We just got back from holiday yesterday. We had a rare old time, thanks for asking. So much so, the children were especially sad to go. We had to say goodbye to Nana and Grandad, that was sad. We realised that the end of the exceptional fun stuff that you do on a holiday was drawing to an end. It was home to the normality of everyday life in Oldham.
My son, whose two reactions to anything are either ‘best thing ever’ or ‘worst thing ever’ with little inbetween, was particularly upset. We had already enjoyed several ‘best days ever’ and now, returning home, it was the ‘worst day ever’. He wanted to stay at Nana and Grandad’s forever. He didn’t want the holiday to end and he was bitterly disappointed that it had to do so.
Now, it’s easy as a parent to focus on the moody being thrown at the point of departure. We needed to get home and that wasn’t helping. Now, to be fair to him, he wasn’t really throwing a wobbler, he was just saying (quite a lot) how disappointed and upset he was to go home. But, in reality, that reaction told me that he had genuinely enjoyed the holiday. All the days out, and the stuff we had done, had been worthwhile. If he couldn’t wait to get home, we’d have wasted our time. The holiday would have been rubbish and that would have told with his delight at leaving. But his deep disappointment in having to leave meant that the whole week had been well received. It was a wrench for it to be over.
My son’s reaction to the end of our holiday put me in mind of what our reaction to things tells us about them. When we are upset, or not upset, what does it tell us about how we feel about the thing in question?
One of the quirks of our church is that we have a reasonable turnover of people. It is particularly common for us to receive asylum seekers, pour into them, only for them to move on. It is also quite common for people to feel that loss every time and with every person who drops us like a hot potato. The discouragement is entirely understandable and grows in exact proportion to the amount of time, money and resource poured into the individual who leaves us (and the manner of their moving on). But the elders are repeatedly having to tell the church (and ourselves) that if we are not upset at the loss, it suggests we haven’t really loved the people all that well. If we aren’t bothered when people move on – especially those whom we have poured into – it tells us that we didn’t really care for them at all.
The inverse is true too. I remember somebody asking the following question: if you could go to Heaven now, or live a really happy and fulfilled life here on earth and then go to Heaven, what would you say? The questioner suggested that many of us would opt for the latter. That, he averred, was something of a problem. If we are happy enough to stay here, and not go to Heaven (should that, somehow, be offered to us legitimately) rather suggests one of two things. Either, we love the world a little too much or we don’t value being with the Lord as much as we ought (or, a bit of both). That’s not to force a slightly gnostic tension. It’s not to say that the world isn’t to be enjoyed and that the Lord’s good gifts to us should really be shunned (I’m all for enjoying God’s good gifts – go nuts!) But if we don’t see the ultimate value of Heaven, and being with the Lord, then it would be a bit like my son shrugging his shoulders after our holiday. We just don’t care that much about it.
Now, some would want to argue that my son’s reaction (and our similar one to other things) suggests we may have made an idol out of whatever the thing is. I’ve got to say I’ve never been wholly convinced by that sort of explanation. I think it is a rather too simplistic view of idols and doesn’t account for the genuine value of things. If I’m seriously upset at the death of my wife, for example, that doesn’t suggest my wife was an idol to me; it suggests that I love her deeply. If I shrug and say ‘oh well’, what sort of love is that?
Of course, we may have placed an inordinate (or, subordinate) value on the thing in question. Having the same reaction to someone swiping the bag of sweets I was going to eat as I might when my wife dies is not a legitimate response. It might well show that I really love those sweets but that is a bizarre value to put on something so small. Again, it doesn’t necessarily show that I have idolised my sweets; just that I love them more than I should. I may well love them considerably less than the Lord (so not an idol) but it is an overblown reaction for what it is. It is a problem of value. But to value my wife that way is entirely appropriate – I should love her like Christ loved the church, after all. I’m not called to place that value on much else.
What our reaction tells us is not (necessarily) whether we have idolised something. It tells us whether we love something or not. That love may or may not be disordered. We have put an overly large value on a thing that is, at heart, not all that valuable at all. But often, we are valuing things rightly. We’re not putting them in the place the Lord occupies, but just as the Lord commands us himself commands us to love certain things, we love them rightly. And so we show the right level of disappointment and upset when we don’t have them. Not the disappointment and upset of a smashed idol; the disappointment and upset of losing a thing that was rightly loved to begin with.
So, when people leave your church, you should rightly be disappointed and upset. To not feel that way is to not have loved them rightly. When your spouse dies, to not feel disappointed and upset is to have not loved them rightly. To go bananas at someone taking the last biscuit off the plate at church is to place a ridiculously high value on something utterly trivial. The question isn’t whether you have made something an idol (that is a different question for a different day with other means of gauging it), but have you valued and loved rightly?