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August 15, 2008

The Fine Line Between Passion and Idolatry

If I say, "vegetable farm," do you think, "passion"? My friend Michelle does. She's a P.R. consultant to a prominent company, and her husband is an engineer. But responding to God's call, they're trading in their jobs and corporate incomes to take over her family's vegetable farm. She loves whole foods, natural living, cooking ? a perfect fit. It's a great example of how God can use and work through our passions for his purposes.

In The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren defines passion as the "bundle of desires, hopes, interests, ambitions, dreams, and affections you have? what you love to do and what you care about most."

Our passions are customized gifts to us from God. We feel alive and fulfilled when we engage in them. And through them, we meet and revel in God. When we embrace our passions and live them out well and to God's glory, we display him to the world. And conversely, ignoring or minimizing our passions disserves God, ourselves, and the people in our lives.

But what about when we O.D. on our passions?

As fallen humans we are very prone to this, and as Americans perhaps even more so - since our culture believes anything worth doing is worth doing bigger, faster, and more often.

Overdosing on our passions leads to idolatry. The average Christian knows that idolatry means elevating something to the status of God, and that she should stay away from it. Beyond that, she is apt to give it little or no thought.

I've realized, though, that a concrete grasp of how idolatry plays itself out in life is actually pretty important. Two practical approaches to personalizing idolatry that I've encountered and found insightful are:

1.Tim Keller says: Where does your mind usually go during down time, or when you're tired or lonely or frustrated? What do you turn over in your head to make you feel better or pass the time? That thing is apt to be, or eventually become, an idol to you.

2.Mark Dricoll asks: How would you define your own personal hell? Being fat or poor or bored or single? To what do you look to prevent you from living in this hell? Whatever it is, that thing is acting as your functional savior. It is the primary thing you sacrifice your time, money, attention for, and ultimately the thing you worship.

Idolatry is a big deal. In a sense it's the only deal, because if we live for something other than God, we can't have him in our life. He won't tolerate it, as he states unequivocally in the first commandment. So when our passions turn into idols, we live with a doubly destructive consequence: first, that we're trying to fulfill ourselves and derive our purpose through something that can never deliver, and second, that we're cut off from attaining true fulfillment and purpose because we've lost relationship with God.

The tricky part is walking the line between embracing our passions and becoming idolatrous. It's a fine line. We want to throw ourselves into the gifts, dreams, and ambitions God gave us. We want to steward our passions well and make something of them - make God proud! And we should. But going too far is crossing into idolatry and spells disaster, so discipline and vigilance are critical. And most critical is a continual surrender of our passions back to God to do with what he chooses.

My family spent time on this line recently, when my husband was offered a desirable job that meant relocation. An outdoorsman of outdoorsmen, he couldn't have been better suited to life on our 20-acre New England farm with wandering cows and sheep. God had put us on the farm, and it was our dream spot. But what now of the new possible job? With the offer, passion and potential idolatry raised parallel heads, and only my husband could sort out where God was leading.

We've all walked this line at some point. We'll walk it again, too, because God is seeking "true worshipers" (John 4:23), and only this wrestling can reveal our hearts to ourselves and to him. Will we live passionately, meeting God in and reflecting him through the passions he's put in us? But too, will we ensure that all our passions are ever subordinate to our consuming passion for him?

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Since being in a Bible study this summer about the current idols in our lives, this has been very helpful in regards to helping me ask the right questions while I wrestle with what's a passion in my life and what's an actual idol (like my hobbies, my daily conveniences, my family, even myself). I've been asking God to reveal the idols in my life, and I like that you use the word "wrestle" because it is very apropos to the journey towards becoming "true worshipers" of God.

What I “love to do” and what I “care about most” are not often in balance it seems. In some seasons of our lives, we are called to put energy and effort into things that “matter” over things that are “enjoyable.” The two sometimes intersect in a way that we can be doing what is most important to us AND enjoying ourselves, but sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes, I think we have to give up some of our passions. We have to forego some of what makes us feel important, special and talented - particularly if we feel this way because of glory, fame or fortune. Attention from others is a strong motivator, but we should also be able to feel important by doing things that are not glamorous or attention-getting if they truly are things that “matter.”

We need to ask God to help us choose what matters most. It may not be clear to us that what we do out of fear or for social acceptance can become what matters most - and ultimately our idol. We might not realize what matters most to us is something that should not matter to us at all.

I am a stay-at-home mom. I am fortunate in that my husband has a job that provides our family with financial security. It isn’t easy being a one-income family, but having our kids cared for in our home and not by strangers is what matters most to us.

One of the perks of my stay-at-home mom status is that I am passionate about being a mom. I have had to adjust the specific ways that I do the things I love – for instance swapping out oil painting with finger painting or hiking up mountains with walking on woodland trails. What is most important to me now, in this season, is the company I keep while I am doing what I love.

When a season brings with it responsibilities that put your passions out of balance with what matters most to you, ask God to help you choose the things that matter most - and to help you be passionate about them. Try to find the pleasure in the things you feel you have to do – even if you don’t feel like you enjoy doing them. See if there are new things that you can be passionate about until you can get back to what you think you love to do most. Who knows, you may find that you love your new passions more than your old ones!

Excellent treatment of this subject, Susan. As someone who is fortunate enough to experience the alignment of passion with God's plan for my life, it is so important that I keep it all in God-perspective. I have been fortunate, I guess, to see my parents struggle with placing their God-given passion and talents above God. When planting and harvest season starts, they put God on a back-burner of sorts. Sure they still pray actively but almost all fellowship with believers and Church attendance is non-existent. By late July/August, they are completely burnt out and not effective in hardly any aspect of their lives. Its hard to witness but I am looking at it as a lesson to heed, and heed well. Balance and moderation in ALL THINGS - even the one's you are passionate about, and sure that God has placed in your heart. Idolatery is a very big deal and I for one want to live like there are NO OTHER GODS but the ONE, true giver of life, love and the passionate pursuit of all good things.

Great article. I will be glad when we are with Christ we no longer need to worry about this. I have had jobs that I have not liked and I absolutely DO NOT want to walk down that path again. Incidently it was linked with an abusive church situation and I'm not going to fall for that again.

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