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The devastating price of false worship

Unsplash/Logan Fisher
Unsplash/Logan Fisher

David Foster Wallace was an American writer and university professor whose 1996 novel Infinite Jest was cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Another of his works, The Pale King, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012. The Los Angeles Times called Wallace, “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years.”

Certainly, a man who seemed to have much to live for. But on September 12, 2008, at age 46, having suffered from depression for many years, Wallace penned a suicide note to his wife and hanged himself on the back porch of his house in Claremont, California.

Just three years earlier, Wallace (not a Christian) had delivered a commencement speech at Kenyon College that provided a glimpse into the hollow and dangerous predicament he felt and believed people faced who were spiritually bankrupt. Worship the wrong things, Wallace said, and you’re toast.

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This quote from him is long but worth your attention:  

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your 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 grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

So, just how did the false worship (and I include the phony spiritual gods he cited) pointed out by Wallace come to be our “default setting”? The Bible tells us along with the devastating price we all pay for it.  

The natural and unnatural

If you want to know how and why things have gotten so bad in our world, you don’t need to look any further than the first chapter of Romans. In it, the apostle Paul delivers a sobering look at human nature and what’s caused us to descend to the bottom rung of the ladder where we now find ourselves.  

Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-32 can be summarized as such: 1. We know that God exists and thus the natural thing to do is worship Him; 2. However, we have chosen the unnatural position of worshiping other things; 3. So, God has given us over to unnatural behavior as an awful and painful judgment.

As a quick aside, if you’re not a Christian and reading this, don’t get hung up on the word “worship.” It means “worth-ship” — to assign worth and value to something, which we all constantly do. The problem comes when we make secondary worth-ship things primary. As French philosopher Simone Vey wrote, at that point: “One has only the choice between God and idolatry. There is no other possibility. For the faculty of worship is in us, and it is either directed somewhere into this world, or into another.”

But as Wallace points out, our “default settings” drive our worship to false things. And if that happens on a non-stop basis, we see the judgment of God that Paul spells out: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them … And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom. 1:24, 28).

What does a depraved mind look like? All you need to do is take a stroll down New York City’s 8th Avenue — nicknamed “the Strip of Despair” — on any given day where stealing, stabbings, assault, drug use and public defecation are the norm.

Paul defines the depraved mind as “being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:29–32).

Collectively, that’s a heavy price to pay for false worship in a society, both for the false worshiper and everyone around them. It’s an infection that poisons everything and causes conflict everywhere.

C. S. Lewis uses the following analogy in Mere Christianity to explain this: “You can get the idea plain if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order, they will not be able to avoid collisions. Or, if you like, think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others.”

The biblical antidote to these “collisions” in a culture is directing our worship to its proper target — the God who created us and everything we see. Anything else falls short, as John MacArthur says: “The only faith that makes any sense is faith that has an object that can deliver what you expect.”

And, last time I looked, there’s only One of those out there. That being true, do the natural thing and worship God alone.

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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