Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller (Book Review)

In recent years Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, has become quite a prolific author. And his latest offering may be his most important book yet. Counterfeit Gods explores the empty promises by the idols found in the human heart—sex, money, power, pride—and our only hope of experiencing true satisfaction and fulfillment in the gospel.

Why and How we Make our Counterfeit Gods

“[An idol] 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,” wrote Keller (p. xvii). It’s a broad definition, but fitting because, as Keller wrote, “Anything in life can serve as an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god” (p. xvi).

It’s easy for us to think about idols as being statues in a temple somewhere “over there” (wherever that is). But if it’s true that anything can be an idol, it’s not nearly so simple. “The biblical concept of idolatry is an extremely sophisticated idea, integrating intellectual, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual categories.” (p. xix). Romantic love, sex, physical beauty, moral virtue, intellectual ideologies, profit, self-expression… “There are idols everywhere” (p. xxi).

They are the things we love, trust and obey, even at the expense of our relationship with Jesus. “Idols dominate our lives,” Keller wrote.

Throughout the book, Keller illustrates the insidiousness of idolatry through the biblical accounts of Abraham, Jacob, Zacchaeus, Naaman, Nebudchadnezzar and Jonah. The lives of each show us a pattern of idolatry:

  • For Abraham, his son Isaac had the potential to be a powerful idol
  • Jacob’s idol was love as illustrated by his obsession with Rachel and behavior reminiscent of an addict.
  • For Zacchaeus, it was money
  • For Naaman, success
  • Nebudchadnezzar, glory & power

And then there’s Jonah. His idols were perhaps the most complex of all

Revealing Our Hearts

Jonah had a personal idol. He wanted ministry success mor than he wanted to obey God. [He] was shaped by a cultural idol. He put the national interests of Israel over obedience to God and the spiritual good of the Ninevites. Finally, Jonah had a religious idol, simple moral self-righteousness. He felt superior to the wicked, pagan Ninevites. He didn’t want to see them saved. Jonah’s cultural and personal idols had melded into a toxic compound that was completely hidden from him. It led him to rebel against the very God he was so proud of serving. (p. 136)

As we read Keller’s exposition on each of these figures, we are forced to consider our own hearts. What has the potential to displace God as the One whom we love, trust and obey?

Jonah’s heart is laid bare as his rages against the Ninevites positive response to his preaching (and what a simple message it was: “God’s going to kill you. Bye.”). Instead of praising God for the mercy He shows, he laments and demands that God kill him.

“Jonah shows us that it is one thing to believe the gospel with our minds, and another to work it deep into our hearts so it affects everything we think, feel, and do,” wrote Keller. “He is still being largely controlled by idolatry” (p. 145).

So what happens to us when the stresses of life  become to much to bear? What is the true nature of my heart when the experience of life presses down on us? These are important questions—ones too important to not take time to consider. Pointing us back to Jonah’s story, Keller reminds us that the book of Jonah ends with a question:

God asks Jonah: “Shouldn’t your love be like mine? Will you come out of your self-absorption and idolatry and begin to live for me and for others?” We wait for an answer, and it never comes! Because the book ends. (p. 152)

So why don’t we get an answer? “It’s as if God aimed an arrow of loving rebuke at Jonah’s heart, set it a-fly, and suddenly Jonah vanishes, leaving us in it’s path” (p. 153).

The question for us is, when our idols are revealed, are we willing to change?

If we are, then we must look to the Ultimate Jonah and to his sign, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (p. 153)

Discovering the Solution to our Counterfeit Gods

Throughout Counterfeit Gods, Keller illustrates that idols cannot be simply removed: They must be replaced. But what will replace them? All too often, when we put an idol to death, another one crops up to take its place. So food might be replaced with physical fitness. A desire for the affection of a spouse with the attentions of children. But these will never satisfy. Idols must be replaced by God himself.

“If you uproot the idol and fail to “plant” the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back,” wrote Keller (p. 172). But even as we repent of our idolatry and grow in our love for Christ, it’s still a struggle. It demands patience. Putting idols to death is hard work but as Keller, quoting John Newton wrote,

I find that to keep my eye simply on Christ, as my peace and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling. . . . It seems easier to deny self in a thousand instances of outward conduct, than in ceaseless endeavors to act as a principle of righteousness and power. (pp. 176-177)

But, the one who knows the difference between outward conformity and inward transformation is the one who “is on the road to freedom from the counterfeit gods that control us” (p. 177)

Counterfeit Gods will challenge you to discover which path you are on. Are you on the one that leads to freedom from the control of idols or the one that leads to the despair that comes from their empty promises?

Read the book. Engage the questions that will confront you and embrace the only hope we have for freedom from our counterfeit gods: Jesus Christ.

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