Practical Foolishness

Professing atheists1 are fools. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). There are also practical atheists, those who, whether God exists or not, live like He doesn’t. Our lives, more than our lips, reflect what we believe in our hearts.

Idolators are also fools. There’s no wisdom in saying that there is no god, there’s also no wisdom in making up a god. And this is key for professing believers: there are practical idolators, too, those who live like the true God is different than He really is. We are image-bearers, not merely image-describers, and, in particular, we are Christians, so that means our behavior should reflect what He looks like.

If I describe God as a personal God but I always keep others at a distance, I reflect an idol, a distant God. That makes me a fool. If I say God is a God of love but I default to criticism or am quick to anger, I reflect an idol, a demanding God. That is practical idolatry; that is foolishness.

It’s easy for us to cry “Fool!” at someone who believes in evolution or someone who bows before a carved block of wood. It is harder to see and confess our own practical foolishness. We believe in a personal and loving God, and we must repent when we do not reflect Him truly.


  1. I say “professing” atheists because, according to Romans 1:18-21 every man knows God, even if he claims not to.

Address the Issue

In Mark 7 the Pharisees and scribes came to interrogate Jesus about His disciples’ failure to follow the proper eating liturgy. They asked, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v.5) Jesus answered their question with a quotation.

Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This nation honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

Jesus summarized the problem in verse 8: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” In other words, “You all are following the wrong liturgy, not My disciples.”

There are at least two Pharisaical failures. First, men don’t set the standard, God does. Second, men set low standards; God’s standards always aim high, at the heart. The standards of men fail to address the issue.

After the rebuke, Jesus called the people to Him again and said,

Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. (vv.14-15)

Our problem isn’t simply that we want to replace God’s standard, it’s that we don’t like the conviction of dealing with what comes out of us, what is in our hearts. It’s easier to wash our hands or tell someone else to wash their hands. It’s easier to look good by donating money to missions than to be good by supporting our parents (vv.9-13).

Lust, coveting, deceit, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness come from within (vv.21-23). If we want to honor God, not only with our lips but also with our hearts, we must start by addressing the issue in our own hearts and confessing our sins.

A Closet Full of Clothes

Unthankful people dominate our culture. We are skilled at identifying all the existing or potential problems rather than identifying all the things that enabled us to see the problems. We are better at thinking about all the things that are missing or undone than about all the work already finished. It bothers us when a light bulb burns out; it does not bother us that many people don’t even have electricity. We don’t like many of the clothes in our closets, not putting the idea of having a closet full of clothes into perspective. We keep mental spreadsheets of how many people have not thanked us and let ourselves off the hook because we were busy dealing with the abundance of “problems” that we we’ve been blessed with.

Giving thanks is a command, an expectation found everywhere in God’s Word. Christians must “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Is Paul saying that all circumstances are God’s will so give thanks? Or is it God’s will to give thanks no matter what’s happening? Yes. Both. All of the above. He’s in control so give thanks, and in every situation He’s given us something to be thankful for.

Unthankfulness characterizes those who deserve God’s judgment (Romans 1:21). Even though unbelievers know God and perceive His power and good nature, they don’t honor Him or give thanks. The consequences, in addition to judgment, include futility of mind. They claim that all their fault-finding is wisdom, and all they are is foolish.

Unthankfulness is unhelpful–as it rarely persuades others, unlawful–as it disobeys God’s command, and it is dangerous–as it traps men in foolishness. Thankfulness, on the other hand, is not only right, it is powerful. A thankful husband is like 220 volt electricity running energy into the home. A thankful momma is like a warm blanket that wraps her children in protection. A thankful church declares (the right sort of) war on pride–thinking I deserve better than that, and pettiness–thinking that person doesn’t deserve that. A thankful Christians is free from egotism and nitpicking, free from negativity and unfulfilled expectations; we are free to be thankful.

Dirt in the Carpet

We are not our own. We are God’s. God chose us, created us, died for us, called us, and keeps us. He made each human being in His image, and He is conforming every Christian into the image of His Son.

We are not our own. No part of our selves, from tongue to toes, with spouse or with children, among co-workers or community, in the voting booth or at the coffee shop, no part of our lives is ours to do with whatever we want.

We are not our own. John Calvin put it this way in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

We are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.7.1)

We are not our own. The apostle Paul put it this way in his first letter to the believers in Corinth:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19b-20)

In context, Paul explains that our sexual conduct and physical purity is a type of worship. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit so our conduct is more clear than a neon sign about what type of worship we offer.

Sin dims the light of truth in the worship center. Disobedience rubs dirt into and tears up the carpet of our hearts. But we are not our own. The owner of the building (that is, our bodies) calls us to come to the light, to confess rather than conceal sin, and to be cleansed by faith in Christ. Then the temple is open for business and filled with singing to Him who raises us up by His power.

Our Favorite Wool Sweater

In any given story, one character to watch out for is the guy who is always being told what to do and always doing whatever he wants anyway. We’ve all seen this guy before. If he’s five, he keeps playing with his Legos until mom says it three more times. If he’s fifteen, he says, “Huh?” If he’s twenty-five, he begins a debate over the nature of authority and its appropriate application. If he’s fifty-five, he’s much more mature, so he nods and says, “That sounds like a great idea” before he goes back to his own business. There is one heart, although many faces, among those who avoid first time obedience.

Jesus told a story about a son who acted as if he was going to obey at first, but it was only that, an act. That son not only disobeyed the will of his father, but also missed out on the kingdom (Matthew 21:28-32). In a different context, James explained that those who only hear the word rather than hear and do deceive themselves (James 1:22-24). Their final condition is worse than their first because now they think themselves to be examples. They are examples.

John wrote in his gospel about the good Shepherd and His sheep. The refrain throughout chapter 10 is that Jesus’ sheep hear His voice and, when He calls them, they follow Him. The Shepherd’s voice is familiar. They have a relationship. They have history together. The true Shepherd knows His sheep, and we know the true sheep as those who follow the Shepherd.

The point is that we ought not make Him say it again, whatever “it” is. We shouldn’t act as if His will is an interruption. It’s unnecessary to negotiate about the extent of His authority. It’s inappropriate to appear as if we’re going to follow and then wander off our own way when He turns around. For Christ’s sheep, first time obedience is like our favorite wool sweater we always want to wear.

How Collected We Are

We are not usually good team players. We put the “-ism” in individualism. We’re big on personal freedom and individual rights, personal investment strategies and personal preferences, personal development and self-reliance.

As a nation, our bumper-stickers say “Be all that you can be,” and “Look out for #1.” There have been days of cosmetic unity in our history, usually during the Olympics or when we’re in a clear war. Then we come together and raise our common flag. Then we’re glad to be identified by something bigger than our driver’s license or Facebook profile.

Even in the church we’re usually more mindful of the person sitting in our seat (me) than the rest of the pew. But one leg can’t hold up a table; one finger can’t claim to be the whole hand, let alone the entire body.

As Christians we are many individual members. Each believer is saved and sanctified, personally responsible for sin and for spiritual warfare. But each believer is also part of the church–the Body–and should not think of himself otherwise. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

There are things that the church does that a Christian cannot do by himself. God’s point to the universe is “through the church” (Ephesians 3:10), through the collected mess we are. The heavenly beings don’t learn anything by watching how messy we are, they know that. They’re watching how collected we are.

Like a Compass Points North

God takes His position as God seriously. He is not insecure or defensive, but He is jealous and promises to punish any who bow before knockoff gods. Commandment number one of ten made clear: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Worship of the LORD is to be exclusive; serve only Him. And worship of Him is to be done rightly: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image….” Worship of the LORD was to be unabridged, not limited by any distorted or dwarfish representation.

Why? The easy answer is that our Creator and Deliverer is infinitely worthy and deserves all our reverence. But that isn’t the only answer. Right worship is also important because men become like what they worship. Men were made from the beginning as image-bearers of God and true worship provides us with our bearings like a compass points north. Idolatry offends God, yes, and it also aims men in the wrong direction. The needle doesn’t need to be off by much before we’re soon headed off the cliff.

Failure to worship, or worship of another god, or off target worship of the true God, makes men miserable, not only because their God-given conscience is violated, but also because their God-given image is distorted. They cannot know truly who they are or what direction they should go because they believe and worship what is false. Even as Christians we can get lost a thousand different ways each week, so we confess our sin and get back to worship that keeps us oriented.

Mud All Over the Place

In John 13, Jesus began to wash the disciples feet as a demonstration of His love for them. When He came to Peter, Peter objected and, in a sense, we understand his objection because Jesus was the Master and the Master should be the one having his feet washed; He should not be the one washing. Jesus, of course, overcame Peter’s initial refusal, and then Peter reacted to the opposite extreme and told Jesus to give him a full-body bath. Jesus again corrected Peter’s misunderstanding by explaining that dirty feet didn’t necessarily mean his face was filthy.

The first lesson of John 13 is about service and Jesus taught His disciples to follow Him in this pattern of humility. But there is another issue as well, the issue of cleanliness.

We are Christians, and one of the things that means is that we are clean; our sins have been forgiven. Our body of sin has been washed in Christ. But our belief of this and our having confessed our sins for sake of salvation, does not mean that it was one confession and done. We, as Christians, get our feet dirty with sin. John teaches Christians in 1 John 1 that, for the sake of our ongoing fellowship with God and with each other, we must keep confessing our sins.

We ought to confess our sins each time we sin. And as a congregation, when we gather for sake of fellowship with God and each other, we do well to wipe our dirty feet at the door rather than track mud all over the place.

Tapering Off in Sin

At the prayer meeting, not many people ask for prayer so that they might taper off in their adulteries, or their thefts, or all the lies they are spreading around town. But [bitterness, envy, anger, and pride] are respectable—we have a delicate way of acknowledging them without really dealing with them. And one of the reasons we get away with touching on them lightly is that the main problem is clearly … the other guy’s.

—Doug Wilson, Getting Your Eyes Off the Other Guy