Suburban idols: The grass really is greener, until its not

During the application section of my Memorial Day sermon “I just died in your arms tonight,” I shared a picture of a God-centered life by letting folks in on my personal idolatry and how it was exposed, dealt with, forgiven, and redeemed.

The idol was something I never thought about being an idol. Now of course, as Tim Keller reminds us in Counterfeit Gods, it was only a surface idol (such as money, sex, relationships, family which we use to get what the heart really wants like power, fame, respect, approval, comfort, meaning, hope, etc…..). But surface or not, I never thought that my yard could become an idol. I just have never cared about my yard before. At my first house, there just wasn’t any grass, so I couldn’t do too much about it. But now its different. The grass is literally greener on this side. At least most of it. The sprinklers became overtaken by the St Augustine grass and stopped popping up. By the time I got around to do anything about it, the luscious green turned to brown on my side yard.

But to me what is so surprising is not that I had fallen prey to a suburban idol (after all, we chose this area because we are more suburban than urban), but that something I put so little time into, had become an idol. Sometimes you can identify your idols by looking at how much time you spend on them (when it becomes inordinate or causes you to cut corners or sacrifice more important things/relationships), but simply looking at the amount of time spent doesn’t reveal one’s heart. One could spend much time on his yard and it not be a surface idol, a means to gain approval from others and so justifiy himself/herself. It could be a good passion. It could be way to love the neighbors. It could be a good stress reliever.

Idolatry isn’t always that easy to spot.

I had no idea that I cared so much about my yard. Remember I’d done nothing but have it treated, mow it, run sprinklers, and try to edge it every so often. After a stressful evening, I completely blew a gasket. Not pretty. My wife Amy asked me, “What are you really mad/worried about?” Several hours later the Spirit revealed to me that I was relying upon my yard for approval. Now that it didn’t look good, I could no longer neighborly approval as a means of justification. It was my anger (not the amount of time) that revealed the presence of the surface idol (yard), and then the Spirit via some reflection and prayer which  revealed the real and deeper idolatry (approval).

Now I’m still going to try and fix the sprinklers. I’m going to try to edge more often. So I will (I hope) spend more time in the yard than before. But the motivation now is to love my neighbors by doing the best I can to have a decent looking yard. But when the sprinklers go out, or a new chinch bug invasion happens, and it doesn’t look its best, I’ll know if the yard has become a way to serve and love others or if it is just a means to gain approval from others.  My reaction or rather over-reaction will reveal what I truly cherish.

Yet the trickiness of idolatry also reminds me of the beauty of the gospel. Not only is my sin covered, but I no longer have to operate in such a legalistic fashion based upon time but instead upon the heart. There is no magic rule for how much time I spend doing X. I really love the freedom in that.


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