It’s been said you can tell a pastor who reads and one who does not. Either way a pastor may faithfully share the truths of law and gospel and well proclaim Jesus as the Savior from sin, but a pastor who reads? His thoughts are fresh and he doesn’t just regurgitate the same arguments, maxims, or illustrations. It is easier to listen to him, and that is beneficial for his people.
It is something I struggle to do as a busy parish pastor, which explained my interest in Counterfeit Gods by Pastor Timothy Keller. The book is summarized as follows.
“Success, money, true love, and the life you’ve always wanted. Many of us placed our faith in these things, believing they held the key to happiness. The recent economic meltdown  has cast a harsh new light on these pursuits. In a matter of months, fortunes, marriages, careers, and a secure retirement have disappeared for millions of people. No wonder so many of us feel lost, alone, disenchanted, and resentful. But the truth is that we made counterfeit gods out of these good things—gods that can’t give us what we really need. There is only one God who can wholly satisfy our craving, and now is the perfect time to meet Him again, or for the first time.”
In this description I hoped to encounter a book that would sharpen my teaching of law and gospel for my flock of young, hardworking Americans. The book also appealed to me as it rings in at an easily digestible 177 pages, and small pages at that. Finally, although its author is outside of our confessional Lutheran purview, I generally trust the source. Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of Manhattan, NY. (This church is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is to the more liberal Presbyterian Church USA somewhat like the WELS to the ELCA.) In a day and age where mission plants often focus on glitz, glamor, and the third use of the law, Keller appears to distinguish himself with a more careful use of what we might call law and gospel. It is good to read this book with discernment, but it is helpful to know that this is the starting point.
“Counterfeit Gods” is just another way to talk about idolatry, but I found the distinction useful since many people associate idolatry with statues and think it is not a temptation into which they fall. In his preface Keller defines idolatry as, “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” (xvii). Already in the preface I found what I had hoped to get out of this book: Keller’s writing is of the sort that can color my own preaching and teaching. As an example of this, consider Keller’s description of the counterfeit god “beauty” that many of us ugly men do not understand:
“Each (culture) has its shrines – whether office towers, spas and gyms, studios or stadiums – where sacrifices must be made in order to procure the blessings of the good life and ward off disaster… We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image… Physical beauty is a pleasant thing, but if you ‘deify’ it, if you make it the most important thing in a person’s life or a culture’s life, then you have Aphrodite, not just beauty.” (xii)
Keller uses chapter 1 to explore the root problem of sin behind idolatry. He employs the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, he uses it to talk about how even great blessings like children can become counterfeit gods, and he emphasizes Jesus as the substitute that is needed. In connection with this, Keller describes a woman from his own ministry (Anna) who desperately wanted children, struggled to have kids, was finally blessed with two children… but then became so obsessed with giving them a perfect life that she fell into despair whenever they failed. It is a microcosm of Keller’s approach throughout the book. He employs a law-gospel homiletic with historical-grammatical hermeneutic, and he speaks from personal experience and with a pastoral heart. The following quotation demonstrates how capably Keller weaves this all together:
“There (was) an underlying issue that (had) to be confronted. She must be able to say in her heart, ‘My desire for completely successful and happy children is selfish. It’s all about my need to feel worthwhile and valuable. If I really knew God’s love—then I could accept less-than-perfect kids and wouldn’t be crushing them. If God’s love meant more to me than my children, I could love my children less selfishly and more truly.’ Anna had to put her ‘Isaacs’ on the altar and give God the central place in her life.” (14)
The remaining chapters focus on different categories of counterfeit gods. Each chapter includes a contemporary example of the idol in discussion, a more specific example from Keller’s ministry, and an in-depth look at a Bible story that features this malady. In every case Keller ends by showing how Jesus fills the deep need that each counterfeit god uncovers. I will proceed by sharing excerpts from these chapters with you so that you may determine whether your preaching and teaching would benefit from this book.
- Chapter 2 (“Love is Not All You Need”) – A description of how Jacob’s love for Rachel became an idol that would create future problems for their family: “’Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her…’ the Hebrew phrase is unusually bald, graphic, and sexual for ordinarily reticent ancient discourse. Imagine saying to a father even today, ‘I can’t wait to have sex with your daughter. Give her to me now!’ The narrator is showing us a man overwhelmed with emotional and sexual longing for one woman. Why? Jacob’s life was empty. He never had his father’s love, he had lost his beloved mother’s love, and he certainly had no sense of God’s love and care… he must have said to himself, ‘If I had her, finally, something would be right in my miserable life. If I had her, it would fix things…’ Our fears and inner barrenness make love a narcotic, a way to medicate ourselves, and addicts always make foolish destructive choices. That is what had happened to Jacob. Rachel was not just his wife, but his ‘savior.’” (26-27, 33-34)
- Chapter 2 (“Love is Not All You Need”) – A story of one of Keller’s parishioners, who had struggled with relationships for years: “One day Sally told me how she got her life back. She went to a counselor who rightly pointed out that she had been looking to men for her identity, for her ‘salvation.’ Instead, the counselor proposed, she should get a career and become financially independent as a way of building up her self-esteem. The woman agreed wholeheartedly that she needed to stand on her own two feet economically, but she resisted the advice about finding self-esteem. ‘I was being advised to give up a common female idolatry,’ she said. ‘But I didn’t want to have my self-worth dependent on career success any more than on men. I wanted to be free.’ How did she do it?… She came to realize that neither men nor career nor anything else should be ‘her life’ or identity. What mattered was not what men thought of her, or career success, but what Christ had done for her and how he loved her. So when she saw a man was interested in her, she would silently say in her heart toward him, ‘You may turn out to be a great guy, and maybe even my husband, but you cannot ever by my life. Only Christ is my life.’” (46-47)
- Chapter 3 (“Money Changes Everything”) – The insidious nature of greed: “Nowhere is this slavery more evident than in the blindness of greedy people to their own materialism. Notice that in Luke 12 Jesus says, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.’ That is a remarkable statement. Think of another traditional sin that the Bible warns against—adultery. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Be careful you aren’t committing adultery!’ He doesn’t have to. When you are in bed with someone else’s spouse—you know it. Halfway through you don’t say, ‘Oh, wait a minute! I think this is adultery!’ You know it is. Yet, even though it is clear that the world is filled with greed and materialism, almost no one thinks it is true of them. They are in denial.” (57-58)
- Chapter 4 (“The Seduction of Success”) –Naaman’s method to get healed of leprosy: “Naaman expected to get his cure through letters of high recommendation from one king to another king. He thought he could use his success to deal with his problems… He pulls strings, drops names, spends a lot of money, and goes to the top. This is the way you deal with all important human beings, so why not deal with God this way? But the God of the Bible is not like that. Naaman is after a tame God, but this is a wild God. Naaman is after a God who can be put into debt, but this is a God of grace, who puts everyone else in his debt.” (83,85)
- Chapter 5 (“The Power and the Glory”) – How the root idolatry of one of Keller’s members expressed itself through different outward forms: “James’s pattern was to seduce a woman and, once he had sex with her, lose interest and move on. When he embraced Christianity he quickly renounced his sexual escapades. He became active in Christian ministry. However, his deep idol did not change. In every class or study, James was argumentative and dominating. In every meeting he had to be the leader, even if he was not designated to be so. He was abrasive and harsh with skeptics when talking to them about his new-found faith. Eventually it became clear that his meaning and value had not shifted to Christ, but was still based on having power over others. That is what made him feel alive… His power idol took a sexual form, and then a religious one. It hid itself well.” (111-112)
- Chapter 6 (“The Hidden Idols in Our Lives”) – A description of idols that are not so easy to overcome: “There is legitimate guilt that is removed through repentance and restitution, and then there is irremediable guilt. When people say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,’ they mean that they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to them than God’s. Idols function like gods in our lives, and so if we make career or parental approval our God and we fail it, then the idol curses us in our hearts for the rest of our lives. We can’t shake the sense of failure.” (149)
In summary, I got exactly what I hoped to get out of this book. I found Keller’s writing to be enriching for my preaching and teaching. Unexpectedly, I also learned much from his biblical examples, and the book would be worthwhile simply for Keller’s excellent grasp of the historical and cultural background of the following accounts: Abraham & Isaac (chapter 1), Jacob & Rachel (chapter 2), Zaccheus (chapter 3), Naaman (chapter 4), Nebuchadnezzar (chapter 5), and Jonah (chapter 6). I plan to consult this book the next time I address any one of these narratives in a sermon or Bible study.
If you enjoyed these examples, I would recommend this book and also Timothy Keller’s more famous works, The Prodigal God & The Reason for God.