May 17, 2015

Whose Image Do You Bear?

There are some folks who would argue that we have a real self-esteem deficit in our culture.  On the whole, people tend to think way too little of themselves.  We are made to estimate our value as being much lower than it actually is.  We see ourselves as less beautiful than we truly are.  The result of all this, the argument goes, is that most of us walk around all day doubting our worth.  We spend all our time feeling badly about ourselves.  In extreme cases some folks take tragic and sometimes irreversible steps to solve what they see as the problem.

One company has committed themselves to doing something about this.  Dove has started what amounts to a self-esteem campaign.  They want to tell people—young women in particular—that they are beautiful no matter what the culture has told them to think about themselves.  One of the projects that has been part of this campaign is called “Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches.”  The goal was to convince people that we are more beautiful than we think.  The company hired a former FBI sketch artist and had him draw sketches based on two descriptions of the same person—one from her and one from a stranger who had recently met her—without seeing the person beforehand.  The results were telling.  In each set of portraits there was a rather marked difference between how the women described themselves to the sketch artist and how a stranger described them.  In fact, look at the differences for yourself.

The point is, how we see ourselves as a result of the various cultural influences affecting this view and how everyone else sees us are not the same.  Our self-estimates are generally significantly lower than what everyone else sees.  If you want to see more of these and the documentaries that go along with them let me know and I’ll get you the website.  In any event, after watching all these and reflecting on it some it struck me that there is both truth and irony here.

The truth is that many folks , but especially women, do dramatically underestimate their own physical beauty.  A big part of the reason for this is that we are constantly surrounded by advertisements featuring “beautiful people”—people who have been photographed and photoshopped to remove any blemishes as well as to alter them (shape, size, color, etc.) in ways that have been deemed to be the most physically appealing.  The differences between real life and what gets printed are often rather dramatic.  The result is that for most of us, we don’t come anywhere close to fitting the image we see in the magazine—in large part due to the fact that it’s often almost entirely fictional.  But, because we are subliminally told over and over again that being truly beautiful means looking like the printed images to which we are constantly exposed, we mentally downgrade our assessment of not only our outer image, but our inner worth as well because we have trouble distinguishing between the two.  The irony, on the other hand, is that the company making this campaign such a big part of their brand is a beauty products company whose ultimate goal is getting you to buy their beauty products.  Sure they are billed as merely bringing out your natural beauty, but that’s just marketing.  If you’re naturally beautiful, why do you need their products?

But, while that may be the most obvious irony, I think there’s another lying behind it.  The more subtle, but more tragic, irony is this: the apparent culture-wide devaluation of ourselves is actually one of the consequences of a culture-wide tendency to overvalue ourselves to the point of making our selves the objects of our worship.  After all, because increased sales is Dove’s end goal in this, what they are really doing is attempting to elevate our self-image because when we realize our own natural beauty, we won’t need to buy their competitor’s products which are designed to enhance our beauty, we’ll just need Dove’s products which merely highlight what’s already there.  In any event, this elevation of self, this worship of self, is hardly limited to our body image.  It plays itself out all over the place in our culture.  But whatever form it happens to take, there’s a name for it: idolatry.  And for the next few weeks, I want to talk with you about it.

This morning we are beginning a brand new series called The Four S’s of Idolatry.  Before I explain what that means, let’s get a couple of definitions clear at the outset.  For most folks today, when we think about idolatry, our minds immediately go to images of ancient people bowing before statues.  We form an image like that and because it’s such a foreign concept in our Christianity-influenced culture (in other cultures that’s not the case) we immediately think: “Well that’s ridiculous!”  And we’re right.  In fact, we aren’t the first to think this.  In Isaiah 44:15 the prophet makes fun of people who worship idols: “A man uses [wood] to make a fire; he takes some of it and warms himself.  Yes, he kindles a fire and bakes bread.  Then he makes a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.  Half of it he burns in the fire—over that half he cooks meat; he roasts a meal and fills himself.  Yes, he warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm as I look at the fire.’  With the rest of it he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships it.  He prays to it, saying, ‘Rescue me, for you are my god!’  They do not comprehend or understand, for their eyes are blind and cannot see; their minds do not discern.  No one thinks to himself, nor do they comprehend or understand and say to themselves: ‘I burned half of it in the fire—yes, I baked bread over the coals; I roasted meat and ate it.  With the rest of it should I make a disgusting idol?  Should I bow down to dry wood?’”  Silly, right?

But the reality is that idolatry is a much more generalized word than that.  Idolatry is very simply a word to describe what we’re doing when we worship anything else other than God.  In light of that idolatry did not disappear when people stopped bowing down to handmade statues.  It simply took on a more culturally palatable form.  In fact, idolatry has always and only existed in culturally palatable forms.  When the ancient Israelites were being blasted by the prophets for bowing down to statues instead of actually worshiping God, bowing down to statues was culturally okay to do.  Today it’s not and so at least in this culture idolatry doesn’t take that form.  Today we’re not likely to literally bow down before anything, but we are still very much willing to more subtly put other things in our lives in the place that is supposed to be reserved for God.   Perhaps the most revealing question we can ask and answer is this: who or what is pulling our strings?  If the answer to that question is anything other than God, we’ve got an idol problem.  Now in our culture today there are all kinds of idols we could talk about, but four stand out as primary and in fact are the categories into which all the others fit: self, sex, state, and stuff.  For the next four weeks we are going to take a look at these in turn, explore the ways they can show up in our lives, and talk about why putting God first is so much better.

This morning we are going to start with the first of those: self.  This is actually a good place to start because in a sense, self lies at the core of all idolatry, of all sin.  Indeed, when the serpent convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and share it with Adam, the line of temptation it took was all about convincing them to put themselves in the place of God.  As soon as their desires became larger than Him, choosing to do what He said not to do was easy.  It was the obvious decision because we listen to whoever we’ve placed in charge.  If that’s God, we’ll do what He says.  If it’s someone else, we’ll follow them instead.  In any event, grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Genesis 3, and take a look at this with me.  Understanding how this all played out is important in understanding why it’s a flawed approach and how we can correct it.

Look at how this all played out starting right at the beginning of the chapter: “Now the serpent was more crafty [that’s sly, conniving, or dishonest, not a superlative Pat Crockett, Debbie Bishop, or Kathy Brooks] than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.”  Now, just as an aside, whether this was a real talking snake or something else doesn’t really matter to the story, but if we believe in a God who can call into existence all we see and don’t with a word why would we count a talking snake as demanding too great a strain on our credulity?  If you believe in a God who can raise the dead to life again, what’s a talking snake compared to that?

Anyhow, let’s keep going: “He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’”  Stop there again.  Do you see what the serpent did?  What had God actually said?  Look back to 2:16: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden…’”  In v. 17 He notes the singular exception to that command which was, of course, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The serpent offered the woman an exact mirror image of God’s command.  His goal was to engender a little flame of dissatisfaction that he could then fan into a roaring blaze of rebellion.  But look how he did it.  Let me read the rest of the text here for you and then we’ll talk about it.

From v. 2: “And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”  By getting the woman (and the man who was standing right there next to her) to fixate on the one thing God hadn’t given them—even though He had explicitly given them everything else—what he was really trying to do was get them to formulate the thought: “Well, yeah.  He’s right.  I should have that.  God had neither reason nor right to keep that from me.  Just look at how beautiful it is.  It’s obviously something good He’s keeping from me.”  And as soon as we start thinking in that direction it’s an effortless stroll away from this thought: “I would clearly do a better job at being God than He’s doing.  I wouldn’t keep something good like that away from my people.  In fact, come to think of it, I’ll just take His place.”  And once we’ve walked that path—which takes merely an instant in our minds—we are worshiping self.

Here’s the thing, though.  Looking at how this played out some unknown number of years ago when there were still only two people living in sinless perfection in a garden custom-designed by God makes it feel very much impersonal and unthreatening.  That was something people did back then.  We don’t think that way now.  And yet…when was the last time you wanted something you were pretty sure God didn’t want you to have and you justified it along these lines?  “If I were God, I wouldn’t keep something like this away from me.  I’ll just take His place.  I could probably do a better job anyway.”  You may not have formulated those precise words, but if you have ever made the conscious decision to do something you knew in your heart to be other than what God would have preferred (or simply that He has commanded His people not to do), that’s what happened.  You put yourself in the place of God and gave yourself what you wanted.  That’s worship.

But there’s a real irony here.  What the serpent was goading Adam and Eve to do was to increase their worth, their value, their place in the universal order.  Now, we don’t have the power to do that in an absolute sense since we didn’t actually create the world and assign the value to the things in it, but that was part of the deceit.  In any event, when we worship ourselves today we are trying to do the same thing and it really doesn’t matter the exact pathway we take to reach that goal.  It could be we have a certain physical pleasure we have exalted in importance over the things of God.  It could be we have taken to comparing ourselves to the people around us and have made being superlative to them our chief aim (whether that is in the area of possessions, body image, body type, intellect, or something else doesn’t really matter).  It could be simply a raw selfishness wherein we want what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want, with whom we want, as often as we want more than we want anything else.  Whatever fact our worship of self happens to take, though, the fundamental goal is to make ourselves God, to put ourselves in His place, to increase our value to the point that it is greater than His.

I said there was an irony in all this and here it is: When we read the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2 we discover than when God created us He made us superlative to the rest of creation.  All of creation was submitted to us as its stewards.  It was entrusted to our care.  We got to name everything (and naming implies ownership).  Even the angels fall below us in the order of creation as the apostle Peter notes.  They may bear more of God’s fearsome radiance than we do, but we alone were created in His image.  The serpent told Eve that eating the fruit would make her like God, but she already was like God.  When we are living as we should after the pattern of Christ we literally cannot be any more like God without becoming God ourselves.  But that will never happen because we’re not God and we can’t change ourselves in that sense.  The gulf of identity separating us from Him—separating everything from Him—is beyond what we could even imagine crossing.  If we try and leap over it, we’re going to fail and fail badly.  Furthermore, though, because we were already created to be closer to God than anything else, if we leap from our perch to try and reach what we were never designed to reach where do you think we’re going to land?  It won’t be back in the same high place.

Let’s push this one step even further.  Because we are so visually-driven—we assume on the value of something based on what our eyes tell us about it—when we make comparisons of our value and our beauty and our worth to the things around us, we think we come up short, sometimes a lot short.  I mean let’s be honest: I’m not as visually stunning as the sunset was this past Tuesday night.  I saw it while driving home from Noah’s ballgame and thought, “Wow!”  I’ve never looked at me and thought, “Wow!”  Follow the line of thought with me: My beauty must not compare well to the sunset.  Stay with it now.  I’ve looked at a lot of things in the world around me and thought, “Wow!”  So my value must not compare well to them.  Are you with me?

So then, when we place ourselves on God’s throne the first thing we do is to survey our kingdom.  But when we do, we see a whole lot of things we consider more visually stunning than we are.  Well, is the king or queen not to be the most beautiful—and therefore most valuable—thing in the kingdom?  What did Snow White’s wicked step-mother asked?  Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?  If we’re not the fairest we have two options: destroy what is or remake ourselves in its image.  We usually go with the latter.  And here the irony lands the hardest: When we remake ourselves in the image of something else in creation in order to be more beautiful or more intelligent or more successful or more whatever, we not only make this other thing god in our place thereby losing the very power we were trying to obtain, but we are refashioning ourselves after the image of something that isn’t the one true God whose image we were designed to bear and is therefore less glorious than we were created to be.  When we worship ourselves, then, we wind up having less glory, less power, less value, less beauty than we were created to have.  The serpent sold worship of self to Adam and Eve as a way to make themselves bigger; our culture sells worship of self as a way to make us grander and more glorious.  But the truth is that worship of self just makes us smaller.  Worship of self makes us smaller.

Makes it all seem kind of silly, doesn’t it?  We were created in the image of the God of all glory.  We were created to desire after that image, to seek it until we fully realize it and properly reflect that glory.  We were created to be the grandest created beings in the universe.  But that can only happen when we worship the one who is worthy of worship.  Worship of self makes us smaller.  So how do we beat this?  How do we drive back this idol of our culture and rise up to the glorious humanity we were created to bear?  The answer is to intentionally become what our culture defines as less.  The world may look at this move as value suicidal, but in the economy of God, less is more, and becoming less after the pattern of Christ makes us more than we could ever be by promoting ourselves.   After all, worship of self makes us smaller.

Grab your Bibles again and flip way back to Philippians 2.  Here in beautifully poetic fashion Paul lays out exactly how we beat the idol of self and become fully who we were created to be.  These words probably form the text of one of the most ancient hymns the church ever sang.  Look at what Paul writes here starting in v. 3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit…”  What are we doing when we act out of rivalry or conceit?  We are working to smash or absorb the things we consider better than us so that we can be the best.  We are acting out of this worship of self and are growing smaller all the time.  Anyway, Paul says for us to “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but…” what?  “…In humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  Now wait, didn’t I say a couple of weeks ago that humility is about having an honest self-assessment.  If we are all equal in value before God then how does acting with humility go with treating others as more significant?  Because when we are honest about and comfortable with our own value before God we can treat the people around us as more significant—even though they aren’t in reality—as a way to honor them even as God in Christ has honored us by serving us in spite of being God and therefore absolutely more valuable than us.

Speaking of that, stick with me in the text: “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  Again, more of the same, but here comes the big part in v. 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…” are you ready?  “…Who, though he was in the form of God [that is, He was God], did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [because you either have it or you don’t; as I said, we can’t reach out and take it], but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form [that is, He was human], he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Got all that?

So how do we beat back the idol of self?  How do we become fully the size God intended for us to bear rather than shrinking down to the best we can muster?  By taking on the attitude of Christ.  By holding our value and place in creation properly and fully reflecting the glory of the one whose image we were designed to bear.  By remembering that there is a God, it isn’t us, and our best bet is to do what He says.  By having confidence in who we are and from that place of confidence elevating the worth of those around us even as God took we who were made out of dirt and elevated us to the highest place in the created order.  By working toward a deep-seated contentment with who we are which naturally includes celebrating and strengthening the good while clearly identifying and purging the bad.  As we pursue all these things we will steadily grow into the self God designed us to be which is a lot bigger than anything we can create.  Indeed, worship of self makes us smaller.

In the end, the result of this is glory.  Look how Paul finishes the hymn in v. 9: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  When we worship the one who is Lord—for we are most surely not—we find ourselves with access to the very things we are seeking in worshiping ourselves.  We find ourselves able to enjoy the richness of who God is.  We find ourselves able to live within the spacious boundaries of grace.  Why we gave that up in the first place is beyond me, but if we will worship the one who is singularly worthy of it it’s ours for the enjoying.  Worship of self makes us smaller.  It leaves us with less.  God designed us for more.  Dove may have identified the disease correctly in part, but without the right prescription they’ll never solve it.  We were made to worship God.  Until we are willing to live fully in light of who we were created to be, no amount of encouragement will get us there.  Worship of self makes us smaller.  We were made for more.  Let us put away the idols of our culture and start living with the grandeur we were made to enjoy.