Counterfeit Gods (Dutton © 2009) is another in a series of books by Pastor Timothy Keller that makes you think. It’s not a perfect book—there’s only one of those—but it is a powerful book that sometimes painfully exposes the counterfeit gods in our lives. We all have them, whether they’re money, sex, success, status, power, or even our sanctimonious moral rectitude.
Keller was a bit of a maverick growing up. He passed through a couple of denominations and spent some time outside the organized church before being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Upon ordination he set about to establish a church in New York City. His friends thought he was crazy and no one gave him any hope for success, but he ignored them and established Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. On a typical Sunday, Redeemer has more than 5,000 in attendance! Although an orthodox Christian, Keller makes no secret of the fact that he is a political liberal.
I have purchased and given away many copies of his excellent apologetic, The Reason for God. If you are a doubter or have friends who doubt the existence of God then be sure and read this book.
Counterfeit Gods is a plainspoken book. For instance, in his chapter titled, “Love is Not All You Need,” which discusses making your spouse your idol, you will find this simple summary…
“If you get married as Jacob did, putting the weight of all your deepest hopes and longings on the person you are marrying, you are going to crush him or her with your expectations. It will distort your life and your spouse’s life in a hundred ways. No person, not even the best one, can give your soul all it needs. You are going to think you have gone to bed with Rachel, and you will get up and it will always be Leah. This cosmic disappointment and disillusionment is there in all of life, but we especially feel it in the things upon which we most set our hopes.”
In another chapter titled, “Money Changes Everything,” Keller writes…
“According to the Bible, idolaters do three things with their idols. They love them, trust them, and obey them. ‘Lovers of money’ are those who find themselves daydreaming and fantasizing about new ways to make money, new possessions to buy, and looking with jealously on those who have more than they do. ‘Trusters of money’ feel they have control of their lives and are safe and secure because of their wealth.”
Keller follows up this observation with an absolute truth…
“God’s salvation does not come in response to a changed life. A changed life comes in response to the salvation, offered as a free gift.”
This is, of course, the essence of the Christian faith that our salvation comes as a free gift brought about by God’s only son, Jesus, dying for us on the cross for our sins. It’s free to us, but was very costly for God.
In his chapter titled, “The Seduction of Success,” Keller says…
“More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance.”
He goes on…
“If your success is more than just success to you—if it is the measure of your value and worth—then accomplishment in one limited area of life will make you believe you have expertise in all areas. This, of course, leads to all kinds of bad choices and decisions. This distorted view of ourselves is part of the blindness to reality that the Bible says always accompanies idolatry (Psalm 135:15-18; Ezekiel 36:22-36).”
In the chapter titled, “The Power and the Glory,” Keller observes…
“We can look upon our political leaders as ‘messiahs,’ our political policies as saving doctrine, and turn our political activism into a kind of religion.”
As one who has been involved in politics for many years, I would agree that this is completely true. Politics offers no ultimate answers. But Keller, due to his political bias, gets a bit off track with his equivalencies and facts in this section of the book. They are minor, but still worth noting.
His basic premise is absolutely true, politicians, no matter whether left or right or Republican or Democrat often make political success their idol, their god. Where I believe the book goes a bit off the rails is when he endeavors to draw a moral equivalence between liberalism and conservatism in America. While both sides come in for some justifiable criticism for making political victory their god, the fact is that the American left has strayed so far left that their ideology has little which resembles the limited government view of the Founders. The Founders who signed the Declaration of Independence were, by a wide majority, followers of Jesus and students of the Bible. They understood the corrupt nature of man and that any concentration of power would lead to those in power using it to control the lives of American citizens.
While Keller criticizes politically concerned Americans for acting out of fear, these are indeed times to be fearful of those who seek a powerful, centralized government. Indeed, our Founders would be fearful if they were alive today.
Keller rightly condemns the tyrannical dictatorships of the left that committed unspeakable atrocities in the 20th century—the National Socialist Party (NAZI) and the Communist Party. However, he ignores the possibility that such a threat could and perhaps does exist in the United States today. Somehow his justifiable condemnation of dictatorships from the past still does not let him see similar threats from the present time.
Moreover, in a chapter about power, he fails to recognize contrast between liberalism and conservatism. While liberals seek increased power over the lives of individual American citizens via a more powerful government, conservatives seek less power by reducing the reach and scope of government. After all, the conservative goal is constitutional, limited government with equal justice for all, and a strong national defense. In stark contrast, liberalism seeks an expanded role for government over the lives of American citizens, intentionally distorts the meaning of the Constitution, and is quick to ignore any law with which they disagree.
Where is the moral equivalence between a party that advocates the original sin of seeking to be like God by gaining power over the lives of others and one that seeks less control over the lives of others? It is the failure of liberalism to understand the sinful nature of man that leads them down the wrong path. It is the mistaken belief that man’s nature can improve and become more benevolent if only they have power.
Indeed, while there are those on the left who are well-intentioned, it is the following observation by Keller, in my opinion, which accurately describes the failing of a far left ideology that ignores the law, seeks glory, accumulates power, and suffers from an overblown pride of intellect.
“One of the great ironies of sin is that when human beings try to become more than human beings, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings.”
This is the reality that Dietrich Bonheoffer realized too late in Germany and which threatens all civilized peoples. No civilization is free from the threat of a dictatorship. There is evil in the world.
Ronald Reagan defeated the “evil empire” because he recognized it as evil and he used the might and power of the United States to bring the Soviet dictatorship to its knees. But just as with Presidents, Democratic and Republican before him, he did not use American power and might to gain power over people or to expand American territory. Instead he extended the hand of freedom and peace to the long enslaved people who had long suffered under the heavy yoke of the Soviet dictatorship.
Keller also suffers from a factually incorrect but common impression that American liberals are compassionate. Bleeding heart liberal is intended to characterize the compassion of political liberals in America. Unfortunately the facts tell a different story. Keller would do well to read the book, Who Really Cares, by Arthur C. Brooks.
Evidence of real compassion is how much an individual volunteers his or her time to help others and how much they personally give to help others.
Based on that measurement, the truly compassionate in America are, according to research of Professor Brooks, Christian conservatives. Indeed, Brooks began work on his book with the assumption that it is liberals in America who donate their time and money most generously to help others. He was shocked to learn that it’s simply not true. While there are liberals who donate both their time and money to help others, according to the surveys conducted by Brooks…
“Religious people are far more charitable than secularists; and religious people are disproportionately political conservative. Conversely, relatively uncharitable secularists are especially likely to be liberal.”
In short, the term, “compassionate liberal,” is an oxymoron.
Nevertheless, in spite of this shortcoming, I still endorse and encourage you to read Counterfeit Gods. This is a serious book that will make your shoes pinch. I have counterfeit gods and yes, you do too.
As Keller points out, there are even counterfeit gods that exist within the religious community…
“Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace.”
Keller ends with the accurate observation that everyone has counterfeit gods. He says,
“The human heart is indeed a factory that mass-produces idols.
“In Romans 1:21-25 Saint Paul shows that idolatry is not only one sin among many, but what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.—Romans 1:21, 25.
“Paul goes on to make a long list of sins that create misery and evil in the world, but they all find their roots in this soil, the inexorable human drive for ‘god making.’ In other words, idolatry is always the reason we do anything wrong. No one grasped this better than Martin Luther. In his Large Catechism (1529) and in his Treatise on Good Works he wrote that the Ten Commandments begin with a commandment against idolatry. Why does this come first? Because, he argued, the fundamental motivation behind lawbreaking is idolatry. We never break the other commandments without breaking the first one.”
I’m just like everyone else. I put many things before God. I have my own multitude of counterfeit gods. It’s hard to turn loose of them. My use of time and my patterns of spending reveal my idols. How about you?
The question is: What will I do about it? What will you?