Surgery is conducted in order to save. The goal is removing something bad, fixing something good, making something right. The end in mind is health. However, the process is painful. Before healing comes hurting. The surgeon cuts. We see God acting as surgeon in the life of his people in the Old Testament:
Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds (Hos 6:1).
Calvin rightly pointed out that the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols.” This isn’t just a problem “out there,” but is a problem wherever humans dwell—including Christian schools. So we need a surgeon to remove the idols growing from our hearts.
Thankfully, the Word of God is a sharp scalpel in the hands of a Great Physician. But before we can get to the surgery, we need to complete the diagnosis.
Tim Keller asks and answers a key question to get the ball rolling: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Many Christians, perhaps especially those serving in Christian schools, would say that nothing is more important to them than God. However, our words might not align with reality. I once heard (and have echoed) a teacher who said that we can take inventory of what we care most about by examining how we spend our time, money, energy, and emotions. We can’t just follow our words; our actions might lead us more readily to the truth.
A good case study in this regard is politics. Political identification/division in the USA has grown in recent years. While it is not wrong to be involved and invested in the political process, finding our ultimate identity in politics is not right. William Wilberforce can serve as an illustration here of living out Christian faithfulness in the political sphere. He worked in the political system to bring out change for the glory of God and the good of people. So politics is not bad, but, as Keller said elsewhere, idolatry can come from turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. So let’s make this personal (I know that’s a little dangerous in regard to politics). Leaning on some ideas from Adam Mabry’s book, Stop Taking Sides: How Holding Truths in Tension Saves Us from Anxiety and Outrage, here are a few questions that might help us think about whether or not engagement with politics has become an idol:
- Are we more conservative/progressive (in a political sense) than we are Christian?
- Do we invest more time into political ideology than biblical theology?
- Do we pay more attention to political happenings than the biblical text?
- Can we evangelize for a particular political stance more easily than we can for Christ?
- Can we quote a political leader more smoothly than the Bible?
- Do we relate more easily with others in our political party than with other Christians in a different political party?
- Do we get more passionate about politics than the gospel?
Now, the point here is not to get into a long discussion on politics. Instead, it is to use politics as a case study to help us see how things can easily become ultimate things: idols. These idols could be relationships, hobbies, money, entertainment, reputation, family, and more. Notice that none of these things are necessarily bad on their own.
Students become like their teachers (Luke 6:40). So what do my students see in me? Do they see me investing more energy and time and thought and passion into things other than knowing God and his Word? Do they see my identity as a child of the living God or as something else?
How do we graduate good future-spouses? Excellent employees? Ethical leaders? Compassionate, principled politicians? Kind friends? We teach them the Word. Then God uses the Word to bring about change in them. John Piper says it like this:
Give yourselves to this word of God in the Bible. Use it to know yourself and confirm your own spiritual life. If there is life, there will be love and joy and a heart to obey the word. Give yourself to this word so that your words become the word of God for others and reveal to them their own spiritual condition. Then in the wound of the word, pour the balm of the word.
Piper is talking about surgery—the wound of the word. In order to serve our students best, we need idol-removal surgery. This idolectomy will be painful. It will require us to change. It will require us to repent. It will hurt. But it will be good.
The first of Luther’s 95 Theses says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
I know that I need to repent of making good things into ultimate things. I need God to remove my idols. And I am praying that God will do it for all of us. And I am praying that our students would see Him change us so that they see that we don’t build our identity on politics, relationships, finances, or any other earthly thing. They need to see us repenting so that they can learn to repent. They need to see us building on the rock rather than the sand so that they can learn to build on the rock as well. They need to see that God is a powerful Surgeon who “injures us” and “binds up our wounds” (Hos 6:1).
And how does He cut? With the sharp Word (Heb 4:12). Our identity must be shaped by the Book. It is the scalpel in the hand of God.