Canaries and Coal Mines
One of my earlier pastoral jobs was in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Before the U.S. television show The Office made it comically famous, my family and I knew Scranton as home. In this old coal-mining town, the American dream faded decades before.
When the coal miners of Northeastern Pennsylvania went down into the deep mines, they would take a caged canary with them. They kept careful watch over the bird, knowing that when it started gasping for breath (or died), they had little time left to get out of the mine. Oxygen was running low, and deadly gasses were increasing, so death was imminent. These miners knew that breathing anything besides oxygen wasn’t an option; trying and surviving without it would lead to critical illness, if not immediate death.
What’s the point of this gloomy metaphor? Unlike these coal miners, we try to spiritually survive on something different from the figurative “oxygen” we were meant to breathe. God created human beings to live and breathe in communion with him, the Creator. Instead, sin tempts us to try and survive off the creation and its physical pleasures.
The physical world and its tangible glories were designed to draw us closer to the glorious Creator; they were never meant to sustain us independently. Trying to find life outside of the Creator only brings destruction and death. Putting physical things in the place of the Creator is always destructive to the fullness of life as God designed it to be.
When I feed on that which cannot give life, I am therefore not feeding on the life-giving, grace-bestowing nutrients that can only be found at the feet of the Creator. Jonah said it this way, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8-9, NIV)
Any physical thing that appears to be life-giving is a delusion. Here’s why.
1. Physical things are impermanent.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19, ESV) The physical world is never a reliable place to find hope. It is transient and unpredictable and will always fail you.
2. Physical things are deceptive.
Recall the Wednesday’s Word from two weeks ago, “Scarecrows in a Cucumber Field.” Jeremiah 10:1–16 says that you have to nail these idols to a platform or they fall over, and you have to carry them around because they cannot walk. (See also Psa. 115:5, 135:16; Hab. 2:18, 19; Isa. 41:23, 46:7). Every promise of every idol is a lie.
3. Physical things are impersonal.
Human beings were wired for a foundational connection of spirit to Spirit. My spirit connects with the Spirit in communion so profound that it’s impossible to wrap words around it. Trying to replace that with something that I can see, touch, taste, and use—but that I can never have a relationship with—robs me of my humanity.
4. Physical things are enslaving.
Here is one of the cruelest tricks of idolatry. What we think we have under control is, at that moment, in the process of enslaving us. Our desires for material things morph into “needs,” and when they do, we become entirely convinced that we cannot live without them. The enslaving, addicting quality of idolatry must not be understated or ignored.
Have you been disappointed, deceived, and enslaved by physical idols? Don’t be discouraged! Your Creator fights for you with the full might of his redemptive hand. You are the apple of his eye. He will not share you with another. He will not allow you to live in the delusion that you have found elsewhere what can only be found in him. He did not shed the blood of his Son for us only to lose us to some physical thing in the creation.
Paul David Tripp
1. What aspect(s) of the physical world do you enjoy the most? What gives you the most pleasure and why?
2. How is this tangible glory evidence of the glory of God? How is this “finger glory” pointing you to God? Are you following the sign to celebrate the Creator, or are you stopping short and only celebrating the creation?
3. How have you experienced the impermanence of this fallen world? What have you lost, and what has been broken? Is this loss causing you to groan and yearn for the permanence of a new heaven and a new earth?
4. How have you been previously deceived by the lies of the enemy and the lies of earthly idols? What did they promise, and how did they fail to deliver? Why were you so susceptible to this lie? What does that expose about your heart? Are you still at risk of being deceived?
5. What steps can you take to create a vibrant spiritual environment where your spirit connects with the Spirit in communion? What physical temptations do you need to cut out that might be interfering with this rich spiritual communion?
6. What are you currently telling yourself that you need and cannot live without? Are you enslaved by this particular sin or idol, or at least vulnerable? How has Christ already provided this for you through his life, death, and resurrection? Be specific.