—academic success is a sort of god. Grades take precedence over all else.

For some, that false god can be work itself. Work, of course, is a good thing. But when work becomes our idol—when we commit so much time to our job that we neglect our family, or when our ultimate sense of significance and identity is derived from what we accomplish at work and the accolades we earn there, or when the next big promotion is our highest goal—then our work has become an idol.

We need to turn our hearts and minds back fully to God. No matter what the cost.

Image by Jenny Downing. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Matthew Dickerson, author of A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R.Tolkien's Middle-earth, and a new novel due out in early 2014, tentatively titled The Rood and the Torc.

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