Preaching and teaching in the heart of Manhattan, Tim Keller is no stranger to the allure of money, sex, and power. In Counterfeit Gods (Dutton Adult), the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church shows how these good gifts of God become idols. CT online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey asked Keller how Christians can grow more aware of the temptation to bow down to these and other false gods.
How should Christians think of money, sex, and power?
All three are vying to be counterfeit gods in our culture because the living God is, culturally speaking, no longer much of a factor. In the Christian community, they shouldn't be calling the shots. Richard Foster wrote a book on money, sex, and power, which offered a good understanding of how a Christian view of society differs from the world's. His book was about how to do it in Christian community. I'm trying to do a cultural analysis, using the category of idolatry, to help Christians see how they get sucked in.
What makes these three so enticing and difficult to control?
We tend to worry about drugs, drinking, and pornography. But it's not bad and nasty things that are our biggest problems. Sex, work, and money are great goods. They are intrinsic to our being made in God's image. If God is second place in your life and one of them is first, you're cooked. These things are candidates for first place because they are so great. I'm not saying, "Let's move out to the desert and pray and read our Bibles."
Do Christians have blind spots when it comes to false gods?
An idol is something you rely on instead of God for your salvation. One of the religious idols is your moral record: "God accepts me because I'm living a good life." I'm a Presbyterian, so I'm all for right doctrine. But you can start to feel very superior to everyone else and think, God is pleased with me because I'm so true to the right doctrine. The right doctrine and one's moral record are forms of power. Another is ministry success, similar to the idol of achievement. There are religious versions of sex, money, and power, and they are pretty subtle.
How does someone identify their idols?
Look at your daydreams. When you don't have to think about something, like when you are waiting for the bus, where does your mind love to rest? Or, look at where you spend your money most effortlessly. Also, if you take your most uncontrolled emotions or the guilt that you can't get rid of, you'll find your idols at the bottom. Whenever I hear someone say, "I know God forgives me, but I can't forgive myself," it means that person has something that is more important than God, because God forgives them. If you look at your greatest nightmare—if something were to happen that would make you feel you had no reason to live—that's a god.
How do we get rid of idols?
I confess that I don't say much about that. Practicing spiritual disciplines is another book. I do say that analyzing and recognizing an idol is a step away from its power over you. You also have to have a heck of a prayer life. That prayer life can't just be petitioning. There has to be encounter, experience, and genuine joy. You have to have Jesus Christ increasingly capture your affections.
Is it necessary to suffer disappointment before seeing that idols don't satisfy?
I fear you may be right. I don't want that to be true. Very often it's much stronger than disappointment. It's hard for me to look at a young person and know what their idols are, because usually something has to happen in their life to frustrate them for them to see that something has inordinate power over them. No one learned about their idols by being told about them.
What's your next project?
A book on suffering, which I'm hoping will be out next November. I'm planning to draw more on being a pastor than being an apologist. I'm trying to write a book every year during this last part of my career.
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Previous articles on Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian include:
How Tim Keller Found Manhattan | The pastor of Redeemer Church is becoming an international figure because he's a local one. (June 5, 2009)
Tim Keller Reasons with America | The New York pastor explains why he's taking his ministry model on the road. (June 20, 2008)
New York's New Hope | From inner-city gardens, to fine-art exhibitions, to political activism, street-smart churches are changing the culture of America's largest and most dynamic city. (December 1, 2004)
Manhattan Ministry a Year Later | "As of September 2002, weddings, counseling, and courage in demand" (November 18, 2002)
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