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Guest Blogger: Joel is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and is preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church of America. His ministry focus is the Arabic-speaking world, and he writes about life, the gospel, and the books he’s reading at

“Everyone looks for an area into which he can throw himself completely, in which what is unique in his life can come to its own” (Johan Herman Bavinck, The Riddle of Life, 58).

Johan Herman Bavinck was a Dutch missionary to Indonesia who lived from 1895-1964. After his 20-year missionary career, he returned to the Netherlands to teach theology, but throughout both of those aspects of his ministry, he constantly reflected on how it is that people simultaneously are surrounded by God’s revelation and yet rebel against it. What is perhaps surprising is that when we see his diagnosis of the problems of the human heart in his own day—a century ago—we may recognize something of the problems that afflict the human heart in our own times.

He wrote The Riddle of Life to address exactly that issue. In chapters 9-11 he addresses the idols of the human heart. He begins his discussion of that topic with the quote above, which argues that built into the human heart is the desire to serve something, to “throw himself completely” into something. I realized the truth of this when I found myself screaming—sometimes in anger, sometimes in frustration, sometimes with joy—at my television as I watched my team play in the NBA playoffs this year. We want to be “all about” something. But of course, while God made us to serve himself, we twist that desire into service of the things that he has created. He highlights three areas in which we commonly create idols for ourselves: money, honor, and pleasure.


“Money,” Bavinck says, “has a romantic glow about it” (62). Money gives such great possibilities—of a better life, of finer things, of more dazzling places—and great security in the face of a changing world. Even beyond that, though, “money is not merely something that you have, but something that you are” (61). When these things come to characterize our attitude towards money, we have fallen into what Bavinck describes as a “narrow desire” for money—an idolatrous desire—as opposed to a “broad desire” for money—the simple desire to have what is needful to feed one’s family and take care of the responsibilities that god has given us.

Now certainly, we all recognize that money is ultimately nothing that important. A green version of Ben Franklin is basically just paper to which society has given value. But because of the possibilities and security it represents, we tend to make it into something more. We make it into a god, but “it is a false god” and “in its deepest essence it is a liar” (64). It is when we come near to Jesus that we recognize our desire for money to be what is—a desire for God that has been twisted into something of our own making.


The second idol that Bavinck discusses is that of honor, the desire for praise from men. There’s a sense in which this is quite natural. We are made for relationships, for community, and encouraging words are an integral part of our relationships. Indeed, there are many honorable causes for us to work for in this life, and we want to do well in them. But Bavinck illustrates how easy it is to turn that desire from a desire that is ultimately aimed at the message, the mission, or the cause into a desire for approbation for ourselves.

Certainly, different people succumb to this in different ways. Some people are extremely confident, exuding an air of nonchalance toward the opinions and praise of others. But hidden within that very confidence is the assumption that people will generally love what one has to say. Others are not confident at all, and they are constantly wishing for the praise of others, timidly doing only what will gain them acceptance. But both can recognize the idolatrous desire for honor at one particular moment: when they grow jealous upon hearing someone else do or say something better than themselves in the service of the same cause. That is a dead giveaway that the desire for honor has grown into idolatry.


The final idol that Bavinck mentions is that of pleasure, by which he means the enjoyment that we may receive from any number of activities in life. However, he makes a very perceptive note: in his day (the early to mid-20th century), work and pleasure were increasingly divorced from one another. Whereas at many times the enjoyment one received from work was a real pleasure, more and more pleasure has been conceived of as gratification from something into which we must put no effort (participation in sports being a notable exception to this). The sad result of this is twofold. First, work is viewed as a horrible monotony with no real purpose, and secondly, pleasure, because it is divorced from what God has called us to do, can rarely be increased. “In the world of gratification,” Bavinck says, “1 plus 1 is never 2, but always less than two” (78). Pleasure is always limited and never satisfying, and yet it is a great idol of the human heart.

Fleeing Idols

Having identified the idols, Bavinck offers some encouraging words on how to fight idolatry, and it is with these thoughts that I will conclude:

Struggling one, you can live only if you begin with a quiet trust that you are living in a meaningful universe which was conceived and made by the eternal Father. It is possible only if you repose yourself on the confidence that He has given you your existence, your talents and your abilities, and that you have nothing more to do in the place where He has put you than quietly to shine and to serve. If you thus believe that the Father is behind everything and in everything, then you no longer need these three—money, honor, pleasure. Then you can go on your way like a child. Then you have the only true and high ideal of life that is worth the trouble to live for, namely the purpose which the Father has granted you the capabilities to complete. (81)

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