This is the Tim Keller book I’ve been waiting for. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Penguin, 2009) is an incisive treatment of modern-day idolatry. Building upon his address at the 2009 Gospel Coalition conference, Keller peers into the inner recesses of the heart to expose the hidden idolatries that hold us captive.
Keller’s book stands out among other books on idolatry because of the way he goes beyond superficial expressions of idolatry to the root issues of the heart. Our hearts are idol-making factories that make good gifts from God ultimate in our lives, thereby replacing God in our affections. He writes:
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” (xvii)
How can you identify these insidious idols? How can you tell if you are worshipping a counterfeit God? Keller says:
“A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” (xviii)
Counterfeit Gods includes the obvious idols of money, sex and power. But Keller spends time treating idols that most Christians would fail to discern: doctrinal accuracy, religious communities, political activism, and even traditional family values.
Keller not only exposes our dependence upon these idols; he exposes the failure of idols to bring lasting satisfcation. All idols ultimately disappoint us. All idols ultimately enslave us. The results of idolatry are ironic:
“…When human beings try to become more than human being, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings.” (121)
Over and over again, as I made my way through this book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement at Keller’s analysis. But my desire to “amen” the thoughts in this book could only come after multiple prayers of “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Counterfeit Gods convicted me of hidden idolatries in my own life.
Just when you think you have gotten rid of the idols in your life, Keller brings up additional places where idolatries lurk, places you would have never thought to look. The church is one such place. He writes:
“Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god….their trust in the rightness of their views makes them feel superior.” (131)
Churches sometimes turn spiritual gifts and ministry success into a counterfeit god:
“Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ.” (132)
No wonder we so often fail in our Great Commission efforts. Sometimes, the results we label “success” are the very idols eating away at our hearts.
Counterfeit Gods is a terrific book that leads the reader to desperation and then to the cross. This book would lead to despair if not for Keller’s constant drawing us back to the gospel – what Christ has accomplished for us idolaters.
The good news is that there is good news. The counterfeit gods are mere parodies of the one true God who has come to conquer our idols and restore us to himself.