The Idolatry of the ‘Perfect’ Past

Some of you may be tiring of my incessant Screwtape inspired ramblings, and you are forgiven for those feelings. But allow this one last dalliance through The Screwtape Letters and the creative genius of C.S. Lewis. I’m pulling my thoughts from letter seventeen where the sly demon Screwtape describes an elderly woman who is manipulated by a demon named Glubose. Screwtape mischievously writes:

“The woman is in what may be called the ‘All-I-Want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friend who can do these things ‘properly’—because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatable pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as ‘the days when you could get good servants’ but known only to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table. Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled.”

Lewis imaginatively strikes upon the demonic tactic of encouraging humans to idolize the past and trivialize the present, which jeopardizes the future. I call it the idolatry of the perfect past. This can be actualized in dozens of little ways. For some, it is manifested as a longing for a better time that actually never existed. We, humans, have a tendency to remember things through the fuzzy lens of what we wish they had been. This often obscures the painful realities of the distant past and ignores the fact that we too have changed. If you don’t believe me, imagine living without heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

Undoubtedly, some things were better in the past, but they certainly were not perfect. Furthermore, different doesn’t always equal bad in the same way that new doesn’t always equal better. In essence, what we call perfection is usually a preference or a philosophical proposition. And there’s nothing wrong with having preferences unless our preferences become an idol.

Lewis speaks of an elderly woman who can’t enjoy food or fellowship because she perceives that nothing is prepared as perfectly as it was in the ‘good old days’. This may or may not have been the case. But her sin had nothing to do with her preferences, she had a right to those opinions up to a point. Rather, her sin was realized in the resulting mistreatment of the people around her due to her displeasure with the present. In other words, her idol made her ‘ill-tempered’. Beyond that, idolatry had blocked her vision so effectively she was incapable of recognizing the good or even—dare I say—the better things of the present.

Nasty temperament is the primary way you can tell that a preference has become an idol. Let’s take this discussion to church for just a moment: If you can’t worship in a service because your favorite song from yesteryear wasn’t featured you’ve probably turned the past into an idol. And, if it makes you mad and ill-tempered check your spiritual temperature because you have a fever. And, if you just threw your computer across the room its time to pray through. Now, having said that, you might be right! The new song you don’t like might not be as good as the old song you do like. We all have preferences, partialities aren’t the problem. However, if we can’t enjoy the good things or —dare I say—the less good things of the present because of the past we are in serious trouble.

I feel compelled to pause and state clearly that I love many things from my past. I even love things that predate my lifespan by hundreds of years. For those of you who might be wondering, I am not a hymn hater. In fact, I’m an old soul. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I have all kinds of preferences that go unmet on a regular basis, in and out of church settings. Let’s be honest, my preferences are better than your preferences. I’m just kidding. The point being, I’ve learned not to elevate my preferences above unity and personal relationships. The only exception to this rule is when my preferences are properly aligned with God’s Word and someone else’s preferences violate Scripture.

Let’s stir the pot and complicate the conversation for a moment: there are other similar types of idolatry that are equally dangerous. Brad Titus capably identifies one as The Idolatry of the Future. In this variation, peace can never be found in the present because something better is always in the future.

There is yet another variant, I call it the ‘idolatry of the present’. This mindset idolizes the new, the current, the ‘latest thing’ above all else. It marginalizes the past and robs the future of the depth and richness that can only be found in a healthy reverence for the good things of the past.

Young people who carry this idol exacerbate ‘the idolatry of the past’ within the hearts of elders. Their derision for the ‘old fashioned’ inflames reactionary passions. Meanwhile, those suffering under the miserable weight of ‘future idolatry’ sit around and long for better days that always seem just out of reach.

As you can see, disunity and strife are the real demonic agendas behind these three particular brands of idolatry. When saints elevate petty preferences above maintaining right relationships with people; churches become war zones rather than houses of worship. And, when people idolize what lies ahead nothing of value is accomplished in the present.

We smash these idols by honoring the past, celebrating the present, and embracing the future. This can be done. It must be done for the sake of unity and revival. Thriving churches honor the past without living there, celebrate new things that are good, and intentionally prepare for the future. 

“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient. In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).”

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Heroic Leadership – 10 Lessons

Like most little boys, my son is fascinated with superheroes. Maybe that’s why I’m writing an article about the parallels between leadership and ambiguous fictional superheroes. For the most part, I’m critical of pop culture. However, the cultural fascination with fictitious superheroes (it’s a multi-billion dollar industry) is interesting from an anthropological perspective because it demonstrates that people have an innate desire to see good triumph over evil in spectacular fashion.

People are fascinated by the idea of a super savior that defeats evil and overcomes extreme obstacles. From here I could launch into a diatribe about the disturbing trend towards the cultural celebration of “bad guys” winning, and the glorification of evil, but I’ll refrain.

Oddly enough, fictitious superheroes often instigate seemingly innocuous conversations with my son about very deep topics. For example, the reality of good and evil, the importance of doing the right thing even when it’s hard, doing what’s right even when everyone is against you, and how to be a leader. That might sound silly to you, but those are things I want my son to take seriously.

During one of those “deep” conversations, it dawned on me that most people want to grow up and be heroic. Sadly, age and the strains of real life have a way of tainting that desire if we’re not careful, but the desire is there somewhere. And that brings me to the topic of leadership. Ask any good leader and they will tell you that they were drawn to leadership because they wanted to help people. This is never truer than in the case of pastoral leadership. Godly ministers desperately want to see people saved. That’s our number one goal. I recently spoke with the CEO of a billion-dollar medical device company and I asked what drew him to the industry. His answer was typical; he wanted to help people.

Obviously, there is an evil side of the leadership coin. Those are the Hitler’s, Stalin’s, false prophets, and wolves in sheep clothing kind of leaders. But I’m writing to the “good guy” leaders today. The ones who desperately want to make a difference and truly help people. But maybe leadership isn’t everything you thought it would be. Maybe leading has left you feeling more and more jaded. These ten “superhero” inspired leadership lessons are for you.

  1. Heroic leadership is a lonely business.

Heroic leadership will often cause you to be misunderstood and mistreated. Doing the right thing means swimming against the current of popular culture and failed methodology. Heroic leaders must be prepared to endure times of loneliness and isolation.

  1. Heroic leadership is a dangerous business.

When you shine a light on evil, expect evil to retaliate. When you challenge the status quo, expect the status quo to retaliate.

  1. Heroic leadership is often a thankless job.

Everyone wants to be appreciated. Everyone wants to be respected, but heroic leadership does not lead for accolades. Heroic leadership leads to help people. Jesus spoke of avoiding the pharisaical spirit that does good deeds just to be seen (Matthew 6:1-16). Heroic leaders don’t need a pat on the back to keep doing the right thing.

  1. Every heroic leader has an inner villain.

In the biblical sense, this is the epic struggle between the Spirit and the flesh. Even heroic leaders have inner struggles and temptations that constantly threaten to overthrow righteousness. Our villainous nature must be crucified every single day or it will gain dominance in our lives.

  1. Every heroic leader has a super-nemesis.

It’s tempting for heroic leaders to view wicked people as the enemy, but this is not the Christian worldview that God wants us to hold. We don’t wrestle with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). There is a super villain named Lucifer who is the arch enemy of everything that is good. Knowing the source of evil is paramount if you are going to effectively combat evil.

  1. Every heroic leader has unshakable core convictions, values, and drive that sustains and propels them against overwhelming odds.

Heroic leaders have solid principles that are unchanging. Genuine righteous values don’t shift with circumstances. Adversity exposes cowardly leadership. Cowardly leadership sacrifices values on the altars of convenience, popularity, and self-preservation.

  1. At the end of the day, heroic leaders take off the mask and look like everybody else.

Heroic leaders wear a mask of professionalism. Heroic leaders can’t be everybody’s buddy or best friend, they are leaders. I know the big buzz word these days is “real”. Everyone is talking about being real, authentic, and genuine. Some of that is good. I get it. But often, just being “real” is code for lack of composure. Heroic leaders aren’t fake or plastic, but they do maintain composure, high standards, and a work ethic that sets them apart from others.

But when heroic leaders get home they are tired and human just like everybody else. They need genuine connections, love, and relationships. They need interaction with their family and close friends. Heroic leaders must learn to let down their guard at home or risk alienating their deepest, most important relationships.

  1. Heroic leaders aren’t trying to be heroes.

There’s a difference between being a wanna-be hero and simply being committed to doing what is needed, necessary, and right. Heroic leaders are like David when he saw Goliath intimidating the entire army of Israel. David wasn’t trying to be a hero when he faced Goliath, he just couldn’t stand by and let evil win.

  1. Heroic leaders always have a kryptonite that the enemy will try to exploit.

Even heroic leaders have a weakness (or two, or three). Knowing what your kryptonite is and learning how to deal with it is critical.

  1. Heroic leaders sometimes lose their way, but they face their failures and make things right.

In the quest to do right, heroic leaders sometimes lose focus or let the ends justify the means. They falter, they fail, they miss the mark, they err, they misjudge. That’s because they are human beings. However, heroic leaders know how to say, “I was wrong.” They learn how to say, “I’m sorry.” They face their failures and own their mistakes. They don’t shift blame or pass the buck. Owning and correcting mistakes is one of the most heroic things a person can do.

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Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome

Officer Jason was excited to be a part of the task force commissioned with retrieving Suzie who had been kidnapped out of a Supermarket when she was only 8 years old. Now five years later they believed they knew exactly where she was being held captive; a small house on the edge of a sleepy California town. They watched the house and waited until her captor stepped out onto the front porch for a smoke.  He was on the ground and handcuffed without incident within a matter of seconds. Officer Jason’s heart pounded with pride as he stepped into the house anticipating emancipating Suzie.  His thoughts raced to the inevitable tear-filled reunion between Suzie and her loving parents, who had been inconsolable these past five years without their little girl. The house was filthy and filled with an odor so pungent that his eyes began to water; as Jason crossed the living room he suddenly found himself staring down the muzzle of a revolver; Suzie was holding the gun and her eyes were full of worry with a tinge of rage as well. “Where’s my Edward?” she screamed! “What have you done?” she sobbed! And then she pulled the trigger.

Thankfully Officer Jason was wearing his vest that day. He recovered quickly from the bruised rib, but Suzie is still struggling to recover from a terrible condition known as Stockholm Syndrome.

STOCKHOLM SYNDROME (sometimes referred to as Capture Bonding) is a psychological phenomenon where hostages identify with, become emotionally attached to, and sometimes even fall in love with their captors. They often defend, protect and develop strong emotional connections with their abusers. Victims of abuse such as battered wives, battered girlfriends, children, concentration camp survivors, and prisoners of war often suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Sadly, people like Officer Jason have learned the hard way that victims of Stockholm Syndrome will resist the rescue, they will fight against salvation, and they will protect their abusers. It’s tragic! It’s heartbreaking! And many never fully recover from the psychological damage that lingers in their lives even long after the physical captivity is over. They are physically free but emotionally bound.

I see evidence of SPIRITUAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME all around me. We know that Satan has come to kill, to steal and to destroy (John 10:19). His mission is total domination of your soul. He wants your soul as a trophy for Hell’s mantle place.  He knows what his fate will be, but he also knows that every tortured soul breaks God’s heart. So he roams like a silent assassin, a quiet killer; looking to bring you into captivity (1 Peter 5:8). He knows better than to present himself as your enemy. No one would willingly open up their front door to a thug or a kidnapper. Instead, he presents himself as a friend, a protector, a savior, a helper, or even an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) if needed. He morphs into whatever it takes to bring your guard down. He’ll tell you whatever you need to hear in order to manipulate your actions and dominate your thinking. He’ll separate you from everything that can truly help you, and everyone who truly loves you. He’ll twist your mind until you’re not sure what’s wrong & what’s right, what’s up & what’s down, what’s real & what’s not. Until you call right, wrong and you call wrong, right (Isaiah 5:20).

We’ve all witnessed victims of SPIRITUAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME who were so confused, they actually believed the thing holding them captive and destroying their life was their dearest friend.  In dramatic cases, we see the drug addict who thinks they can’t live without another hit.  The alcoholic who can’t make it without “just” another sip. The gambler who can’t resist playing away his kid’s college fund.  The promiscuous person who lives for another cheap thrill. But those are only the obvious cases. Many others suffer silently from Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome; they’re held captive by false doctrines, fooled by faulty teachers, drained by evil philosophies, and clinging to false promises made by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Satan is a master of deception and subtlety. When he approached Eve in the Garden he seemed friendly, familiar and caring. He disguised himself as a leader who cared more about her well-being than God did. He just wanted her to have a good time. He just wanted her to meet her full potential. He just wanted her to be free.  In reality, he was setting the world up for pain, and death, and sin, and evil beyond Eve’s ability to comprehend.

Satan is not your drinking buddy, your partner in crime, your small-time pot dealer, or your local pimp; Satan is the incarnation of evil.  He’s worse than your worst nightmare, and the only thing that he hates more than you is the God that made you. His only goal is gaining total dominion over your soul. Hell is not a party boat, a late night club, or an afterlife playground. Hell is not a curse word or a descriptive term for your bad day. It’s a real place of eternal judgment. Captivity there will be final. There is no escaping Hell once Satan gets you there. Hell will make your worst day on earth seem like a lazy summer afternoon.  In Hell, God’s mercy will no longer restrict Satan’s evil. In Hell, the blood of Jesus will no longer set the captive free. In Hell, salvation will not be available.  But if you’re still breathing that means you still have access to freedom.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, Jesus had a fascinating exchange with the crowd that he was teaching that day. He had just made an impassioned statement of hope and deliverance by declaring, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).” Their response was an indication of full-blown Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. They said, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free (John 8:33)?” First of all, they had been and still were in a form of physical bondage (they were under Rome’s thumb). They were hostages in their own land. But beyond that, they were certainly in spiritual captivity. The religious leaders of the day had distorted the law into something that it was never intended to be, and sin was running rampant amongst God’s elect. Their response was as arrogant as it was ignorant. But Jesus was undeterred by their blatant Stockholm Syndrome. He ignored their denial and responded, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house forever: but the Son abideth forever (John 8:34-35). Sin is a cruel taskmaster who often masquerades as a friend. We fall in love with the hostage taker and attack our savior. Isn’t that exactly what they did to Jesus when they screamed crucify him and hung him on a tree? Thankfully, the jubilant words of Jesus are just as true today as they were when he first said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed (John 8:36).