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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Shield of Faith and the War against Idolatry in Advent

Christmas approaches. It is a magical time of music, light, happy meetings, and touching goodbyes. The heart is full all at once and then, suddenly alone. It is in the "aloneness" of a soul that a powerful battle unfolds. It is a battle not against men but against principalities and forces that seem to govern this world. They clamor for our devotion and want us to erect idols to them in our hearts. Indeed, not only re-emerging primitive forms of idolatry but also their modern counterparts, make so many promises concerning a better future. But whenever an idol is allowed in the heart, whether we believe it is divine or base, it always enslaves us.

We are easy to enslave because of a painful aloneness that haunts our lives. This restlessness is not the same as a moment of loneliness when we suddenly realize that we are far from friends and family. This too is painful but passing because the moment is filled with the hope of a future homecoming. Aloneness that occasions spiritual battle is different. There is a pain that is cause by the absence of a love that ought to be but is not. Aloneness aches in this absence until it becomes a threat to our dignity and opposes the greatness for which we were made. A deeper and more permanent sense of alienation makes one feel estranged even from oneself and disconnected from the world. All kinds of fear and insecurity emerge. The desire to find a distraction or at least some relief from the gnawing sense of emptiness floods the soul. So occupied with self-preservation and self-hating shame, our egos can become the cages in which humanity's ancient foes capture and imprison us. To escape, we need a key and the One who holds it comes for us even now! In the face of human misery and the opportunity to presents, false deities make empty promises that faith in the true God must confront. These are legion but can be categorized broadly in terms of bread, sex and power. Each attempts to reclaim oppression over human freedom in every generation, even in the modern world. Christianity is, in a certain sense, a resistance movement against these dehumanizing forces. It holds out against them until the return of the Lord. In the ancient world, early Christianity unmasked the absurdity of such worship and people found refuge in its truth. Today, these same powers have a singular advantage in that what these ancient idols symbolized is now de-sacralized in the modern mind. Instead of powers over and above humanity, wealth, pleasure and control are accepted as worthy of homage not despite, but precisely because, they are less than holy. In other words, ancient people were drawn by what they looked upon as divine powers - today, blind to the greatness for which we were made, we allow ourselves to be enslaved by what we know is base. Believers must find a way to confront this new reality. The dark rulers who reign over this world and want to enslave humanity are the same as those that Christianity confronts in every age, even as modern people have depersonalized them. It has become the cultural norm to acquiesce to the absolute claims that these disordered urgings stir in the depths of the heart -- and humanity diminishes for it. They would have us burn with unfulfilled desires until we lose desire altogether. Only the shield of faith can protect a soul from the fiery darts that they throw. Christian prayer unfolds in with confidence that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has come to deliver us from these dehumanizing forces. He does not want us to merely manage the best we can -- He wants our freedom and protection. Thus, He asks us to make real acts of faith. That is, He hopes that we will make concrete decisions regarding worldly things so that we can see the reason for our hope. Faith gives Him space to reveal the freedom for which we are made when we engage real flesh and blood actions that go beyond good intentions and half-hearted resolutions. This means renouncing all idolatry of ever kind, whether new or ancient, whether primitive or cosmopolitan: the bread deities, the sexual fetishes, and the power gods of every age, all that ask for our allegiance in the place of God.

A bread god is nothing more than an unhappy party animal who promises a good time but always disappoints. When it rules over our hearts, we are inclined to all kinds of over-indulgence, lack of restraint, gluttony, and insobriety. We escape by consuming until we attain that dissatisfying state of sensory overload. The bloated euphoria acquired by consuming and hoarding more than we need makes us quick tempered and impatient with any hardship. We lose our capacity to bear with one another patiently or to be vulnerable to the plight of those who are hungry. In the end, we debase ourselves by serving what we eat instead of ordering what we eat to the service of God. Spiritual lethargy that comes from overeating and insobriety robs the soul of joy and gratitude for the bountiful goodness of the true God. Against this idol, the shield of faith calls us return to the discipline of our faith; to fast, to stay sober, and to remain alert for the coming of Christ in prayer.

A sexual fetish or fertility god is nothing more than a sullen seducer who promises connection, bliss and fruitfulness but always alienates and leaves spiritually barren. When erotic forces rule over our hearts, we are disposed to cold calculations in our relationships. We regard others in terms of the pleasure they provide and whatever we have calculated is never enough. We are frustrated in all kinds of self-contradictions and breeches of personal integrity. We exhaust ourselves in hunting, even if only in a virtual world, for satisfactions that can only leave us all the more empty inside. We suffer both a certain fear of and despair over any meaningful intimacy. Our consciences are haunted by our own betrayals of those entrusted to us. To deflect the onslaught of this idol, our faith calls us to the renunciation of not only illegitimate pleasures but even legitimate ones -- that is, to pick up our cross and follow our crucified God. This is the pathway that chooses sacrificial love and acts of merciful kindness over indulgence in selfish pleasure. Faith protects our resolve to attend to the beloved entrusted to us by God more than one's own self. There is something great when we arise above selfish indulgence and implicate ourselves in the misery of those who ache for someone to acknowledge their existence, especially when that someone is close to us or even has acted against us. The world never expects much of us, but God has created us for the greatness of a life lived by love. A power god is nothing more than a control freak who promises protection against all kinds of passing fears but engenders hubris and arrogance instead. When this power is given reign over our hearts, the more successful our plans, the more we judge our neighbor and determine him to be less than us. If we are opposed, we entertain righteous indignation at the expense of the truth and with no desire for reconciliation. When others are no more than obstacles or means to an end, we can never know the communion that God created us to have or the humility that we need in order for Him to bless us. Without the blessing of the Living God, we are doomed. Thus, faith's obedience shields us from the mean-ness of our own plans by putting us under His plan. As we learn to entrust our happiness to Him and to allow Him to become the shelter of our lives, He gives us a new courage to confront the vicissitudes of life and to find in them beautiful new expressions of His Providence. Behind the veil of overwhelming catastrophe, He who is mighty continues to do great things. If we are imprisoned, Advent holds a key that can free us if we will only step into the silence to which it invites us. The Key of David has given those keys of Peter that unlock the doors of the heart in repentance, confession, and conversion. Unlock the doors and step into the starlight of hope. All our efforts to be reconciled, to seek forgiveness and to forgive provide new openings for the Lord to unshackle us. Open wide the doors to Christ and He will cast away the idols that we have allowed to reign in our lives.

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