Paul lay on the hotel bed wondering where it all went wrong. His brain was quickly replaying the highlights and decisions of his life quicker than he was changing channels on the remote.
The crisis revealed
Nancy his wife of 25 years had just kicked him out of the house. She found out about the adultery he committed with a work associate while on a business trip. He had known Sally for a couple of years. She worked at the corporate headquarters in Dallas.
They spoke frequently by phone and had developed a friendship. Paul liked how playful Sally was – always joking and living life to the fullest, so it seemed.
During a sales conference, Paul found himself alone with Sally during happy hour. Paul couldn’t (did not want to) resist Sally’s charm and beauty and he ended up having sex with her one evening.
His conscience bugged him some, but he loved his sin. He felt more alive than he had felt in years. He figured it was the perfect set-up. She lived 1000 miles away; she didn’t want a serious relationship and he thought he could hide it from his wife.
He started to have a whole new view of those boring quarterly sales conferences in Dallas. It wasn’t as quick and easy as porn, but it was a lot more fun.
At home, his wife Nancy was busy raising their three daughters; helping out at the church and dealing with changes in life that come to all women nearing fifty years old. She was going through menopause.
Despite being surrounded with her daughters all the time, neighbors, and friends from church, she felt alone and somewhat depressed. Paul and she had grown apart. Her beauty was fading.
She saw her own parent’s health decline and felt like her body was fighting her. She was a pretty strong Christian, but her growth was distracted and partially limited due to the lack of spiritual leadership from her husband.
Paul would attend church and profess Christ, but seemed to keep church at a distance. He wasn’t the best husband, but he did provide for the kids, didn’t drink excessively, and seemed to care about them.
He came across more as a lost soul as far as being a leader in the home. But Nancy didn’t realize how lost he was until she got a phone call from the hotel where Paul stayed during the conference.
When she answered, the woman working the front desk informed her the maid had found a pair of women’s earrings on the nightstand in the hotel room. The employee assumed they were Nancy’s – that she must have been with Paul during his stay and left them in the room.
Nancy was confused, trying to understand what she had just heard. Things clicked when the clerk asked Nancy if she enjoyed her stay and if the room service met expectations. Through quivering lips, Nancy told the clerk she wasn’t with her husband and hung up the phone.
When Paul arrived home from the airport later that night, Nancy was waiting at the front door. He was busted. Through tears, she told Paul he was not welcome in their home anymore. After a few words, Paul grabbed his suitcase, headed back to his car, and checked into a local hotel.
Modern day gods and masters of men
After flipping through all the cable channels a couple dozen times, he found himself watching a show about Native Americans carving totem poles. He thought it strange they would mount these carved images as a way to represent their tribes. What Paul didn’t realize was that he had a totem pole of his own making.
Although the purpose of totem poles is unclear, there has been work that showed how different cultures desired specific social traits which was reflected in created things.
These desired traits came to be symbolized by different animals. For example, a bear would signify strength they desired, so they would erect carvings of bears, also called totems, to reflect their lusts.
Eventually the tribe would come to worship the animal, which is nothing more than a symbolic representation of the tribe’s own values, traits, and desires. So, instead of worshipping the one and true God, they worshiped created things (Romans 1: 21-25).
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. – Romans 1:21-25 (ESV)
Paul was just like this. He had desires he hoped would reflect what he wanted to be. To understand Paul’s modern day version of a totem pole you have to look at his shaping influences–the things he carved in his mind from his childhood, teen, and early adult years.
gods shaped into man’s image
Paul was born in the sixties and hit puberty in the seventies. He was fascinated with the Apollo moon shots. He and his two brothers would pretend to be astronauts.
Their tent would be converted into an Apollo space capsule; they would drink Tang and snack on Pillsbury Food Sticks. They called them space sticks. He saw how the nation lifted these brave men up as heroes.
Then in the seventies he became exposed to Playboy Magazine while searching for empty beer cans in nearby apartment dumpsters. He liked what he saw and craved female attention.
He didn’t understand why Hugh Hefner always wore pajamas, but he was jealous of the attention he got from the ladies. And then in college, he saw the amount of money that was being made on Wall Street – the parties, the BMW’s, and the power.
Paul didn’t realize it, but he was building his own totem pole. These hidden and insidious desires were shaping his lust-filled heart. What he craved was not represented in animals, but in things he wanted from his culture.
He picked out things that were perceived good and desirable for him. He chose things he felt would spur him on to success – a life where he would be comfortable. His totem pole became the identity he craved from a backward, shy youth.
- Like an astronaut, he wanted to be thought of as a hero. He wanted to live life on the edge–to be a risk taker and to turn heads as he drove down the street in a Lamborghini.
- Like Hugh Hefner, he wanted to be a playboy. He wanted to be cool–to be the guy the girls wanted to be around. He pictured his wife with long straight hair and wearing a bikini.
- Like the Wall Street moguls, he wanted power and riches. He wanted people to fear him, to respect him, and to listen to him. He loved the old TV commercial, When EF Hutton speaks, people listen.
Paul got his degree, married a pretty blond, and started to climb the corporate ladder. He accepted Christ while in college, but never developed his theology. He also did not faithfully serve the Lord. Though never stated, he was hoping the Lord would serve him.
He thought he had a good start. He poured his heart and soul into his work. Kids came along and he enjoyed being a dad when his girls were young. But as they approached their teen years, he began to feel as though his dream was gone. He felt lost.
Stuck in the crisis
Last year, after he turned 50, he started thinking about his life. Reflecting back to what he thought he would be. Instead of being thankful for all God’s blessings, he only saw his life did not look like his dream totem pole. He was middle class, driving a mini-van, bald, overweight, and his wife hadn’t worn a bikini in 20 years.
These were not comfortable thoughts for Paul. He felt he was missing out on life. He had worked too hard to settle for his present condition. He decided to re-apply himself. Despite his wife’s counsel, he bought the Lamborghini he always wanted.
He also bought the P90X DVDs and lost 20 pounds. He revamped his wardrobe, started wearing a gold necklace, and began to feel like a new man. And when Sally found him physically attractive, it affirmed he missed his dream, but could recapture what was lost.
Mercifully God interrupted Paul’s plans for self-destruction. His sin was discovered and the things he had never dealt with were now front and center in his life and marriage.
But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. – Numbers 32:23 (ESV)
So, he fell asleep all alone in his hotel room. His worst fears were there with him. It was bad enough he wasn’t smart enough or handsome enough to live the life he wanted, but he realized he couldn’t even make it as an average Joe. His deep dark fears were true – he was a failure.
From ruin to redemption
After a couple of days apart, Sally agreed to let Paul come home if he would go to counseling. They met with their pastor immediately and over the next several months they walked the long road to redemption. It was hard for both of them.
In time, God broke through the hardness of Paul’s heart and let him see himself through the lens of Scripture. The thing he feared the most was affirmed through God’s Word–Paul was a failure; he was a bad person. This did not seem to be good news at first. Not to a person who was stuck on himself.
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 (ESV)
The pastor talked to Paul about his fallenness and how his sin had separated him from God – leaving him exposed, fearful, and full of shame. Rather than running to God, Paul turned inward and sought to redeem himself through self-reliant efforts.
He missed the point of the Gospel–the bad news is supposed to motivate you to desire the Good News. Paul ran the wrong way. He began to see how his totem pole was his own foolish attempt to make himself feel comfortable.
He was worshipping created things – things that Paul chose as valuable. Paul was really worshipping himself – or the idealized view of himself.
Just like the pagan Indians of old, Paul saw what he wanted in the natural world and talked himself into becoming that image. The image was the person he always wanted to be rather than the Christ he professed to believe.
The pastor told him about a better, truer totem pole. He began to show him the redemptive purposes of another tree–the cross. The pastor showed him Christ. The more Paul came to terms with the Gospel, the more his walk as a Christian began to look much different.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. – John 3:14-15 (ESV)
- He began to understand his own foolishness as he marveled at how God wanted to embrace him (Luke 15:20).
- He learned that God’s covering which was lost in the garden (Genesis 3:7) was replaced with the covering of Christ’s righteousness (Romans 5:1).
- He started to see Christ not just as a Savior, but also as his Lord. Not as someone lording over him, but as a big brother who had already defeated his enemy.
- He started to see Christ as his treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7).
His new Gospel awareness began to change his heart. He began to reconcile with Nancy. Despite the hurt he had caused her, she could see God at work in her life too. By God’s grace, she forgave Paul.
It was hard at first, but the more he pursued God, the more she realized God was giving her something better than what she had before.
Paul did not stop there. He started leading his family. He began praying with his children. He taught them how to see things through the eyes of the Lord, rather than personal, self-interest. Though he stumbled in his walk with God, he was a truer reflection of the Savior than ever before.
Rather than craving the things of the world and bending his life to reflect those lustful things, he craved Christ and began bending his life to reflect Him.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 (ESV)
Though their marriage was far from perfect, for the first time in many years it was real and it reflected more authentically Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:25). Paul cut down his self-made totem pole. He knew now it was just an expression of self-exaltation.
For his 51st birthday, Sally and his girls surprised him with a gift. They took his Playboy necklace and exchanged it for a ring, but not just any ring. On the face of the ring, there was a cross. It was their metaphoric picture from ruin to redemption.
Paul’s eyes swelled with a mixture of happiness and sadness when he received his gift. He was sad for all the hurt he had caused and all those wasted years chasing his false gods. But he was thankful God was a God of restoration.
He knew his ring would always be there as a reminder for him to remember the only thing worth worshiping was a living Savior.
For further reading
- The Idol of Comfort
- Idolatry: you can’t serve two masters
- The angry person is like a puppet on a string
- Dear Christian, would you like to be a Christian?
- What to do when your knight in shining armor gets rusty, dinged, and dented
- You can reconcile when … You cannot reconcile when …