Identity Crisis: Identity and Idolatry | Romans 1:18-25
Brian Hedges | May 22, 2022
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to Romans 1. We’re going to be reading Romans 1:18-25 here in a moment.
I want to begin by telling you the story of a person named Walt Heyer. You should be able to see three pictures of Walt on the screen; this is not three different people, this is one person at three different points in his life. His story has been told by USA Today and is also told by Sharon James in her very helpful book, Gender Ideology. I’m following Sharon Jaynes’s recounting of this.
Walt grew up in Los Angeles, California, during the 1940s. He often went to stay with his grandma on the weekends, and she liked to treat Walt like a little girl. She dressed him up in pretty dresses, and he loved the attention, he loved the way he felt when she did that. He said, “She lavished delighted praise upon me when I was dressed as a girl. Feelings of euphoria swept over me with her praise, followed later by depression and insecurity about being a boy. Her actions planted the idea in me that I was born in the wrong body.”
When Walt’s father found out, he responded very negatively and began harshly disciplining his son and would not let him spend time alone with his grandma. Things got worse a few years later when an older male relative began subjecting Walt to sexual abuse. He couldn’t physically escape the violence, but in his imagination he created a place to escape; in that safe place, he imagined himself as a little girl loved by his grandma.
These thoughts became so deeply ingrained in him that they never really went away, even though in the course of his adult life he became very successful. He got married, he had children, but never stopped wanting to be a woman.
He looked to comfort in drinking alcohol as well as in hard work, but eventually he was advised to pursue a sex change, that this would solve his problems. So at 42 years old he had surgery and he began taking female hormones. He now looked like a woman and he legally changed his name to Laura.
He later wrote, “I was generally happy for a while, but being a female turned out to be only a cover-up, not healing. I knew I wasn’t a real woman, no matter what my identification documents said.”
Walt eventually met some people who believed in Jesus, who followed Christ, who reached out to him with love and with compassion, and over time he began to see that while he could change his appearance, he could not change what God had created him to be, and he made the difficult decision to go back to living as a man. Let me quote him one more time.
He said, “Coming back to wholeness as a man after undergoing unnecessary gender surgery and living life legally and socially as a woman for years wasn’t going to be easy. I had to admit to myself that going to a gender specialist when I first had issues had been a big mistake. I had to live with the reality that body parts were gone, a sad consequence of using surgery to treat psychological illness. But I had a firm foundation on which to begin my journey to restoration. I was living a life free from drugs and alcohol, and I was ready to become the man I was intended to be.”
Walt Heyer now runs a ministry to help those who regret having sex reassignment surgery. He’s been featured in a number of places, including USA Today and on Focus on the Family.
I think that story is helpful on a number of levels and presents several things we should keep in mind as we’re working through this series on identity. The first thing is just this, that we need to remember that when we’re talking about trans people and individuals who are struggling with gender dysphoria or sexual identity, that we’re talking about real people. We’re talking about real people who have real stories, who have experienced a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, and a lot of confusion—sometimes abuse, sometimes rejection in their lives.
Now, it’s not necessarily everyone’s story, but it often is the story, and there’s always going to be deep feelings of insecurity and being unsettled with one’s identity. That means that our initial response to any individual struggling with these issues should be one of deep compassion and of deep love. It may even be the case that someone here is struggling with some of those issues, and if so, the last thing I would want you to feel is judgment, but rather to feel loved, welcomed, and to feel compassion, both from our hearts and from the heart of Christ.
But we also need to distinguish between individuals who are struggling through these issues and all of the pain that they feel and the ideology of the movement, the LGBTQ+ movement and the transgender revolution. Compassion for individuals does not mean that we compromise with the movement as a whole, but it does mean that we must communicate with nuance when we talk about this issue, as difficult as that can be.
Then we also need to remember that the cultural ethos that has brought us to this point, where people are struggling so much with their sexual identity, is this ethos of expressive individualism, which we talked about last week. The expressive individualism that has given rise to this movement is one that affects all of us, and it affects all of us in some way in our concepts about ourselves, our own understanding of ourselves—if not our sexual identity, then our identity in other ways. It is the very same gospel that we all need, the gospel of Jesus Christ, where we find our true identity in him.
Last week we began by looking at the nature of identity, the crisis of identity that we are facing as a culture, and then the biblical basis for identity, especially in Genesis 1-2, which describes human beings as being creatures created by God, made in the divine image as male and female, made to image forth his glory in the world. We are created with dignity and with purpose and with significance by our God. Our lives are not an accident, and we find our true identity when our self-understanding corresponds with the objective reality of who God has created us to be.
Last week was really identity and creation; this week I want us to shift to thinking about identity in relationship to the fall, identity in relationship to sin. I especially want to use Romans 1 and use the biblical concept of idolatry to help us understand identity in a fallen world, and how idolatry shapes the way we think about ourselves.
The passage this morning is Romans 1:18-25. We’re really just going to use this as a launching point this morning, and I’ll be looking at other passages as well. But let’s begin by reading this passage, Romans 1, beginning in verse 18.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
This is God’s word.
This passage, of course, introduces us to this concept of idolatry, and I want us to think about identity and idolatry and how these two things intersect. I want to do that by looking at three things: what idolatry is, how idols shape identity, and how the gospel frees us from idols.
1. What Idolatry Is
What is an idol? I think most of us, when we think about an idol, we probably think about an image that has been chiseled from stone or carved out of wood, a false god, to which people in the ancient world or in pagan cultures would bow down. Certainly when we read the Scriptures we often see idols in Scripture that are like that—think of the golden calf in Exodus 32.
But really, a false god, an idol, is not merely an image. The image is a physical representation of something that’s really deeper in the heart, and the Scriptures also talk about the idols of the heart in Ezekiel 14:3. We could say that an idol is really any kind of God substitute; it is anything that we worship other than God; it’s anything we look to for significance or for identity or purpose or happiness in life that we place above God.
Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, comments on the first of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and he says, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your god. Trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” It’s clinging to anything other than God.
If you use the language here of Romans 1, it is exchanging the glory of God for the image of a created thing. We might put it this way: idolatry is when we put anything in creation over the Creator himself. This doesn’t have to be represented in a wood or stone image. It can also be desires we have; it can be good things in our lives that we turn into things of greater significance and priority than God himself.
The Scriptures speak this way. In Colossians 3:5 the apostle Paul says, “Put to death covetousness [or greed], which is idolatry.” That’s the idea of elevating money above the place of God, so that we find more significance in our money, in our wealth, in our riches, than we do in God himself.
In 1 John 5:21 the apostle John says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” It’s the very last verse in a letter that says nothing about idolatry but says a lot about false doctrine, says a lot about false views of Christ. So presumably the idols he has in mind are false understandings of who Jesus Christ is.
We might say that there’s a broad spectrum of possible idols. Tim Keller has written a wonderful book on this, called Counterfeit Gods, and he discusses the different forms that our idols can take. He gives a list of these. See if any of these ring true for you.
- There are theological idols. These would be doctrinal errors leading to distorted views of God, or to false gods. Anytime our understanding of God doesn’t match the biblical revelation of who God is, we are worshiping a god that’s not the true God.
- There are sexual idols. This could include things like pornography, sexual addictions, but also ideals of physical beauty that are unrealistic, that we impose on ourselves or on others.
- Magic and ritual idols; this would include things such as witchcraft and the occult.
- Political or economic idols. These would be ideologies, whether on the left or the right, that take some aspect of political order and make it the solution, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ being the solution.
- There are racial and national idols. Think of racism and nationalism in all its forms.
- Religious idols. This would be moralism or legalism. It’s using religion as a pretext for power, or it’s trusting in our works, our morality, or our law-keeping or church attendance or ceremonies or whatever, for our salvation.
- There are philosophical idols. These would be systems of thought that replace sin with something else as the problem and replace the gospel of Jesus Christ with something else as the solution. Perhaps the problem is oppression and the solution is to upset the social order and to take those in power out of power and give that power to others.
- There are cultural idols, such as expressive individualism in the West, or, “What matters most is myself, my own desires.” Or, in Eastern cultures, honor-shame cultures, oftentimes the idol is the family, the community, where everything is sacrificed for the sake of the group. Both of those things can be idols.
- Then, at the deepest possible level are what Keller calls “deep idols,” and I think really all of the idols boil down to these things. It’s the attempt to find power or approval or comfort or control in something other than in God.
In other words, our idols can take many different forms, many different shapes, so don’t think this morning that just because you don’t bow down to a wood statue there are no idols in your heart.
The deepest idol is, of course, the idol of self. The apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3 talks about people who will become lovers of self, lovers of money, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.
This takes us back to expressive individualism. We talked about this last week. What is that? We know it by its slogans: “You do you.” “Follow your heart.” “Find yourself.” “To thine own self be true.” It is the prioritization of the self and the desires of the self above all other goods and all other commitments, and even above God himself.
There’s a theologian who back in the ’90s and early 2000s was writing quite a lot about our culture and giving a biblical-theological analysis of culture. His name was David Wells, and in one of his books, called Losing Our Virtue, he said this: “Much of the church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self. This is a form of corruption far more profound than the list of infractions that typically pop into our minds when we hear the word ‘sin.’ We are trying to hold at bay the gnats of small sins while swallowing the camel of self. It is idolatry as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament. That this devotion to the self seems not to be that older devotion to a pagan god blinds the church to its own unfaithfulness. The end result, however, is no less devastating, because the self is no less demanding. It is as powerful an organizing center as any god or goddess on the market.”
This is something to which none of us are immune, the idolatry of self.
I think one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this in literature is a book by the Jewish author Chaim Potok, called My Name is Asher Lev. This is a powerful novel, perhaps the most emotionally compelling novel that I’ve ever read. It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy named Asher Lev, a boy raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in post-war Brooklyn. He has a special gift and a passionate love for art. The only interest he has in life is drawing things, painting things.
But this love for art is something his father does not understand. His father is the assistant to the local rabbi, a very deeply traditional man who does not understand his sensitive and artistic son. Asher Lev’s father so elevates his religious and cultural traditions that he’s unable to really keep up a relationship with his son, and over time he alienates him more and more.
Throughout his childhood Asher Lev regularly expresses disappointment; he feels the estrangement from his father. And his father expresses disappointment in him, even showing contempt for his “foolish drawings.” But Asher becomes so obsessed with art and with self-expression through his painting that he makes a series of decisions that only make the division worse.
As the story progresses, Asher Lev grows up, he becomes a painter, he becomes a very good painter, a famous painter; but there are certain taboos in Jewish culture that his father especially did not want him to transgress. One of those was painting crucifixions, because for a Jewish person the crucifixion was especially scandalous.
The climax of the book comes when Asher Lev is now an accomplished painter, he has all these many paintings, and there’s an exhibition of his art there in his hometown, in Brooklyn, and he’s walking through the exhibition with his parents, his father and his mother. They’re walking through, they’re overhearing the comments that many people are making over these wonderful, magnificent paintings. But they finally come to the very last painting. It is the most deeply personal painting that Asher ever did, and it is a painting of crucifixion. But the figures on the canvas are not Jesus and the disciples; the figures are, rather, Asher Lev, and on the other side of the cross is father, and on the cross his mother, who has endured this emotional torment as she’s been caught between father and son.
When people see it and they recognize it, and his parents see it, and it dawns on them what this painting means, the division, the alienation, the breakdown in the relationship is complete.
What’s happened in this story is that both the father and the son took a good thing and they treated it like an idol. The father treated his tradition as so sacred that he cannot enter into relationship with his sensitive, artistic son; and Asher Lev was so compelled to express himself in painting that he’s willing to sacrifice the deepest, most precious relationships in his life. It leads to deep, deep breakdown.
This is always what idols do. When we pursue our idols and we put those things ahead of God, it always leads to breakdown in our lives, including breakdown in our sense of self, in our identity.
2. How Idols Shape Identity
That leads to the second point, how idols shape identity. We have to understand that in Scripture there is a close connection between the image of God in which we are created, as we saw last week, and the trading of the worship of God and being the image-bearers of God for images of created things; this correspondence between idols and being image-bearers.
I’m drawing heavily from the theological work of Richard Lints, who wrote a wonderful book called Identity and Idolatry. Richard Lints says, “Idolatry was the conceptual turning upside-down of the originally intended relationship of image to original. Idolatry construed Israel’s identity, and representatively human identity, on terms opposite those revealed in Creation. The creature made a god in its image, in whose shadow the creature’s identity was cast. Promising blessing, the idol created bondage; promising protection, it created insecurity.”
You can see this dynamic at play in Scripture, as Adam and Eve and then as the nation of Israel trade on the glory of God and instead worship idols, putting other things ahead of God.
The dynamic of idolatry in Scripture is very simply this, that whatever you worship, that’s what you become. You become like what you worship. You see this over and over again in Scripture.
Let me give you a few verses and then explain how this works.
The prophets of Israel especially, when they condemned the idolatry of Israel, they spoke to this. Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 2:5, says, “This is what the Lord says: What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” They became like what they worshiped.
Or take Psalm 115. This is a powerful passage that is a polemic against idols and the futility of idols, in contrast with the true and living God. “Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see; they have ears but cannot hear, noses but cannot smell; they have hands but cannot feel, feet but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
Think about the picture here. Here is a god, here is something that is being worshiped, an idol, and while it has eyes and nose and ears and mouth, it has these sensory organs, it actually has no life, it has no power. It’s actually deaf and blind and dumb.
The psalmist says that those who make them will be like them, and in fact, when you look at this language, the language of having eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, that language is exactly the language that is used of Israel when they are condemned for their idolatry. They become like their idols.
Isaiah 6:9-10, “Go and say to this people, ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
That’s a condemnation on Israel because of their idolatry. They are worshiping deaf and dumb and blind idols, and the consequence of that is that they will be spiritually deaf and blind and dumb themselves.
The greatest example of idolatry in the whole history of Israel was that first idol that they made, the golden calf, in Exodus 32. I won’t take time to read the passage, but you remember the story. The people are impatient, as Moses is up on the mountain receiving the covenant from God, and they come to Aaron the high priest and they say, “Make for us gods.” They throw in all their gold and their silver and they make this golden calf, and they say, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Do you remember what God says to Moses as a result? He says, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” Why does he come them a stiff-necked people? Because they’re becoming just like the calf.
In fact, the language that is used in Exodus 32 for Israel is language that fits conceptually with the way cattle behave. Over and over again in the history of Israel, when the prophets condemn Israel, they are condemned as if they are like cattle. They are stiff-necked, they are stubborn, they are senseless, because idols remake their worshipers in their image. Idols change us; they shape our identity.
Richard Lints, again, says, “The great danger was that Israel would be led astray by their own desires.” It’s the same danger we have today, isn’t it? “Those desires would eventually remake Israel in their own image, wherein their identity would mirror the carved images they had made to protect themselves. Israel would become like the gods they chased after; fragile, lifeless, and fleeting. Israel, like the rest of us, were tempted to define the meaning of life as internal to their own desires and perceptions. Inevitably, this led to a thinning of self-identity, wherein they became minimal selves, fully contingent on the gods they had made for security. Yahweh’s remarkable love for Israel was intended to fill their hearts with security and comfort in the face of great danger. The answers to the threats they faced lay not within acting on their ever-expanding desires, but in facing up to the reality that they were divinely appointed representatives whose security and significance were rooted in the God they imaged.”
This is exactly the move that is made in our culture today. People, made in the image of God, rather than worshiping the God whose image they bear, they worship and prioritize the created things above the Creator; they put their desires ahead of the vocation that God has on their lives, and in trading that they lose a sense of self. So identity becomes this fluid thing, and no longer is our subjective self-awareness of who we are corresponding with the objective reality of who God made us to be. That’s what’s happened in our culture.
Listen, that happens in our lives as well when we put a created thing above the Creator. The idols remake us in their own image.
Do you remember the story from C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Do you remember the boy Eustace? He’s kind of a brat; you don’t really like Eustace in the story. He never gets along with anybody else. There comes a point in this story where Eustace is on this island, and he wanders away from everyone else, and he comes into a dragon’s lair. The dragon’s lair is full of gold and of treasure, and Eustace just becomes greedy. He starts thinking about how much he can enjoy this treasure, and he’s not going to share it with anybody else. Lewis says he’s lying there thinking these “greedy, dragonish thoughts,” and you know what happens to him? He turns into a dragon. He becomes like what he’s worshiping, and he turns into a dragon.
That’s what happens. That’s what happens when our hearts conform to the image of the things we worship and we begin to lose our authentic sense of who we are as image-bearers of God.
Let me give you one more illustration. This is a compelling quotation from a man named David Foster Wallace. Wallace was not a Christian, but he understood something about worship, and it reflects the existential angst that he himself felt. He said this in a commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005.
He said, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god to worship 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’ll never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you’ll always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths. Worship power, and 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, and you’ll end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
That’s how it goes, isn’t it? We put other things ahead of God, and rather than them satisfying our deepest desires, they actually wreak havoc and destruction in our lives. David Foster Wallace, sadly, took his own life a couple of years after giving that address, never having discovered the true meaning of life and relationship with God.
Idols shape our identities. Idols hurt us. They harm us. They bring destruction to our lives. They don’t deliver what they promise.
3. How the Gospel Frees Us from Idols
What’s the solution to this? Point number three, the gospel. How the gospel frees us from idols. I’ll just take a few minutes with this, but I want you to see in a couple of passages and a couple of illustrations how the gospel has the power to free us from our idolatry and restore us to our true identity.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the good news of God’s love for us, his grace to us, in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which we are forgiven of our sins and transformed, remade into the divine image.
You can see this dynamic at work in the book of Romans, and this time I want you to look at Romans 12:1-2. As I read it, notice here the worship language. It is worship language and transformation language that is used here in Romans 12. He says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [or your reasonable, rational] worship. Do not be conformed to this world [don’t be pressed into the world’s mold] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern [or approve] what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Most of us probably know that passage well, maybe even know it by heart, but what we may miss is that this passage is actually the reversal of the pattern we see in Romans 1. In Romans 1 the wrath of God is revealed against human beings who suppress the knowledge of God, but in Romans 12, it’s the mercies of God that are in view, and it’s on the basis of the mercies of God that we are restored.
- In Romans 1, the people there did not glorify God or thank God, but in Romans 12 you have thankful sacrifice and worship to God.
- In Romans 1 their idolatry leads to the dishonoring of the body, but in Romans 12 our spiritual renewal leads to the offering, the consecration of the body in worship to God.
- In Romans 1 you have foolish idolatry, futility; in Romans 12 you have rational, reasonable worship.
- In Romans 1 they exchanged God’s glory for images, but in Romans 12 we are transformed. What are we transformed into? We’re transformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). We bear his image, the glorious image; we are remade into the image of God.
- In Romans 1 their minds are debased; in Romans 12 our minds are renewed.
- In Romans 1 they rejected God’s will, they rejected God’s pattern for human living, and that unfolds in a series of dark exchanges, where human sexuality is corrupted and debased and leads to all kinds of moral perversion and decay. But in Romans 12 you have the reverse of that, where, as we consecrate ourselves to God, we approve of God’s will; we accept it, we see that it is good, that it is perfect, that it is acceptable.
To quote Richard Lints one more time, “The imago Dei [that is, the image of God] finds its fullest theological significance in Jesus, in whom the ironic reversal of the original reversal of sin has begun and will be consummated. Jesus took on our humanity and restored its glory as the reflection of God. Being in the image of the image entails a new identity.” [This is what he means. “Being in the image of the image,” being in the image of Jesus, the true image of God.] “Being in the image of the image entails a new identity. Parts of the old identity persist until the final consummation, but with the coming of the perfect image the renewing project has begun.”
That’s what we’re now in. If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, you are in this renewing project, where you are progressively being conformed to the image of Christ. You bear the image of the true image of God, Jesus. That’s where true identity is found.
How then do we deal with our idols? Let me give you some practical helps here, and I’m almost done. I’m drawing this from Keller, taking his four ways for identifying idols and turning them into questions. Ask yourself these questions.
(1) If you want to know what are the idols in your own heart and life, ask yourself, “What fills my imagination?” What do you dream about? What do you daydream about? What do you think about when you’re going to sleep at night? What are your deepest desires? When you examine your thoughts, what are the thoughts that go like this: “If I could only have _____ (fill in the blank), I would be really happy. I would really be satisfied. If I could only achieve this, my life would be complete.” What is it that you imagine as being the best possible life? That is an index of what you worship; it is a clue to the idols of your heart.
(2) Ask, number two, “How do I spend money?” Jesus said where your treasure is, there your heart is also. You might say, “Well, my heart must be at Walmart, because that’s where all my money goes!” No, I’m talking about disposable income, discretionary income. The things that we love we tend to spend our money on. That can also be a clue to our idols.
(3) Number three, “What do I trust for my functional savior?” You say, “Well, I trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior,” and I think all of us who are Christians, of course we do that. We’re trusting in Jesus to save us from sin. But on a day to day basis, sometimes we have other functional saviors, where it’s not so much the gospel of Jesus Christ that’s giving us the sense of completion and of satisfaction, feeling like there’s well-being in our lives. The real indication of that is when other things are going wrong and we’re looking to, “If I could just get this fixed, then I’ll feel okay again.” It may be your finances, it may be your job, it may be a relationship, it may be the approval of some person, it may be the achievement of some great personal ambition. Whatever you feel like you can’t live without, that’s your functional savior.
(4) “What are my deepest, strongest emotions?” Your deepest desires, your deepest fears, your deepest concerns; those things are indications of where your heart is.
What do we do when we identify these idols? What should be our response? It should be to turn from the idols, to serve the living and the true God, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1. We identify those idols, we name them, we confess them, we turn from them, and we come back to the feet of Jesus, and we say, “I was made for you. I worship you. I look to you. I trust in you. Renew me in your image.”
Do you remember the rest of the story about Eustace [in] The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this little boy who becomes a dragon because of his greedy, dragonish thoughts? He lives that way for six days, and he’s absolutely miserable, but the whole experience is humbling for him. After six days living as a dragon, he finally encounters Aslan, the Christ figure in the story, and Aslan takes Eustace the dragon up into a mountain, to a clear pool, and he tells Eustace he has to go in the pool and wash. But before doing so, he has to be undressed.
So Eustace starts trying to undress himself. He starts scratching away the scales, and he thinks, “Maybe the dragon skin is like a snake skin, and I can just shed it, and I’ll be a little boy again.” But try as he may, he cannot shed the dragon scales. Every time he pulls off a layer, there’s another layer of dragon underneath.
Finally Aslan says, “You’ll have to let me undress you.” Eustace, afraid of the lion’s claws but desperate to be restored once again to his true self, bares his heart to Aslan, and he says it was the most painful experience he ever had, as the claws dig into his heart and then tear away the dragon skin. Aslan does that, and then Eustace goes into the pool and he emerges as a fresh, pristine little boy again, dressed in new clothes.
It’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it, of what Christ does for us. Listen, you can’t change yourself. You can’t remake yourself. You can’t restore your own identity. But what you can do is submit yourself to the loving, even though sometimes painful, work of sanctification, as Jesus Christ works in your heart to remake you in the divine image. Do that, and that’s where you will find your true identity. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank you this morning for the promises of your word, for the hope of the gospel. We thank you for the good news that Jesus Christ came, and he came as a human being. He became incarnate, he came as the true image-bearer, the second Adam, the new man, the one who shows us what it really means to be human. He not only did that, but he took the penalty for our sins, the sins of idolatry and all the rest—he took it upon himself in his death on the cross so that we could be forgiven, and then through the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of God unleashed in our lives we can be transformed and changed, renewed from the inside out, to become the people you intend us to be. We thank you for that good news, and we now bring our hearts before you, and we pray that you would work in us what is pleasing in your sight.
Lord, would you help us in these moments to identify our idols, help us identify the things that we look for identity and purpose, joy and satisfaction, we look to these things instead of you. Help us turn from those today; help us to be restored to your fellowship, to be renewed, conformed to the image of Christ.
As we come to the Lord’s table, having heard the gospel, we come now to the table to, in a way, enact the gospel, as we think about the broken body, the shed blood of Jesus Christ in the emblems of the bread and the juice. Help us come with repentant hearts as well as with believing hearts, trusting in Christ and in Christ alone, what he has done for us. We ask you to draw near to us in these moments as we draw near to you. Be glorified in this place and in our hearts and lives. We pray it for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.