How careful we are about where we live, which career we pursue, which relationships to embrace. And there’s another choice in your hands that’s bigger and more significant than all of those other choices put together.
Our parents, friends and teachers rarely speak of it, not even the best of them. You don’t see this choice mentioned in any of the newspapers, whether tabloid or broadsheet, and chances are you won’t see it debated on social media.
And the frightening thing is, even though this choice will set the entire trajectory of your life, it’s possible you don’t even realise that this choice is in your hands. I certainly didn’t.
And the choice is this: you get to choose what to worship.
Like me, you may bridle at that religious-sounding word. But everybody worships. We can’t opt out of worship, any more than we can opt out of breathing.
Think about it. For all of us, there is someone or something that we look to for our ultimate sense of security, satisfaction and self-worth. Something we desire above all else. It’s where our time and our money go, and it’s what our daydreams tend towards. It’s an object of worship.
Here’s one way of discovering what it might be. Ask yourself: what is the one thing, if you had it, would make everything right? Or put it another way: what is the one thing, if it was taken from you, would make you feel life wasn’t worth living? What is the one thing, if you knew you could never have it, would make you feel life was pointless.
Academic success? Family? Good looks? Sporting achievement? Popularity, the admiration of others? Sex? But why does that matter? Why is this a problem?
Because when you give something that kind of power, when you turn a good thing into a god thing, it gains control over you.
Famously, David Foster Wallace, one of the great American novelists of this generation, said this: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
“If you worship money and things… then you will never feel you have enough. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.”
Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Which one is it for you?
For me, for a long time, my little god was the approval of others, especially the approval of my parents. If I had it, everything felt wonderful. But when I didn’t get it, it felt as if I was invisible. It felt like I was worthless. So I devoted all my time and energy to getting that approval. The ‘god’ of approval owned me.
The philosopher Albert Schweitzer put it like this: “If there is something you own that you cannot give away, you don’t own it. IT owns YOU.”
And these gods we choose for ourselves, they’re not benign, they’re not harmless. For one thing, they separate us spiritually from the real God – the one who gives life and breath and every good thing we enjoy.
Not only that, but as Foster Wallace says, all these small ‘g’ gods demand that you make endless sacrifices for them. The god of money says to us: “Sacrifice your time and energy and abilities to get me, and if you don’t get more and more, you’ll be miserable.” The god of academic success says: “Sacrifice whatever it takes to get the right grades, the right university place, or your life will feel meaningless.”
So what do we do? If we can’t not worship, how can we be free of these gods who drive us so mercilessly?
We need our hearts to be re-captured by a better God. A kinder God. A God who comes alongside you, who lifts your burden for you. A self-sacrificing God.
All these small ‘g’ gods demand that we make endless sacrifices for them. But tellingly, Jesus Christ is the only one who says: I have already sacrificed for you. And it’s the only sacrifice you’ll ever need.
Just imagine that for a moment. What if the creator of the whole universe loved you so much that he traded heaven for mockery, scorn, homelessness, loneliness, suffering and rejection? What if he did that for you?
What if the creator of the universe loved you so much that he lived out a perfect life on your behalf, one he knows you find it impossible to live, all so that his perfection could be freely credited to you?
What if the creator of the universe loved you so much he willingly died on your behalf, taking the judgement we deserve for putting other gods in his rightful place, all so that you could know him, and enjoy the unqualified acceptance and love you’ve longed for all your life.
What other god has done that for you, or could do that for you?
Every other god – wealth, looks, approval, status, comfort – and every other religion says: if you make certain sacrifices, then I’ll give you the heaven you long for. And yet, as we know from our own experience, once we’ve made those sacrifices, we don’t experience the lasting peace and joy we sacrificed so much to get.
Jesus says: I’ve already made the sacrifice for you. Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.