Idolizing Mission?

Reading through the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament has always been a frustrating experience for me. Here’s the reason: The #1 sin that appears in every chapter of Israel’s history is the sin of idolatry. My spontaneous thoughts were: “It’s as simple as this: ‘You shall not have other gods before me!’ Why on earth didn’t they get it? Couldn’t they just NOT bow down before golden calves and Baals and Asherahs? How could they be so ludicrously dim-witted?!?” It took me a long time to appreciate the repetitiveness of the tragic history of God’s chosen people. By dismissing their idolatry as plain stupidity — a stupidity that was beyond the reach of any help — I missed a crucial point that the OT seems to convey.

If God invests hundreds of pages in holy writ to deal with the sin of idolatry, I ought to start with the working hypothesis that I, too, could be guilty of that sin. There must be something in the fallen, sinful nature that inescapably seeks the worship, adoration, and longing after something that is not our Father God in heaven. As John Calvin pointed out, our hearts seem to be idol factories.

When I thought of idols, idolatry and idolaters, the images that came to mind were ancient pagan peoples who fell down before ugly statues, in some cases even offering up their own children. That didn’t seem relevant to me. But idols appear in many different forms. Jesus taught that money can be a very powerful idol. Teenie-bands and pop stars (as the name ‘American Idol’ suggests) have been worshiped. What about relationships? My spouse can be an idol. And then there is power and career and children and… Soon I realized that everything and everyone can be an idol. Therefore, only a very broad definition can do justice to the term “idol..” I like Tim Keller’s definition. In his book “Counterfeit Gods,” Keller defines an idol as follows: “It is anything more important to you than God… anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

Idolatry is a very slippery slope, for this reason: Good things can be idols. Money and relationships are not bad at all. In fact, they are God’s blessings. And yet they can be devastating idols if I pursue and love them more than God. Any good thing can become an idol if I turn it into an ultimate thing.

Scarily, mission is not an exception. (For more on mission see here.) What is the ultimate goal of our lives? Is it God’s mission, or is it God himself? The distinction between the two might seem unimportant at first. But the consequences and entailments of making the wrong choice can be devastating. So I had to face this question: Is it possible that my mission, my house-church, my ministry could be an idol, just as money and sex are idols of nonbelievers? If so, what are the symptoms of worshipping mission as an idol?

Examining my own heart, I came up with these painful observations:

My joy was strongly dependent on the number of Bible students that I was able to bring to worship service.

My self-esteem and self-worth increased with every person who agreed to come to Bible study and decreased with every person who left.

I overloaded and burdened my Bible students with unrealistic expectations and humongous anticipation (such as becoming a world-class Bible teacher), which I justified by saying that I was only trying to look at these people with ‘the hope of God.’

I was not able to enjoy my Bible students for the people they are because I couldn’t be satisfied with their present stage in their discipleship (by which I meant their contributions to the ministry).

When people in whom I had invested years of prayer, labor, time and money left the ministry, I not only turned sad but became hopelessly crushed and inconsolably miserable.

After people had left, I continued to love them and to go after them because I silently hoped that they would come back to ‘my’ church. But when I realized that this was not going to happen, I gave up my relationships with them entirely.

I was willing to love my Bible students unconditionally (as long as they were around the ministry), but I was not willing to show the same kind of love to close coworkers.

I maintained little interest in others who were committed to Jesus outside of ‘my’ ministry, that is, UBF.

Serving my Bible students had led myself to neglect entirely the needs of my family and even my own needs.

I was a notorious breaker of the Sabbath rest.

At times, I was close to becoming burned out.

All of these are my personal experiences. Do any of the points above sound familiar to you? I am well aware that mission itself is good and necessary. Jesus commanded me to feed his sheep. Serving God’s mission is obedience to will. And yet, by making mission the ultimate pursuit of my existence, I was living a life of idolatry. I realized that it would, in the end, ruin my relationships with my family and my Bible students. It would turn me into a control freak. And in the end it would leave me utterly despaired, disappointed and dissatisfied. And a church that is filled with that kind of idolatry could not but end up becoming unhealthy and even abusive.

What is the solution to this dilemma? Idolatry is the worship of anything that isn’t God in an attempt to receive what only God can give. What are the things I long for and which only God can give? I seek significance. I want to live a life that truly makes a difference. I want to have purpose. I want to have a sense of security and safety. I want to be affirmed, valued and cherished. I long for the one relationship that will satisfy the hungers of my heart and the thirsts of my soul. Ultimately, I seek lavish, satisfying, overflowing love.

It would be a most foolish thing to assume that the mission I am called to serve could fulfill any of these needs. There is only one place in this universe where all of these needs are supplied. It is the place where God is worshiped and adored, through the death and life of His incarnated Son Jesus Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The good news of the gospel is that God loves me. He made me ultimately worthy and valuable by purchasing me with the infinitely costly blood of Christ. The purpose of my life is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, and that enjoyment must begin here on earth. Unless my mission is the consequence of worship, then I have turned something good into something evil and I have done good things for wrong motives.

In one of our most studied and beloved Bible passages, Jesus stands on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, reinstating a broken, despondent, failed disciple. Not by challenging him to never deny his master again. Not by telling him to first feed more sheep. But by affirming his eternal love to Peter by asking him three times: “Do you love ME? Do you truly love ME?”


  1. Hannah Love

    Thanks for this post. I actually really wanted this topic to be discussed but wasn’t sure how to write about it.
    There is that risk of failing to serve and love God while serving God’s mission. Like you mentioned, we worship and idolize mission. While I was in Korea I sometimes felt that many of the people in UBF were obsessed more with mission than they were with God. I couldn’t figure out if it was God they were obsessed with so they were crazy about mission, or it if was just the mission itself. Having the mission gave meaning into their lives.

    “I seek significance. I want to live a life that truly makes a difference. I want to have purpose. I want to have a sense of security and safety. I want to be affirmed, valued and cherished. I long for the one relationship that will satisfy the hungers of my heart and the thirsts of my soul.” This is what most people crave. We all have some kind of craving for meaning, to have purpose, to know more and live a good/decent life. While I was in Korea I would constantly hear that Jesus would fulfill everyone’s cravings and fix people’s broken lives. Yet the distinction between Jesus and the misson was blurry.
    You mentioned that you found your worth in being successful in this mission of having Bible students and so on. This is why people find worth in their success as CEOs, artists, being famous etc. We, in the church, may find our worth in mission.
    If we fail to meet the church’s expectations we feel a sense of loss. This leads us to believe that we’re useless, worthless and failures. We become tired. Why? Because we haven’t been successful in our mission. We completely forget to find our value and worth in God himself, but attempt to find it in God’s mission and blessings.

    I really like your conclusion. I’ve learned that Jesus wants my heart more than anything. I’ve learned to find my value and worth in Jesus and not in this world. It’s given me peace and freedom.

  2. When I lived far from Bible I had no any meaning of life. But when I came to Bible and found that I am sinner, I found just one purpose for my life – to be saved from hell. But once I have been borned again I started to look for goal of my life again. And realized that just knowing God and his love could be that goal. Next question was – how could I know God? And John 14:21 answered me – by having and obying his commands I could know him and his love. That is the foundation for my missionalogy. And I think if mission is seen in this way it couldn’t be idol – but a good way to know God.
    Other thing that I found in Bible is that love toward God is always heading together with love to neigbour. It is on all pages of Bible. That is God’s command and that is the mission. This all about love. If our mission, or what we called “mission” have smell of love it couldn’t be idol. It is just God will.

  3. Thanks, Henoch. I have to say that you sound like Tim Keller, which is great, because Keller is such an excellent communicator of biblical truths geared toward our times. His 2 books (Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods) have influenced me profoundly. By the way, I also loved your earlier post on the prodigal son/Prodigal God.

    Your description of our idolotry of mission is spot on. Because of our devotion to mission (seemingly more than to Jesus), we don’t know how to truly love those who leave the ministry, or those who don’t live up to our expectations. Because we, who are so devoted to mission, are hurt, we start a hurtful rumor gossip mill (that sometimes spreads even to various continents) of own dear coworkers being “difficult” or bad, because of our own shallow evaluation or perception of them. When someone leaves ubf, they can’t possibly be still seeking God, because they “ran away.”

    In Counterfeit Gods, Keller’s chapter on hidden idols based on the story of Jonah is worth the price of the book. I think that our predominant ubf idols are obviously not “younger brother sins” of money, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But our idols are mainly “older brother sins,” or Jonah’s hidden idols of religious superiority, cultural superiority, moral superiority, racial superiority, patrioticism, spiritual superiority, etc, don’t you think?

  4. Hi Hannah, i think i made similar observations in Korea as you did. in my humble opinion (i spent way too little time in Korea to make any qualified statement here), i personally felt that a much greater emphasis was given on performance rather than grace of God.
    I think it’s very important to point out that our quest for purpose, significance, love and joy are not intrisically sinful or selfish. Rather, this is the way we have been created. Whereas buddhism would tell us to get rid of all these desires, God wants us to pursue them with all our heart and to find the fulfillment of all these desires in Him and Him alone.

    David, thanks you very much for your comment. I really appreciate your active involvement and your thoughtful comments. i totally agree with you. The point i wanted to make in my article is how easily one can slip into the sin of making mission an ultimate thing. At least in my life it has always been like this.
    Carl R. Trueman recently wrote in a very nice article: “What is clear, however, is that one who seeks church office (mission) for personal advancement and gain is the very person who should never be allowed within a million miles of a pulpit or a session, for in trying to bring glory to himself he brings nothing but public disgrace upon the church and the name of Him who purchased her with His blood.” In my opinion, this is a very important point that hasn’t been appreciated the way it should in our ministries. What do you think?

    Ben, the influence of Tim Keller is undeniable. =) Tim Keller rocks! I have to admit that until a few years ago i thought that i know everything about God’s grace (having studied Romans several times, Galatians, 1. Corinthians, etc.). Of course i wouldn’t ever say that in public and ‘humbly’ say: “God’s grace is so vast that i can study it all my life without doing justice to it”. But inwardly i thought that i understood God’s grace very well. It was Pastor Tim Keller who showed me that i know close to nothing about God’s grace. His book “Reason for God” and his sermons turned me into a great fan of him.

    • Thanks for answer, Henoch. Yes, surely I’m agree that when in the center of mission is the desire to bring glory for yourself or just to please someone else, not God – this is idolatry. I just point that things for helping us to avoid blaming true and good Bible mission of God. Many times I met people who talked very much about loving and worshiping only God and in their hearts there were no place for a person who is near. This is not Christianity. But in the same time another extremity is to extrimely focus on deals, ministries etc. how you mentioned above, and in the result to loose the purpose. This is not Christianity as well.

  5. I remember someone posting on their blog this interesting letter. Adoniram Judson, the 1st American missionary, in a marriage proposal to the father of his bride to be, wrote:

    “I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left is heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteous, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?”

    Idolizing mission? Or simply being faithful? When is idolizing mission an excuse to avoid being faithful? When is trying to be faithful an excuse to idolize mission?

  6. Hi John, I’m not sure if you read it off what I had posted:

    To give a stab at your very important question, I’d say that there is an extremely FINE LINE between idolizing mission and being faithful to Jesus. When we idolize mission, we bring attention to ourselves, our ministry, our fellowship, our chapter, our church, our leader, our disciples, our growth in numbers, our wonderful preaching and teaching, etc. But if one is faithful to Christ, as Adonirum Judson was, there is no hint whatsoever, that there is anything for him in it except to please God.

  7. Thank you Henoch for this thoughtful and honest post. I have often realized that I had idolized mission in exactly the ways you described. John, I love your question and will be thinking about it for some time. I am always struggling to hear the command of Jesus and accept His absolute claim on my life, through His Spirit, working together with His written word in my unique situation. I cannot generalize the demand of Christ on Adoniram Judson. His faithfulness was to Christ’s call in his situation. Mine is very different. I am called as a “missionary” to a Christian (though largely post-Christian) American culture, where broken relationships are the norm. Would Christ ask me to sacrifice my family relationships and other relationships on the altar of my mission to this culture? What does faithfulness to mission look like here? i am still thinking….

  8. Joe Schafer

    John’s question is a great one. Ben says “there is an extremely FINE LINE between idolizing mission and being faithful to Jesus.”

    From God’s prespective, that line must be crystal clear. The Holy Spirit searches the heart and knows our innermost thoughts and motives. He knows exactly why we do what we do. God could glance at the offerings of Cain and Abel and instantly know that one was acceptable as true worship, whereas the other was corrupt and self-serving.

    But from our perspective, that line can be very blurry. We are full of self-deception and we love to mischaracterize our actions. Am I worshiping mission or simply being faithful? In order to answer that question, I have to know myself better. I have to become aware of and honest about what I am thinking and feeling.

    Some might say that we are so totally depraved that we will never understand ourselves. They say that, because we can never trust ourselves, we should just stop worrying about our motives and just focus on doing what is right. I have a great deal of sympathy for that point of view. In fact, this was essentially my life’s motto: “Just do it!” In the short run, that seemed to work for me. But over the long run, it kept me from growing in my relationship with God to the point where I could no longer worship him and interact with him as a person. When Jesus popped the question, “Do you truly love ME?” the only honest answer I could give was, “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t, but please don’t look at my heart, just look at my outward appearance and actions.”

    It seems to me that if we truly believe the gospel — that we have died and risen with Christ and are truly indwelt by the Holy Spirit — then sooner or later we have to stop living by outward appearances and start to understand what is going on inside of us. To start discerning which of our thoughts, motives and actions are truly from the Spirit of God and which are from the sinful nature. Then that fine line will no longer be so fine.

  9. I appreciate this thoughtful and prayerful discussion about significant issues in any sincere Christians life. I have often found it hard to articulate many of the things you discuss. It makes me think seriously about my life and motives. Something which has been very hard to do since I have often buried my reflections with ‘just trust God’, ‘just study the bible’ or ‘just pray about it’. But as I get older, I need to reflect newly on the purpose and motive of my life in order to purify and deepen my commitment to Jesus. Otherwise, I find myself becoming not much more than a religious robot – going through the motions without the fire of God’s presence propelling me. I do not want to spend my life robbing God of his glory and becoming burned out in the end. I need God’s grace to purify my heart and create a new spirit in me.

    • Christy, I hear what you are saying. Honestly, I am really beginning to hate that word, “Just.” As in “Just trust God.” Or “Just study the Bible.” Or “Just pray about it.” When we say those things, it can sound so “spiritual.” But so often, it is a technique to avoid, obscure and bury the truth. When I think of all the times I tried to counsel people (including myself), all the times that I used that awful word, I now realize that in most cases it was a sign that I had not really listened to the person; I had not shared in their pain or suffering; I was trivializing and negating their true experiences; etc. I want to declare a personal moratorium on that four-letter word.

    • I felt really bad by reading this about “just”. But I began to use this word and this phrase “I just study the Bible” since I found that my life foundation is broken and I couldn’t be sure in almost all practices for which I was used to before. Then I prayed for what to do and found that I could “just to study the Bible” as the very beginning of my life rebuilding.
      But I know what you mean – use it to avoid the problem. it is right.

  10. Interesting post. I once heard a talk by Peter Kreeft that focused on a similar idea. His point was that many of us as Christians end up having faith in faith instead of Faith in Christ. Faith is definitely the best way of knowing Christ and following him but it, as we all know, not God himself.

  11. Abraham Jeong

    One of the very good indicators of whether we idolize mission, I think, is how we treat our fellow church members (‘co-workers’ or ‘old memebers’). People in UBF are very good at sacrificing their time, efforts and money for, and being patient with, their Bible students, but seem to often neglect to exercise the same compassion and kindness to their ‘brothers’ and genuinely care about them. Granted, reaching out to the new people, especially the college students who don’t know the Gospel, is very important, but we shouldn’t forget that people will know we are truly Jesus’ disciples, not when we have many sheep, but when we love one another washing each other’s feet.

    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35)

  12. Joshua Yoon

    Henoch, thanks for brining forth this critical issue. I am so thilled with many sincere and thoughtful writings about this topic. This is the very topic I have been thinking of for the last few years. Many of us were taught right from the first chapter of Genesis that man was made for mission. We even say that man is equal to mission. I learned this when I was a student and taught the same thing to many students for more than 30 years. It is true that mission gives meaning and purpose to life. It is one of the things that differentiates man from animals. However, overemphasizing mission can produce maladies of all kinds, emotional, interpersonal familial, and social. I found my view of people had been somewhat distorted due to obession with mission. As a missionary my life had been defined with one word, “mission.” Without mission I would be nothing. My nick name “Work Hard” made me even more work oriented. It was not until I heard Misty Edward’s talk, a song writer at IHOP at the conference two years ago that I began to question about what is really important in life. When she asked us, “What is the point of life?” it struck my heart. It is to love God! Love, Love, Love! I thought I had a love relationship with God but that day God opened my eyes to see that my life had been pointless for many years. My relationship with God had been pretty shallow. I hardly thought that God is my lover who dearly loves me as his lover and is seeking my love and my heart more than anything else. But I did many things out of sense of mission and obigation. The pleasure of being loved by God and loving God almost non-existed. I began to seriously reexamine my life and decided to live as lover of God with top priority. But I found myself going back to the old pattern and habit. Love quickly evaporated. Soon serving God became a tiring business. It was almost an addiction. Without doing something related to mission, I felt restless and thought I was wasting my time. I felt guilty when I walked on university campus appreciating the colouful fall leaves without inviting students to Bible study. Sitting in the sofa and watching my son’s favorite TV show with him seemed to be a waste of time. Why do I feel this way? I realized something was not quite right. I needed some sort of therapy…Love therapy. Without Jesus’ love therapy I quickly go back to the status of idolizing mission. I need to hear Jesus’question everyday, “Son of Yoon, do you truly love me more than these?” Thanks be to God that I have already experienced much of his healing. I hope I will be completely healed from my pathological path of over-mission through Jesus’ love therapy so I may not lose the point of life…which is to love God.

  13. Hi Joshua. Thanks for sharing your struggle and I understand exactly where you came from since I grew up in UBF. When I first came to UBF I was fascinated by Genesis study and Jesus’ world mission commandment. When I grew up in the mother church with my parents they never emphasized obeying world mission commandment or any kind of mission. But in UBF mission was everything. On the other hand many churches nowadays have no clear mission. Few years ago,I read a book, “Total Truth” by Nancy Pearcey. I learned that there are two mission, Great Commission and Cultural Mandate. The first mission is the Great Commission (Matt 28:19,20) that we are familiar with. Second mission is Cultural Mandate based on Genesis 1:27, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it–“. This verse tells us our original purpose is to create cultures, build civilization. This means that our vocation or professional work is not a second class activity, something we do just to put food in the table. It is the high calling for which we were originally created. As a family physician I attend 15-20 patients everyday. This is my vocation and I enjoy it very much. Whether my patients are very famous person in the society or just laborer, each person is equally important in the sight of God because they are all God’s children. This may apply to you since you take care of adult mentally handicap patients. Whatever our vocation or profession may be we are called to obey this cultural mandate. My point is we should obey two very important commandments because they are both equally important in the sight of God.