‘The dearest idol I have known’

It’s a funny thing how just one passing thought can change our perception. I can’t remember where it was (a Travelodge I think), but a few weeks ago I mused on the line of this well-know hymn:

O for a closer walk with God

and came to a different conclusion. Probably nothing new. And you might well wonder how come it took so long to see it.

In our better moments we do long for that closer walk. And we do lament having a ‘closer walk’ in times past but not so much now and so we also say with Cowper:

Where is the blessedness I knew

Unless you are a Christian, and have experienced that closer walk, you won’t have a clue what I’m on about. One of my favourite hymns expresses it as ‘one transient gleam of loveliness divine.’ (Anonymous; from Stockwell Gems)

A Christian can live for a very long time on ‘one transient gleam‘ such is the power of ‘loveliness divine.’

In verse five then of Cowper’s famous hymn we have these words:

The dearest idol I have known’
whate’er that idol be,
help me tear it from Thy throne,
and worship only Thee.

(William Cowper, 1731 – 1800)

Just the other day in our prayer meeting we heard of the various idols that even as Christians we have. I’ve always thought of it in that way. The many idols we have. But not anymore. Of course we do have idols a plenty, and Calvin, I think quite rightly, describes the heart as an ‘Idol factory.’ (See below) But if you think of a factory, someone is usually in charge. I’ve worked in factories (on the shop floor) making stuff so I know the production process.

I’ve no idea if Cowper had this in mind when he wrote that hymn, but I do think he could well have. What is the dearest idol? That is singular. Could it be a car, money in the bank, a career, health, or the many many other things in our lives? No, I don’t think so.

The dearest idol is me. I’m on the throne. And I need to get off it.

So the factory analogy: I’m in charge and I produce stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. My factory is very efficient. And there is lots of overtime available. But my factory has a new owner now. Remarkably, the new owner gives me a lot of flexibility. I get to make a lot of decisions. But it’s not my factory anymore and we make a different product now.

And Cowper is right, we need God’s help to tear it down. Not only can we not do it, we don’t want to do it either. We like being in charge. If you’ve not been a Christian very long I have to tell you the struggle to tear self from the throne is a lifelong struggle. It ebbs and flows. I’m not very good at it. Anyone who has been a Christian for a long time will tell you it is so. Telling you otherwise is a lie.

The overwhelming sense that I have as an ’employee’ of the new owner is of gratitude. Or it should be. And in my better moments it is. What a gracious and wonderful owner he is! Usually employees don’t get to visit where the owner lives and there’s a strict boss employee relationship. But not with this owner. This owner makes you part of his family and eventually you get to live in his house, with him – forever. Maybe I’m talking like a madman, but it wasn’t easy for the factory owner to make it so. His own Son had to die in order for me to be part of the owners family. And even though he knew I would still try and be in charge – he still did it. Why? No idea. But he did. It isn’t a boss employee relationship anymore – it’s family now.

The old owner was a tyrant and let me do whatever I wanted and made me think it was my factory. But it wasn’t. He was in charge all the time really. The old owners only real aim was destruction even if it seemed like all was well. It isn’t well if that’s you. As Paul puts it:

Tit 3:3  For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray (AV has Deceived), slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
Tit 3:4  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
Tit 3:5  he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
Tit 3:6  whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
Tit 3:7  so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

The Lord has diagnosed the problem:

Jer 17:9  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

We know this to be true. And yet, ‘Christ died for the ungodly.’ (Rom 5:6) Will you not come to Him? (Matt 11:28)


Like many of you, perhaps, you’ve often heard the Calvin quote where he said the heart is an ‘Idol factory.’ Sometime ago I decided to find it. So here’s the quote:

Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.‘ In modern parlance, a factory.

If you’ve ever worked in a factory it’s a brilliant analogy. The mind is in constant production – it never stops. Just a little further down the same page Calvin says this:

‘The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth.’

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Henry Beveridge), Book 1, Chapter XI, Section 8. p.97, Volume 1, Wm B Eerdmans publishing, 1997.

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