As we allow our hearts to be warmed by the whole of the gospel, our idols will melt, as surely as sun melts an icy bay.
I am going to tell you a story of how the gospel melted an icy idol in my heart and also an icy idol in the heart of the woman who cleaned for me. We were each tempted in different ways to be our own saviors when faced with a problem. We had different temptations and and different deep idols – but the solution to our heart problem was the same. We needed to behold the beauty of Jesus and the truth of His love in order to melt our idols.
In the actual incident I am about to tell you, the woman who cleaned for me was the “poor man,” and I was the “rich man.” The Scripture says each of these circumstances lead to temptation. But the gospel has the power to rescue each person from the beast within.
THE TEMPTATIONS OF THE POOR AND THE RICH
When you are poor, it is tempting to steal. Steve would often remind me of how when we were newlyweds in 1965 and living on $300 a month, we returned some shoes he bought to a store from which we didn’t actually buy them. “We stole,” he said. It’s tempting when you are poor. Agur recognizes this temptation when he prayed:
Give me neither poverty nor riches!
Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.
Proverbs 30:8-9 (TLB)
1. What might a poor man be tempted to do — and what do you think might be his deep idol?
2. What might a rich man be tempted to do — and what do you think might be his deep idol?
Susan, whom is featured this week, wisely commented that underneath the three deep idols we have mentioned (comfort/security; approval/affirmation; and power/control) is ourselves. We want to be on the throne of our lives. This is a simple way to look at it and may help us in moments of temptation. However, it may also help us to identify the other idol, so we can think about how God could be our security, approval….
When I moved to Missouri after my husband died, I was looking for a woman to help me with cleaning. A woman I’d met at church called me, for she had heard about my need and wanted me to consider her daughter, whom I’ll call Violet. “Violet doesn’t know the Lord. But I sense an openness and a hunger in her – and I would be so thankful if she could get to know you. She’s a hard worker and she would do a good job cleaning for you.”
I agreed to meet Violet and talk to her. She drove to my house in a car with such a loud rumble I could hear her driving all the way down the hill to my street. Violet was rail thin, jittery, and talked non-stop. She got right into her speech before I could even hang her well-worn sweatshirt in the closet.
I’d be a good worker, my boyfriend got laid off a year ago and then I got laid off and we really need money cause it’s really hard – I got two other cleaning jobs and if I could work for you too I think we might maybe get by for now – I’d do a really good job for you, I know how to clean, I do, and I hope you’ll let me clean for you. His mother lives with us and she’s disabled so we are really having a hard time so I hope you’ll give me a chance and I’ll show you I’m a good worker and you won’t be sorry you hired me. In fact if you want me to start today I got some cleaning stuff right in the car and that would be good cause we’re really having a hard time and you could see that I’ll do a good job…
I was a little uneasy, but I also didn’t see how I could say no. That verse about “not shutting up my compassions” from 1 John came to me. I agreed to give her a try and she immediately ran to the car, got her supplies, and put all that nervous energy to work scrubbing down my kitchen and bathrooms. When I got out my check-book, she said, “Miss Dee – do you think you could pay me in cash? That would really help us.”
“Violet – usually people want to do that so that they don’t have to report it to the IRS. And that’s not legal. I need to pay you by check.”
“Oh – it’s not that, it’s just that things are kind of a mess at our bank and we need to get that sorted out.”
Again, I was uneasy. I told her I could pay her in cash legally for a few times, but it couldn’t be long-term. She agreed and said she’d figure something out.
But a month later when I tried again to pay her by check, she said:
I didn’t really tell you the truth Miss Dee, and I’m sorry, but a few years ago times were really tough and I passed some bad checks. Nuthin happened – but I’ve been afraid. I don’t want to renew my driver’s license or pay taxes, because then they might find out I’m still around and come after me. Will you help me, Miss Dee? I really need the money but if you pay me by check I could get in a whole lotta trouble.
I didn’t even know where to begin to help her, but I paid her in cash and told her I’d talk to some people and figure out a plan of action. She couldn’t keep hiding and I couldn’t be her accomplice. But I would try to find a way to help her.
A few days later, I got a call from Violet, who was sobbing hysterically. This was our conversation as I remember it:
I’m so scared, Miss Dee – you just gotta help me.
What’s going on?
I would never steal from you, Miss Dee. You been so good to me.
Did you steal from someone else?
[Sobbing] I took some jewelry from the other women I clean for and sold what I got at a truck stop – just enough to get us by. I didn’t know that stuff was worth so much. One of them says her ring was worth twenty-five thousand dollars.
[More sobbing] That lady had a security camera and it has a movie of me taking her jewelry. She’s pressing charges. Miss Dee, do you think I’ll go to jail? I just can’t go to jail. I’m so scared. I didn’t know it was worth all that money, but she’s got a heart like ice. You gotta help me, Miss Dee. You got a good heart. Help me Miss Dee.
Oh, Violet. I’ll see what I can do. I need to talk to a lawyer.
You gotta help me, Miss Dee.
I hung up and put my head between my hands. This was real trouble. Then I had the thought, Maybe she stole from me too. All I had of material value from Steve was an emerald ring, necklace, and bracelet. He hadn’t had the money for an engagement ring, but gave me an emerald ring on our fifth Christmas.The emerald pendant was a gift for our tenth anniversary. Then, just a few years before he died, he surprised me with an emerald bracelet.
I bolted to my bedroom and pulled out my jewelry box. They weren’t there. Neither was the diamond ring I’d inherited from my mother or my late mother-in-law’s wedding ring. As is typical for me, I tried to think of another explanation. This just couldn’t be happening. Maybe, I had put them all in a safer place – maybe they were hidden away at the cottage in Wisconsin. I thought, Violet told me she didn’t steal from me. But then I also thought, Violet has also lied to me before. In my heart of hearts, I knew she had taken them, but was clinging to threads of denial.
Forgiveness always demands a price. Letting someone off the hook who doesn’t deserve to be let off the hook is costly. Somebody has to pay when a wrong is done, and it hurts to pay. Angry thoughts multiplied. How could she do this to me? Did she not even think how much Steve’s gifts would mean to me now that he is gone?
Agur was right – the temptation of the rich man is to forget God. We can feel self-sufficient and for me, I could cling to my idol of control. I could forget the Lord, what He did for me, what He tells me about forgiveness, and exact a pound of flesh from Violet by refusing to help her.
When you belong to Jesus, if you are alert, you will also see how He comes in moments of temptation. As I stood in front of my plundered jewelry box, a picture of His Gospel, one I’d seen vividly portrayed in a movie version of Les Miserables, came to me.
In this play, Jean Valjean was a poor man who had spent nineteen years in prison because he stole bread for his family. When he was released a priest took him in. But Jean Valjean was bitter and angry and stole silver spoons and forks from the priest and fled. Constables caught him and brought him to the priest. The priest responded:
“Ah! Here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
The constables are convinced of Jean Valjean’s innocence and let him go. The priest had forgiven, had let him off the hook, and had paid the price. Why?
Because of the gospel. Because he knew how he had been forgiven and therefore could not refuse to forgive. I knew I had to let Violet off the hook. But before I could even talk to her, the police came and arrested her. Then I began to get collect phone calls from her from jail, pleading with me to pay her bail and get her out. I asked her during one of those phone calls if she had stolen from me, and she told me again that she had not. Then her boyfriend began calling me as well, and made me particularly angry, for he said:
Please pay her bail – what she did wasn’t so bad. And I need her cause my mom needs help and there’s nobody to cook and we got these cats and she’s the only one who knows what they need…It’s only a thousand dollars, but I don’t got it.
My heart was not moved by him – and I was not so naive as to think that forgiveness meant I needed to pay Violet’s bail. I called my friend Eunice in Omaha with whom I’d done jail ministry for counsel. She said:
Violet is exactly where God wants her to be. God wants her to feel the pain of her sin. That is in her best interest. I’ve seen so many women in jail come to their senses and turn to God. You can visit her, send her Bible studies – but don’t pay her bail. Whatever time she serves now while waiting for her court date will be applied to her sentence.
I didn’t visit her during the two months she was in jail. Though I was traveling and speaking, I think my not visiting her was due to with-holding forgiveness. I forgave her in my head, but there was still ice over my heart. I did send her a Bible and Bible studies and letters telling her I was praying for her. She wrote me back, thanking me for the studies, saying she was doing them constantly. One day she called me and told me she was free. At her court date they had released her without any further penalty. (I’m not sure why, or why she didn’t have to make restitution, but I know the justice system in the U. S. varies vastly from state to state. Having worked in the Texas prisons, I have seen extremely long and unmerciful sentences – and then in other states – hardly any penalty at all.) I asked her to come see me and she quickly agreed.
When she came, I had her sit down, and she told me all about her time in jail. I could see her heart had been melted by the time. She thanked me for the studies, told me that they had really helped her, and that she was going to start going to church with her mother.
I said, “Violet – I need to ask you again. Did you steal jewelry from me?”
Tears welled up in her eyes and she nodded.
Tears sprang to my eyes too. My last thread of denial was breaking.
“And you sold them at a truck stop?”
Again, she nodded. The thread snapped. I’d never see any of that jewelry again. As my tears flowed, hers did too.
I had a choice to make. Forgive her from my heart or not. At that moment, I thought about what Steve would say. I knew exactly what he’d say: “In light of eternity, what’s important here, honey?”
I could hold onto my idol of control, my hurt, my anger – or I could surrender them to God and let forgiveness flow.
I would forgive – not just from the head, but the heart.
I had such a sense of the presence of God descending, of being led – like my actions and the following words were not really from me at all. I put two chairs in front of a large painting I had hanging in the entry way: a large framed print of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. (It had been a gift from my dear friend Christy after she heard me telling her why I loved this painting.) I’d read Henri Nouwen’s book of the same title, where he opens with his first memory of seeing this painting:
One day I went to visit my friend Simone Landrien in the community’s small documentation center. As we spoke, my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of a sisheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both.
Nouwen then goes on to tell how he felt propelled to see the original at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia – how he pulled a chair up and sat all day, making the curator uneasy. The Gospel is in that painting. It is The Gospel that changes lives and The Gospel in The Return of the Prodigal transformed Henri Nouwen.
As Violet and I sat in front of the vibrant colors and emotions of that painting, I told her the story of the two sons in the story Jesus told.
This father you see in the red cloak had two sons. The father was good and loving, but neither son really loved him. They loved what he could give them instead. The younger son demanded his inheritance early, and went and squandered it in riotous living. He lost it all and became very poor. He returned to his father deeply repentant. He did not even feel worthy to be called his son. He planned to tell his father that he would work for him as a hired servant. But before he could even apologize, the father saw him coming from a long way off, and he ran, and he fell on his son kissing him and rejoicing.
There is also an older son. Do you see him here in the shadows? He’s not really in the room – he’s up on this step observing, angry, bitter. You see his father threw a party for the younger son and that didn’t seem fair to the older son. Later, when his father went out to him and asked him to come to the party and rejoice that his brother had come home, the older son refused. He said, “I’ve slaved for you all these years – and yet you never had a party for me, never killed a fatted calf – and this son of yours has wasted everything, and you throw a party for him?”
The father was sad. He said, “Son – you have been with me these many years – and all that I have is yours. It is fitting that we should rejoice and be glad – for this your brother was lost and is found, was dead and is alive.”
Violet was listening intently. I said:
“Violet – the father in this painting represents God. You are like the younger son, the one broken and kneeling here. You stole from people because you didn’t think God would take care of you. But He would have. He loved you so much He did not withhold his own son, but gave Him up to pay for your sin on the cross. He will not withhold what you need from you. He longs for you to trust Him and come home to Him. He is watching and waiting for you to come home, to confess, and to surrender your life to him.”
Violet was crying.
“That’s what I want to do, Miss Dee.”
“You can do it right here, right now. Just tell him how you feel, and thank Him for dying for you. Ask Him to come into your heart and change you.”
“I need that – cause I really feel like I have sticky fingers.”
“He can help you. He came to rescue us not only from hell, but from sticky fingers and all kinds of other things.”
At that moment Violet bowed and prayed a simple prayer of confession and surrender. We hugged. More weeping.
“I need to tell you something else, Violet. I’m in this picture too. I am like the older son here, in the shadows. He was angry with his brother and wouldn’t forgive him, wouldn’t go to him. Even though he could see his father loved him, he could not share in the joy of his father.
I was angry with you. I forgave you in my head, but my heart was still hard. Even though I sent you Bible studies and wrote you, I was too angry to visit you. I was wrong. God has forgiven me so much and been so good to me. Jesus went all the way to the cross to pay for my sin – so what right did I have to not forgive you? I do forgive you, from my heart, and I’m sorry it took so long. I need you to forgive me for my icy heart.”
“Of course I do. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I wish I could get what Steve got you back – but I don’t know how. That truck driver is far away now.”
“I know. But we each have what really matters – we have Jesus.”
She nodded. It’s been two years and Violet has been faithful in going to church with her mother. The last time I asked her if she was still living with her boyfriend, and she was. She said, “I need to get myself right first.” Like so many believers, we enter in the Kingdom in surrender, and then try to get ourselves right. It’s a journey of faith, and many have trouble progressing because they don’t understand that the gospel is for the journey as well. I pray the gospel will keep melting Violet’s idol of security so that she can break with her boyfriend. And I pray the gospel will keep melting my heart so that I care about the things my Father cares about.
3. I want to use this story in my new book, and I’d be so grateful if you could underline, ponder, and tell me what moved you or what did not — what you understood, what you did not.
THERE ARE TWO KELLER SERMONS THIS WEEK — BOTH ON THE TWO SONS, BOTH FREE. LISTEN AND COMMENT ON THEM. FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE ESPECIALLY HUNGRY AND HAVE THE TIME TO DO SO, YOU MAY WANT TO LISTEN TO OTHER OF KELLER’S FREE SERMONS ON THE PRODIGAL SONS — THEY CAN BE FOUND AT: http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/sermonlist/3
LOOK FOR ALL THE ONES ON LUKE 15. KELLER SAYS THESE MESSAGES ON THE PRODIGAL SONS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF HIS CHURCH — FOR THEY ILLUMINATE TWO WRONG APPROACHES TO GOD AND THEN THE GOSPEL WAY.
SERMON 1: HE KISSED HIM
4. What stands out to you from this sermon?
5. What three aspects of forgiveness did Keller mention?
6. Does this gospel love melt any of your idols? Does that affect any near sins? If so, explain, and if possible, give a specific example.
The Second Sermon is The Prodigal Sons
7. What stands out to you from this sermon and why?
8. How you do identify with the younger son? The older son? How can the gospel help you avoid their snares?
9. KELLER OFTEN TALKS ABOUT THREE WAYS:
A. THE WAY OF IGNORING AND REBELLING AGAINST GOD (GIVE EXAMPLES OF THAT FROM DEE’S STORY, FROM YOUR OWN LIFE, AND FROM THE PRODIGAL SONS STORY)
B. THE WAY OF TRUSTING IN YOUR OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS AND MORALITY (GIVE EXAMPLES OF THAT FROM DEE’S STORY, FROM YOUR OWN LIFE, AND FROM THE PRODIGAL SONS STORY)
C. THE WAY OF THE GOSPEL (GIVE EXAMPLES OF THAT FROM DEE’S STORY, FROM YOUR OWN LIFE, AND FROM THE PRODIGAL SONS STORY)
Read James 1:9-11
10. What is the poor man, or the lowly brother, to remember about the gospel? How could this help him in times of temptation?
11. What is the rich man to remember about the gospel? How could this help him in times of temptation?
12. With which man do you identify? How could this instruction from James about the gospel help you?
Aslan is on the move melting our idols. The White Witch is upset, for she says, “This is no thaw! This is Spring!”Aslan is near.
13. Be alert for Aslan on the move — and record any sightings here!
14. If you listened to any of the other Keller sermons on the prodigal sons, share your gleanings here.
MEETING OUR BLOGGERS: SUSAN!
Susan is another woman seeking hard after God, and I love what she wrote in our last post:
“OPEN YOUR HEART TO THE STONECUTTER! (that needs to be in Dee’s new book!) LET HIM HAVE YOU…LET HIM DO WITH YOU WHAT HE WILL…fall into His arms and trust.” Susan wrote of her husband Jess, her two sons, Adam and Ryan (20 and 17) and of her daughter Melanie (10).
My greatest ministry and passion has been being blessed and privileged to be a wife and mom. Being home with my children to love, care for, and nurture them is the best thing I could ever do!
I have loved reading God’s Word to them and explaining it to them; trying to exhort them to test everything against the plumb line of Scripture. I treasure the memories and love I share with each child, from Adam, who in 3rd grade would get up 10 min. early for school, get dressed, and jump in bed with me to ‘snuggle’, saying, “Mom, this is the best part of the day!”; to Ryan, who, at age 13, said, “Mom, you are really nice to talk to, I like talking with you”, as we were shooting baskets in the driveway; to my Melanie, who every day gives me an abundance of hugs and kisses and “I love you more!” Her small hand in mine is better than any riches!
I’m the youngest of 3 sisters; I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, we didn’t go to church. God brought me to Himself as I went to church with my husband when we dated; I felt so drawn to be in a church family, to be “on the inside”; wasn’t sure how? Several years after joining a denomination, and then going to a Bible teaching church’s Bible study, I finally heard the Gospel and prayed to Jesus to forgive me of my sins. I imagined myself at the Cross, knowing my shameful sins were what He was dying for; and thought, “What would Jesus say to me?” Immediately into my mind came these words, “Now do you see how much I love you?” I know salvation is all of God, because I didn’t know I needed Him. I was 34.
I am a registered nurse and work a few days a month as a med-surg staff nurse, and a stay at home mom; I like to bake, read, do Bible studies, walk, hike, bicycle, work in my flower garden, and I like to be outside. I teach 3-4 year olds Sunday school at my church. I love this age group! As an RN, I like caring for my patients and anytime I’m able to talk about Jesus with them.
This study on idolatry is causing me to look at myself and my sin in a whole new way. Now I look for the root of my sinful habits and patterns; it has shed light on why I do what I do! A specific example is how I relate to my in-laws, husband, and children. I often react with anger, hurt feelings, jealousy. I see now an idol of affirmation/approval, or power/control. I’m learning that only God can fill the hole in my heart, not my idols, not other people. Getting free from these idols will mean a freedom in my relationship to others; being free to love them; and helping me to put God first. One day, I want to live this verse: “I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
15. Let’s bless Susan!