Idolatry: Signs We’ve Turned a Good Thing into an Ultimate Thing
“Home Row”—a podcast for writers on writing—is my favorite podcast. I’ve listened to every episode, some of them a few times.
The host is pastor and author J.A. Medders. Last summer, he asked listeners to send him questions about writing; I sent him several. One question was related to idolatry. I phrased it like this,
How do we keep the pursuit of writing well from becoming, as Tim Keller says, a good-thing-turned-into-an-Ultimate Thing? In other words, what is God-honoring pursuit, and what is sinful?
And what are the signs we might have crossed the line into idolatry?
On Episode 29, from around 2:30 – 15:00, Medders was kind enough to answer the question, especially the second part, in which he identifies five signs a writer’s pursuit of excellence might have crossed the line into idolatry.
Medder’s gave me permission to share a lightly edited version of his answer. I want to share this with you, not only because I found it helpful, but because I think his response applies to many more careers than writing. Whether you are a janitor or construction worker, a teacher or student, a stay-at-home mom or a lawyer, all of us can turn a good thing into an Ultimate Thing. So, when you read the word “writer” below, or you read some other detail related to writing, insert something from your own profession. Medders says,
[The idolatry question] is a really important question for us as writers because we don’t want to sin in our writing. We want to honor Christ as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10—whatever we do, whether we are eating or drinking [we do all to the glory of God]. So this matters. Whether we are hitting on the keyboard or writing in a journal or working on a church blog. Whatever we are doing has got to be to the glory of God.
[But I mainly] want to go at the second part of the question, “What are the signs we might have crossed the line into idolatry?”
The first dangerous warning sign would be [related to] identity—wanting to be known as a writer, wanting that to be the signal of our life, wanting other people to view us as a writer. The chief identity we should rest in is that we are now children of God. I want to remind myself that I am a child of God more than I am a writer, more than I am anything else in my life, even more than I’m a pastor.
You are not your writing. You are not your puns. You are not your metaphors. Your writing is not your life. The same for your talents or anything like that. Paul tells us in Colossians, “When Christ who is your life appears . . .” (3:4). I love that he talks about Jesus that way. When Christ who is your life. We know that the triune God goes by many names . . . Jesus also has several names too: Christ who is your life, it’s one of his nicknames.
We need to see that Jesus is our life, and his righteousness, and his accomplishments. And not what we’ve done and haven’t done and will do or what we are trying to do. Christ is our life.
If God gives you the opportunity to have an article up on a website that you’ve been hoping would publish you, or if you have a book someday, that’s great. But that is not your life. That is not an identity that you want to rest in, the sign you want over your life.
What you want, really, the sign that was hanging above the cross of Christ: This is the king of Jews who is being crucified for you. [You want to know] that you’ve been crucified with Christ, and it’s no longer who you live, but Christ who lives in you.
As Medders continues, he discusses how disappointments in life often show us where we are really placing our trust, which was helpful for me to hear after my recent round of rejection letters.
So much of life comes back to identity, and you can really tell you have an identity crisis when things don’t go well—when you get a rejection letter and when your writing isn’t getting the traction that you hoped it would. . . It’s okay to be disappointed if something didn’t work out, but if rejection is consuming, if it’s crushing, if it leads to anxiety or depression or these kind of things, then we know we have an identity problem when we care too much about wanting to be known as a writer . . .
We are not writing to grow a platform. We are writing to serve others. We are writing to serve the local church. We are writing not to serve our namesake, but Gods. As the psalmist says, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory” (115:1).
In addition to discussing a shift in identity away from Christ, Medders adds four other signs that we might have crossed over into idolatry. He mentions,
- When you’re always networking but not building friendships.
- When you shirk other responsibilities (i.e., work, home, or school).
- When your personal Bible reading becomes less about pursuing godliness and more about the search for something to write.
- When you are unable to receive correction from others.
Again, with perhaps the exception of #3 about the co-opting of Bible reading, I believe his answer speaks to far more than just writers. As I wrote in a post for Desiring God, all of us need to keep re-affirming that the defining reality of our lives is not in our marital status, nor where we live, nor in children, income, vocation, looks, education, or popularity. Rather, our chief identity is this: Jesus Christ loves me and gave himself for me. You are not your writing. You are not your puns. You are not your metaphors. You are Christ’s, and he is yours.
If you’re looking for a great podcast, especially if you’re a writer, I’d encourage you to check out his show. Most of the episodes are interviews with authors. Recent guests include, Helen Sword, Roy Peter Clark, Dan DeWitt, and Tim Challies.
BOOKS BY MEDDERS