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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Article by David Garner

Truth and Idolatry: Call Discontent What It Is

March 9, 2015 •

This article is the fourth and final piece in a four-part series entitled "Truth and Idolatry." Read part 1, "I Am Not an Idol Worshiper," part 2, "Call the Gospel What It Is," and part 3, "Call Theological Error What It Is."


At the memorial service of a dear friend of mine nearly 20 years ago, a sibling of the deceased stood up and affirmed his brother’s integrity. “Mark believed the gospel and he lived the gospel. What you saw in public, I saw in private. Mark did not lead two lives, but only one. He loved Christ Jesus and followed him with all his heart.” I knew Mark well. His brother was right. He was not perfect. But even his repentance evidenced this purifying love of his Savior.

My father used to tell me that “integrity is doing what is right when no one is looking.” Where there is integrity, there is no deceit. Where there is integrity, there is no hypocrisy. Where integrity dwells, what one says aligns with how things really are.

In 1 Timothy 6:3–10, the Apostle Paul calls the Church to theological integrity: undivided commitments to uncompromised truth. Where Gospel integrity dwells, what one believes aligns with how things really are. And how are these things? Precisely as God has spoken.

For this reason, as we saw in Part 1 of this series, the apostles of Christ Jesus call for unqualified fidelity to their message. The apostolic message is the Lord’s message and bears all the authority and truthfulness of Christ Jesus Himself. This divine message concerning Christ Jesus calls for whole-hearted belief and commitment. Jesus’ identity and ministry, as proclaimed by the apostles, calls us to yield our minds, our wills, our hearts, and our lives. Anything less lacks integrity. Anything less leaves us in the dark of unbelief.

As we saw in Part 2 of this series, we must call the gospel what it is—God’s truth. Part 3 provided a corresponding necessity for gospel integrity: we must call theological error what it is—unbelief and rebellion. But there is one more.

Some of us may have glided pretty comfortably over the previous points. No where do we see ourselves in the idolatry profiled. So far so good. But the Apostle Paul is not finished! At the close of this passage, Paul moves from the critique of false teachers to a disturbing and revealing X-ray of our hearts.

Having exposed the slimy connection between theological error and godless pursuit of gain, in 1 Timothy 6:6–10, the Apostle shifts the probing camera upon our souls, and writes a probing commentary on the implications of the tenth commandment (see Exodus 20:17).

To get to this final and convicting consideration, let us hear again from the Word of God:

“[3] If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, [4] he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, [5] and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. [6] But godliness with contentment is great gain, [7] for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. [8] But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [9] But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. [10] For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:3-10)

Held Hostage

Paul writes this letter to his son in the faith, Timothy. But to be clear, the warnings here come not only to his understudy, and not only to other teachers and preachers in the Church of Jesus Christ. The Apostle warns of incremental idolatry in the hearts of all: teachers and students alike. Idolatry takes hostage all it can.

It can seem so innocuous: wanting what we don’t have, wanting out of where we are, or longing for certain comforts, if not luxuries. With subtle fury in the depths of our hearts, discomfort wearies us and exposes us to a distorted view of our situation. In no time, longings for respite from our circumstances maliciously and deceptively trump the truths of the gospel. How? By dissatisfaction. With almost negligible ease, discontent settles in and finds home in our hearts. And it is such discontent that Paul flags as idolatry!

Behind the embrace of this idolatrous discontent is the trivialization of our desires. Implicit here is a stern warning against treating illegitimate, godless desires as no big deal. In such belittling of sin we deny Christ’s voice. We cling to false beliefs, false teaching, and false views of reality. Our dissatisfaction distorts clarity; it robs us of integrity; it betrays our idol worship. Putting it otherwise, discontent of any kind reveals displeasure with God and distrust in the goodness of the gospel. Stray longings displace our souls from their place of gospel satisfaction and security.

To put it starkly, wanting what we don’t have is an express denial of Jesus! Wanting something else that we don’t have is a declaration from our hearts that Jesus is simply not enough.

The wandering heart will hunt for a theology that feasts its insatiable appetite for self-satisfaction. The admonition in 2 Timothy 4:3­–4 exposes this propensity for doctrine defined by our own ingratitude for Christ and his Word: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” The discontented soul will hunger for the food of false teachers, because it drips with appeal.

Note well that the locus of the problem is not the bank, but my soul. Money is not the root of all sorts of evil; love of it is.  As James puts it, sin is conceived within the core of my being (James 1:14).

What’s the Big Deal?

Idolatrous lures issue a sneak attack. False teachers use gospel-sounding words. They speak a form of Christian-eze that offers a persuasive-sounding ease to my soul. The empty rhetoric of false teaching usually does not become clear until after we are already addicted, and by that point, our spiritual stupor tears down our theological senses. By then false teaching no longer seems so bad, and the empty pleasures have so infused our souls that we find it unnecessary, even unfruitful, to turn away.

Yet the clarion call of the Lord Jesus sounds deeply and widely to his people, here and now. What we read, what we watch, and what we listen to tell much about us. Where we spend our money tells much about us. What occupies the color-blocks on our Google calendar tells much about what we value. What do my hobbies, entertainment preferences, expenditures, and time allocation say about my theology? My integrity? My idolatry? Allowing gospel light to shine in all these places will surely call me to repentance.

We must take the Pauline admonition seriously. Even baby steps away from the pure trust in the pure gospel of Jesus Christ make us guilty of idolatry. Incremental idolatry charmingly attunes our hearts to empty truths, to sweet sounding errors, and to attempted justification of all our guilty pleasures. Tiny compromise is comprehensive integrity failure.

So what’s the big deal? What’s a little step in the direction of self-centeredness? What’s a little acceptance of theological fuzziness? What’s so bad about a little tolerance? What’s so harmful about a few harmless words to satisfy our longings for comfort here and now?

The big deal is that incremental idolatry is still idolatry. The big deal is that incremental idolatry chills our heart toward Christ and warms them to the hollow pontifications of unbelief. The big deal is that a failure to treat our ungodly desires as ungodly turns our hearts away from the Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The big deal is that such tolerance of idolatry opens the broad pathway of unbelief: “through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Call It Like It Is

People of God, gospel integrity calls us to call the gospel what it is—the truth of God. We must call theological error what it is—rebellion and unbelief. But for the sake of gospel integrity, we must also call discontent what it is—idolatry.

St. Bernard (the medieval theologian, not your neighbor’s pet) put into verse a helpful, pressing, and recalibrating call to our wandering hearts:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee, Thou art good,
To them that find Thee, all in all!

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountain-head,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill!

The Apostle John echoes the Apostle Paul: “Little children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). Harsh or awkward? Maybe at a cursory glance. Loving and faithful? Absolutely! Relevant? Painfully and poignantly so.

Let us then repent of our idolatrous ingratitude and thirst afresh for the Living Water and take our fill of the Living Bread.

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