The story is told in 1 Samuel 5, but it provides a useful metaphor for my own spiritual battle.
Disaster struck when the Israelites foolishly carried the Ark of the Covenant into the battlefield as a good-luck charm: the Philistines prevailed in the battle and captured the sacred Ark. They carried the Ark into the temple of their god Dagon and set it up there, alongside the carved image of their deity.
The next morning they discovered that Dagon had toppled during the night. They set him up again.
The next morning after that, they found Dagon not only again toppled over, but also the head and hands of the image had been broken off.
Eventually, the Philistines realized they had no business keeping the Ark, and they sent it back to Israel.
Centuries earlier, God had said to His own people: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). In Samuel’s account, God now says the same thing to the pagan nation of Philistia: don’t try to set up an idol alongside the One True God.
God says as much to us.
And I have had to learn who my Dagon is and what it means to let God topple the idol of my heart.
Tim Keller has put his finger on the essence of idolatry: An idol is any good thing that we treat as the ultimate thing.
“What is an idol?” he writes in his book Counterfeit Gods. “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.…
“An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’”
In other words, it is not the goodness or badness of the thing itself that makes it an idol; it is how I treat it, what role that thing plays in my mind and heart.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about “The Allure of Idolatry” (You can scroll down to see that blog.) In that blog post, I suggested three diagnostic questions to see whether I have inflated a good thing into an ultimate thing, an idol:
The question of my expectations: What am I trusting to protect me and provide for me?
The question of my interior life: What ideals inform my fantasies? What anxieties gnaw at the edges of my mind?
The question of my settled life posture: What is forming my habits?
And now it’s time for me to fess up, to admit what I have come to recognize as my own idol, my own Dagon that God is toppling in my heart and life.
I’ve always been a people-pleaser. I’ve always wanted people to like me. Maybe it’s because I am the first-born. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert.
Whatever the case, whatever the cause, I was that kid who always got into more trouble for what he didn’t do than for what he did. I was not the daring one who challenged authority; I was the high-achieving kid hungry for approval.
You may ask how a people-pleaser could last 40 years in the classroom. Fortunately, I learned early on that seeking the approval of my students was a non-starter. I learned as a young teacher how to grow thick skin and move ahead with my plans for my students despite their complaints and their dark speculations about my motives. I knew what we needed to do, and I took us toward that goal.
But when I left the classroom and landed in the pastorate, things changed. I quickly discovered what I call the “5:17 Principle.” In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul tells Timothy that elders are “worthy of a double honor.” I noticed right away that after I became a pastor people treated me differently, with more respect and deference. Somehow, the words “Pastor Paul” sounded so much finer than just “Paul.”
I’ve got to admit that that felt good.
And I quickly realized how easy it would be to become addicted to that kind of positive feedback from people, how easy it would be to become an approval junkie.
In other words, I recognized that my desire for approval and affirmation and validation (all legitimate desires in their own right) could become my idol:
My expectations: It was possible for me to look to human affirmation to provide the protection and provision that only God could provide.
My interior life: It was possible for me to let the drive for human approval shape my ambitions, and I could easily be dominated by a fear of human disapproval.
My ministry posture: And it was easy to imagine myself shaping my ministry practices toward that end: doing what I needed to do to earn strokes and avoid criticism.
As I contemplated what it means to make human approval my idol, I thought about how that kind of idolatry manifests itself in my heart and life. I kept a list in my pocket, jotting down things as I became aware of them. Here’s how I could see addiction to approval manifesting itself in my life:
Anxiety and insecurity
Lack of focus
Spirituality as performance art
You can see that I’ve left room for additional discoveries. What I have discovered is that sin has a way of deeply entangling itself into my life. Excising sinful behaviors isn’t a simple matter. If I may use a graphic image, I’ve come to see that cutting off sin in my life is less like amputation and more like brain surgery. It’s complicated.
It is the mercy of God that He topples our idols, that He won’t let Dagon stand alongside Him. He is ruthless with our idols because He is reluctant to give us over to our sin. If we would see it, He wants to reveal to us the pathetic hopelessness of looking elsewhere for what only He can give us.
It hasn’t been pleasant for me to admit all this to myself, but it has been revelatory. It’s been a kind of epiphany for me to recognize these toxic patterns in my heart. God’s Spirit still has a lot of work to do in rehabbing my expectations, my interior life, and my habits. But I am trusting God’s Spirit and God’s Word to carry that work to its completion.
Maybe you too are an approval junkie, and you have read all this with a kind of chilling recognition of your own life patterns.
Or maybe you are tempted to worship a different idol, some good thing that are you are tempted to inflate into idolatrous proportions.
Regardless, know this: God will not let that idol stand. He will topple your Dagon until you see the folly of trying to serve two masters.