by Mike Phay
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” – 1 John 5:21
I see a therapist on a regular basis.
My therapist and I hold regular 4-hour sessions, usually on Tuesday mornings.
He does not hold a counseling degree or own a private practice. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s never had any experience with professional psychology at all. He doesn’t have any fancy letters after his name or a place in the Academy.
My therapist is a self-employed engineer and machinist by trade, an amateur astronomer and telescope maker in his off-hours. And he likes to bake in his spare time. His true passion, though, is woodworking. When wood is involved, he’s a Master Craftsman.
Yes, my therapist is my unofficial (and unpaid) shop teacher. I consider the times that I spend in his shop as necessary therapy sessions for the retention of my sanity and the upkeep of my pastoral soul. They give me a short weekly break from the oft-grueling work of pastoral ministry, providing a connection with the tangible, physical world of woodgrain and sawdust. In his shop, I touch and smell, feel and create. I learn to carefully impose my will on a tactile medium and watch instantaneous physical change occur. The earthiness of the shop returns me to the real-world from which I am often – sadly – detached in the work of ministry. The immediacy of the results pacifies the anxious and success-oriented temptations of my daily work. It all serves as a reminder to me that my “job” is really more earthy, physical, and real than the world or the church sometimes allows it to be.
I’ve always enjoyed building things. I’ve done my share of construction and carpentry. But aside from one semester of wood shop in the 7th grade, have never been trained in the finer skills of woodworking. My teacher in this craft is detailed, patient and precise as he trains me to use simple and time-tested tools to manufacture simple and unique projects.
The word manufacture literally means ‘to make by hand,’ although it generally evokes images of large scale, hands-free, machine-driven output of products for mass consumption. But prior to mass production – before the ubiquity of conveyor belts and assembly lines – manufacturing took place as the word suggests: by hand. It is this kind of fine craftsmanship that has become a lost art, relegated to lost or dying cultures. Like the Amish.
As our culture has lost the art of authentic craftsmanship in pursuit of the mighty dollar, we have – perhaps unwittingly – jettisoned the energy and devotion that goes into a beautifully handcrafted item. Fine craftsmanship requires that hand and eye be tuned as precisely as the tools that are used. Blades must be sharpened to sheer the hairs from a man’s forearm. Likewise, one’s senses must be awake and aware, tuned to the medium. One with the tool itself. Connected to the wood. Craftsmanship requires attentiveness. Slowing down. Patience. Care.
I am not much of an artisan. At this point, just an apprentice. A novice. But I can see how this kind of creative work – largely lost to a consumeristic American public – can give one a sense of value and worth, an earned feeling of dignity and identity. Like the child greeting her daddy’s homecoming – “Look what I made!” – I too find myself craving the display of my own handiwork. I long to receive the credit due to my creative endeavors.
I want others to see me. I desire people to notice me. I long for them to admire me. I’m an adoration junky – a glory thief. And in all of this, I prove my nature to be, as John Calvin pointed out, “a perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes, 1.11.8).
As I ponder this, it seems a short step for me to begin to draw my wooden creations into my idolatrous, glory-thieving ways. To have them join me as partners in my sacrilege. To make idols of them.
This reminds me of the passage from Isaiah, describing idolatrous craftsmen:
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 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?” (Isaiah 44:13-20)
We shake our heads at the folly displayed in the prophetic words. We convince ourselves that we would never participate in such blatant idiocy.
Our idolatry is much more subtle.
As I create these small pieces of imperfect craftsmanship during my weekly therapy sessions, I am confronted by the longing in my heart for a taste of glory. I want people to like what I make, to appreciate what I create with my hands. I want to impress them. To have them speak well of my creation, affirm my abilities, and raise their measure of me accordingly.
All because of a chunk of wood.
Now, when it comes to my actual vocation, this temptation towards idolatry really heats up. In my work I shepherd people and make disciples by crafting and preaching sermons, writing articles, planning worship services, leading elders, and counseling church members. And oh, how I love it when people are impressed with the work that I do! When they speak well of my abilities, creativity, intelligence, compassion, and humor. I love it when people are impressed with me.
Like when someone recently told me that I have a fan club in the church.
A fan club. In the church.
My response to this well-meaning person was: “I don’t want a fan club. Be a Jesus fan!” But oh, how a Mike Phay fan club appeals to my praise-hungry, idol-making heart!
Who Tells You Who You Are?
When we imbue the works of our hands with the power to create worth and value for ourselves, we wrap up our identity in our efforts. How difficult it is to let go of our need for appreciation, approval, and adulation that comes to us so naturally through our work! How difficult to disentangle our identity from our self-made idols!
It is utter foolishness to give this identity-forming power to empty idols.
Identity-giving is a God-task, a Gospel-work. It’s not our responsibility to create our own identity, but God’s. The One who created us in His own image will ultimately restore our sin-lost, idol-grasping identity through the identity-defining work of the perfect image-bearer, Jesus Christ. As Paul Tripp writes, “You don’t work in the hope of getting an identity; you work in celebration of the identity that, in Christ, you have been given.”
So who tells you who you are?
Because idolatry is ultimately a worship issue, every identity crisis is also a worship issue. What we worship shapes who we are. It follows, then, that the only escape from our identity crisis is to pursue true worship: to make much of Jesus. We must look to and adore Him, fixing our eyes on Him, “the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” He is our Identity-Giver.
So ask yourself: Do I, in faith, believe what He says? Even what He says about me? Because taking Him at His word is essential to true worship.
The more that you truly give yourself to make much of Him, the more you will find yourself throwing your idols down in disgust, and the more you will find yourself believing what He says about you. And if He can create the world and your new identity, why not trust Him to detach your heart from “the lie in your right hand,” and use the works of your hands for His glory instead of your own?