In our Identity study, we discuss idols—the counterfeit “gods” that we’re all tempted to put first in our lives. One thing about idols is that we often aren’t aware of the power they have over us. We start off thinking we’re in control, but the roles quickly get reversed.
The things we enjoy, we consume. And the things we consume often have a way of consuming us (food, technology, clothing). We move from enjoying them to using them for comfort and support in difficult times. Ever heard the phrases “comfort food” or “retail therapy”? Our appetites lead us to gods who offer temporary relief, but gradually demand more and more influence on our lives.
This is not just a problem before we find salvation in Christ. Writing to a group of Christians, Paul commands them to be filled with the Spirit instead of getting “drunk on wine” (Ephesians 5:18). Temptation, struggle, the desire to put our trust and hope in something or someone else—these things are struggles for Christians too. But we’re told in Ephesians 5 that the Spirit should be the controlling influence in our lives. In that passage Paul specifically contrasts that with getting drunk, but we know there are plenty of other things, in addition to alcohol, that can become those kinds of consuming idols.
“In a recent study to consider the effect of ‘super brands’ such as Apple and Facebook, researchers made an intriguing discovery. When they analyzed the brain activity of product fanatics, like members of the Apple cult, they found that ‘the Apple products are triggering the same bits of [their] brain as religious imagery triggers in a person of faith.’ This is your brain on Apple: it looks like it’s worshiping.”
—James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love
In Acts 2, God begins a new era of relating to his people when he gives the Spirit at Pentecost. And through the New Testament, we read different ways that we experience the Holy Spirit. Believers are “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14), they’re told to “walk with the Spirit” (Galatians 5), that they’re “sealed with the Spirit” (Ephesians 1) and can “grieve the Spirit” (Ephesians 4). The Spirit can even lead us where our “trust is without borders” (just kidding, that’s not from the Bible).
In Galatians 5, Paul talks about the specific fruit that God works in our lives when we walk in the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
The danger and temptation, though, is that sometimes even when we’re not walking with God, we can try to make ourselves look good. We can convince ourselves our identity is all the good things we do and the virtues we develop, even if we do it apart from a relationship with him. We can convince ourselves we are in control and everything is okay.
In a weird way, our life becomes like a Christmas tree. See, the slightly odd thing about our Christmas-tree tradition is that the moment a tree gets cut down, we’ve separated it from the soil that naturally provides resources for its growth. But we decorate it and light it up, never mentioning we’ve given this particular tree a death sentence (and I don’t recommend you bring this up at your family Christmas). We can water it through the Christmas season, but it can not really live like it’s supposed to. Trees connected to soil and water have a way of decorating themselves. Leaves and fruit provide a beauty unrivaled by gift store ornaments.
When we act virtuous without being connected to the source of true goodness, we decorate our lives with ornaments like a Christmas tree—lights may be on the exterior, but there’s no real fruit. Galatians 5 is not about the “ornaments” of the Spirit; it’s the “fruit.” Our focus should not be on producing these virtues in our lives for others to see but on staying connected to God, and letting his Spirit bear the fruit in our lives.
This summer and fall, we are posting sections of our Life Group studies on Identity and Witness (full studies available in links). In the fall of 2019, our Life Groups will focus on the theme of Wisdom.