“Every human being must live for something. Something must capture our imaginations, our heart’s most fundamental allegiance and hope,” argues Timothy Keller in Counterfeit Gods – The Empty Promises Of Money, Sex, And Power, And The Only Hope That Matters.
In this compelling book, he deftly interrogates the complexity of what shapes and drives us.
He illustrates how we put our faith in a good thing (like a successful career, romantic love, material possessions, church ministry, or family) and thereby turn it into our ultimate thing (meaning that we think it will give us the significance and security we crave). To attain these things, many of us end up breaking rules we once honoured, rationalising indiscretions, or harming ourselves and others. That is because an idol “redefines reality in terms of itself” and distorts our thoughts and feelings.
Keller asserts that counterfeit gods do not only operate on a personal level – society puts great pressure on individuals to embrace the cultural idols of its time. One example he mentions is the increasingly poisonous polarisation we see in politics, which “is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion”. Another example is the deification of capitalism, which proclaims that the free market “is an ‘invisible hand’ that, when given free rein, automatically drives human behaviour toward that which is most beneficial for society”.
Observing that we look to idols to give us a sense of purpose and control, Keller points out that we can discover them by paying attention to our emotional life. What do we fear most? What makes us uncontrollably anxious or angry? But often, it is only “under stress, in real life experience, that the true nature of our hearts is revealed”. In this sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with a collective moment of disenchantment – and a rare opportunity to recalibrate our hearts.
But how? Keller answers that the “only way to deal with all these things is to heal our relationship with God”. He shows how idols cannot simply be removed, they must be replaced.
As long as we believe that the incomplete joys of this world will satisfy our deepest needs, we will eventually become disillusioned and resentful. But if we can hear God’s blessing in our inmost being, the words, ‘You are my beloved child, in whom I delight’ will become an endless source of joy and strength.
If you long for contentment, Counterfeit Gods will prove an astute guide on the journey.
Review by Lise-Marie Keyser