Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

On Sunday, Pastor El talked about the importance of Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller.

I couldn’t agree more.

Counterfeit Gods has been deeply formative for me in the Christian life. Pulling it off the shelf is like visiting an old friend.

You can read it in a couple hours, but digest it for the rest of your life.

John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories (which is why the second commandment is about idols). We tend to think idols are bad things, but often they’re not. Frequently, idols are good things that we make into ultimate things.

Tim Keller explores the idols of family, love, sex, money, success, and power. His lens is a biblical narrative where he unpacks how idolatry shapes the text. He shows how that idolatry shapes our lives. And his path always leads to our need for Jesus in the Gospel.

Idols can’t be removed, only replaced. Our hearts are always taking something and making it ultimate. Money can replace love, and family can replace money, but the need for an ultimate thing cannot be replaced. We’re always worshipping something.

Here’s a sampling of Keller’s words. I’d like to give you the whole book, but maybe this whets your appetite.

Abraham and the idol of family around the long-awaited son of promise, Isaac.
“If Isaac had become the main hope and joy of Abraham’s life, his father would have either overdisciplined him (because he needed his son to be ‘perfect’) or underdisciplined him (because he couldn’t bear his son’s displeasure) or both. He would have overindulged him but also become overly angry and cruel, perhaps even violent, when his son disappointed him. Why? Idols enslave. Isaac’s love and success would have become Abraham’s only identity and joy. He would have become inordinately angry, anxious, and depressed if Isaac ever failed to obey and love him. And fail he would have, since no child can bear the full weight of godhood. Abraham’s expectations would have driven him away or twisted and disfigured his spirit.” [1]

How do we identify our idols?
“Idols give us a sense of being in control, and we can locate them by looking at our nightmares. What do we fear the most? What, if we lost it, would make life not worth living?”

“Anything that becomes more important and nonnegotiable to us than God becomes an enslaving idol. In this paradigm, we can locate idols by looking at our most unyielding emotions. What makes us uncontrollably angry, anxious, or despondent? What racks us with a guilt we can’t shake? Idols control us, since we feel we must have them or life is meaningless.” [2]

How do we free ourselves from idols?
“The only way to free ourselves from the destructive influence of counterfeit gods is to turn back to the true one. The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and if you fail him, can truly forgive you.” [3]


[1] Keller, 15–16.

[2] Keller, xxii.

[3] Keller, xxiv.