Idolatry and the Gift of Grace: Some words from Luke Timothy Johnson

The pages are literally falling out of my well-worn copy of Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, Faith’s Freedom. Admittedly, the binding on the book is not the best, but pages are falling out primarily from use. Some books you read and sell to a used book store. Some you read and keep but rarely return to. Some books you choose as companions. This book is a companion.

And one of my favorite passages comes in the middle of Johnson’s description of idolatry and grace. Johnson defines idolatry as trying “to control the world by making it my self-project.” And this is an enslaving project. His description of the pathology of idolatry is so clear and insightful.

When we look at the primordial fear that generates the compulsions of idolatry, we perceive that it has a great deal to do with the sense that we are not known and loved. …”No one can possibly know me,” and “Even if I were known, I would not be loved.” The desire to be known, we understand intuitively, is the desire to be real, to be perceived by another existing subject. The desire to be loved, likewise, is the desire for acceptance by another subject, to be considered worthwhile.

Paradoxically, however–and this is our enslavement–what we desire most at one level, we work the hardest to prevent at another. To be known as we really are is too threatening, so we struggle to construct a self that appears more real and substantial. To be accepted as we really are seems impossible, so we seek to control the conditions of others’ love and acceptance. Thus out of fear we work up a more and more impressive performance, hoping to win the approval and applause of others.

Even as the audience applauds our act, even as we are admired and imitated, however, our emptiness grows more apparent, for we know that they are perceiving and loving a self that is only fictional, that requires maintenance by our constant effort. Yet we cannot let down, cannot relax, and simply be what we are, for we have no self apart from what we have performed or possessed. The more others are persuaded by the reality of the projected self, the more they are seduced by it, the more entrapped we ourselves become by our past performance. Any revelation now of our empty, needy, vulnerable self would not only be disappointment (we think), but the unmasking of a fraud. Thus the primordial fear grows steadily more realistic: now to be known as I am surely would mean to be rejected.

I recognize this vicious circle all-too-well. The antidote for this compulsive way of life is grace. LTJ defines grace as “the gift of otherness made available to us by God in the world.” Unlike idolatry which seeks to secure a self by making the world my project, grace is the state of life that comes when we receive our lives, and the lives of others, as a gift. I like this.

I sometimes have a hard time praying. The complexity of life and life’s issues seem too great sometimes for me to know how prayer would make a difference. But I have been able consistently to pray for the courage to receive my life as a gift, and in turn to be thankful. And I think it helps me from falling hopelessly into the compulsive cycle of idolatry.


Luke Timothy Johnson will be one of our featured speakers at our next Streaming conference, May 22-24, 2013, at Rochester College. I hope you will plan to be here.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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2 Responses to Idolatry and the Gift of Grace: Some words from Luke Timothy Johnson

  1. asterisk says:

    Interesting. Although it seems all too complex for my little brain to understand.

    Personally, I like John Piper’s summary of idolatry, to paraphrase: “a seeking of satisfaction in other things besides God”.

    I’m sure LTJ is very learned and clever. I just find it hard to get my head around his statement 🙂

    ybiC, Kim+

  2. To summarize. Be Authentic. The world projects and programs us to follow the crowd. To create an image. However, we are already are made in the image of our Creator so why create a false image? The more time we spend being still the more we realize everything we need is already here within us.

    It is a very easy trap to fall into. Good insight. Thanks for the article.

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