In Isaiah 44, the prophet tells the story of a man who goes to his forge and builds an ax, another draws up a plan, takes the ax, and goes out to a stand of trees which he has grown and cultivated. He picks one that is just right for his purposes, he cuts it down, and he uses part of it to start a fire and bake his meal.
The other part, he forms into an idol, and he bows down and worships it, asking for deliverance. Isaiah is of course speaking about Israel in the years preceding Babylon’s invasion of the land:
No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” — Isa 44:19-20
Can we see what a desperate situation that would be for someone? The thing I depend on the most is a lie — the thing on which I base my decisions, on which I depend for support and strength. And I simply can’t see it.
Can we have a deluded heart today?
What do idols have to do with me? No one is worshiping Moleck or Baal anymore – at least not that I’ve heard. But I’m concerned that with many people today, the idol in this story is the “deluded heart.” Our feelings. Our intuition. The gut instinct that seems to guide so much of what we do. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with following instinct, and many people live their lives by it (for better or worse). But most of those people would probably acknowledge that there have been times when their instinct has failed them, and they made a wrong choice—or at least a choice that didn’t deliver the intended results.
How many of us have said to ourselves as we stood surrounded by a pile of pasteboard, screws and tools, shaking our head and saying “I was SURE I could get this thing put together by myself!” Or in a more serious context, how many of us have talked to friends about people they’re dating, and they tell us: “This one’s the one, I can feel it. And THIS time, I’ KNOW it!”
Those are the failures we learn from (or don’t!): the ones where we see the outcome, realize our mistake, and file it away under “never going to try that again!”
Jesus talks about a much more important failure, and it speaks to the man who places his faith in the lie in his right hand:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ — Mat 7:21-23
Think about the implications of that statement. These are people who seem to genuinely believe they worked miracles in Jesus’ name. They clearly know who Jesus is. They believe he is who he says he is. And Jesus says, “I never knew you.”
Feeling it doesn’t make it true
We live in a culture where many people’s religion is guided by what they feel. We “feel” that God is with us. We “feel” the Holy Spirit surrounding us. We “feel” God’s hand guiding what we do. The doctrine of a salvation “better felt than told” has been around for a long time, and we now live among millions of people who call themselves Christian, and many of them base their relationship with God strictly on the idea that “I asked Jesus to come into my heart just like my pastor told me, and I know that’s what happened.”
Never mind that there are no examples in the Bible of anyone ever being added to the Lord’s body of saved believers (Acts 2:37-41) by simply asking for it to happen.
Please don’t be offended if I’ve described your situation. I’m just trying to point some things out for you to consider. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church—which included Christians who were convinced that they were right and Paul was wrong and they didn’t need to listen to what he had to say—and he told them “examine yourself, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). We don’t need to live in a constant state of doubt, but when someone comes to us and says, “Are you sure this is right?” our answer can never be, “Yes, and I don’t need to study it anymore to know that!” And it also shouldn’t be, “Yes, and here’s the verse that says I’m right, so end of discussion!”
Paul was utterly convinced he was justified in serving God by persecuting the church, right up until he found out he was wrong. Peter was convicted strongly in his heart that it was an offense to Christ for him to preach the gospel to Gentiles, right up until he found out he was wrong. The disciples in Ephesus were preaching what they believed to be the gospel and they were doing it in all sincerity, right up until Paul pointed out to them that they hadn’t been properly baptized into Jesus Christ.
Let’s not be “sincerely wrong” in our faith
Paul told Timothy to be diligent to “rightly handle the word of truth.” Properly understanding the scriptures takes effort, and it takes self-examination, and it takes prayer. And we don’t always come to the right conclusions when we study, particularly when we do it to find what we want rather than what God wants. Sadly, there are men and women who are more than happy to bend the scriptures to their own desires, just as there were in the church’s early days.
Sometimes we can be honestly, sincerely wrong. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). Let’s not use the Bible as a means of simply making ourselves feel good, of finding the passages that back up what we believe and comforting ourselves in the knowledge that our teachers taught us well and wouldn’t lead us astray. Or that “our church has done this for generations after generations. My parents believed this. Their parents believed this. I can’t go against that.”
In all three of the examples above, the common factor was that when people who feared God were confronted with error, they listened to the gospel message and they changed their minds and actions accordingly. May God give us the faith and the strength to make changes in our lives, in our teachings, in trusting not the idol in our hand, but in the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17).