The acceptable idol

I want to tell you a story of a woman named Jane. Jane is a strong Christian, who serves in several different ways at her church. She is a loving wife and mother and anyone would hold her up as an exemplary model of godliness. There is something slightly troubling, though. Jane is addicted to drink, she knows it, and she doesn’t even see it as a problem. 

When Jane wakes up, groggy and still sleepy after staying up a little late watching Netflix and then having her sleep interrupted by one of her kids having a bad dream, there is one thing on her mind: she needs a drink. She knows if she can just get a drink, the cobwebs will start to clear and she can begin to focus. If she is delayed in getting her drink, she becomes grumpy, irritable, and sometimes even lash out in anger at anyone who tries to communicate with her. So the first thing she does every morning is have her first drink. Usually, she nurses the first one as she reads her Bible, seeing no disconnect whatsoever. She manages, in the chaos of getting kids off to school and herself ready for work, to down another couple and then pours yet another into her travel mug so she won’t be without one as she drives to work. 

Once she arrives at work, she breathes a sigh of relief. Interestingly enough, she works in an office that has a very liberal policy regarding its employee’s drinking habits. Indeed, they feel that having freely accessible drinks boosts employee morale and aids in productivity. So the company provides a keg on each floor, and employees can come and go from keg to desk as often as they feel necessary. Jane makes use of the keg as soon as she arrives, and several times throughout her day. After lunch, during the afternoon lull, she often gets a slight headache and starts snapping at her coworkers. No worries. A trip to the keg will set her right, and she’s able to finish out her workday.

On the way to pick up the kids, oftentimes she stops by the bar for a specialty drink. The kind with all the flavors that are just more fun. She spends more than she should each day for these specialty drinks, especially since one day her daughter tried it and loved it, so now she buys her one too. Most people frown at an adult buying a drink for a minor, and she feels slightly guilty, but once her daughter tried it, she was hooked too. So Jane buys her one,  shrugging off the guilt again and hoping that the weekly budget is not going to bust because of all these drinks. 

Somehow she makes it through the evening chaos, cleans up the kitchen, and sends the kids to bed. Finally, she can have her nightcap. Her last drink of the day helps her wind down and relax before going to bed to wake up and start all over again. Weekends are a little more relaxed. She gets to move a little slower on Saturday and Sunday mornings, enjoying as many drinks as she wants at home. Sundays are really fun. She has managed to find a church that does not have abstinence from drink as part of its church covenant. Indeed, much like her office, the church leaders understand that many of the congregation are unable to function without a bottle in their hands, so the front entry way as well as many of the adult Sunday school rooms are equipped with a keg. It’s such a relief to worship where people are not uptight about such things. 

As Jane scrolls through Facebook she laughs at the memes people have tagged her in. “All I need is a whole lotta Jesus and a couple of drinks.” A picture captioned, “I’ve cut back to one drink a day” and showing a lady holding a giant bottle. She knows that the memes fit her, and they fit most of the people on her friend list as well. They have t-shirts making jokes about their drinking habits. When they eat out, they are glad that so many restaurants now offer free refills on drinks and they take every refill offered. They know that sometimes people have real addictions. They’re just glad they aren’t like those people.

Oh, wait. Did you think Jane was addicted to alcoholic drinks?

Ok, now I know I have crossed the line, but hear me out. This coffee-addict trend has been bothering me for a long time. I think I am maybe more sensitive to it in recent months and weeks because of my own struggles. See, I have made an idol out of comfort food. Different foods at different times, sometimes chocolate, sometimes Coke (or my natural-aisle version with stevia and no caramel coloring), sometimes burgers or pizza or sour gummies. I turn to food for my comfort. I wrote a blog on this sin area in my life in January that was published on a national blog and I was then invited onto a national radio show to discuss the blog post. Apparently, going national does not mean you’ve arrived, for I have continued to sinfully turn to food as my comfort, food as my reward for surviving a day of homeschooling and parenting six children, food as my stress relief in a life full of ministry and, well, life. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get through the day without a sweet tea and a little chocolate. Sometimes I get grumpy and snap at my family when I realize the fridge is out of the food I had been craving to make a hard day a little better. God has been pressing His finger on this idolatry in my life, and I have recognized it for the sin it is. For me to have an attitude that says, “I need ___________ to feel better, to function, to relieve my stress, to wake me up, to calm me down” and to excuse my sin when I don’t get what I think I need, this is idolatry. I don’t need a whole lotta Jesus and a little bit of chocolate or anything else. Including coffee. I just need Jesus. 

We would never look at Jane and excuse her if all those drinks had been alcoholic. It is readily acknowledged that food addictions are real and unhealthy. Nicotine addictions, pornography addictions, gambling addictions–place any of these behaviors in place of Jane’s coffee cup and we all acknowledge the problem. So why do coffee addicts get a pass? I know that there are studies that tout the health benefits of drinking coffee, and I’m not arguing with them. But does having health benefits excuse idolatrous consumption? To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that it is always idolatrous to drink coffee, or that all coffee drinkers are idolizing coffee, any more than I would say it is always wrong to eat chocolate or drink Coke. However, I speak to the coffee drinkers because I have never before seen it acknowledged that coffee, too, could join the list of addictions and in fact, in fact, among Christians particularly, the love/need for coffee seems to be celebrated and encouraged. One of the main concerns at the conference I attended last weekend was that the adjoining hotel had closed the Starbucks restaurant that used to be in the lobby, and now there would be no onsite Starbucks. The ladies would have to walk a block. One statement I heard as we were discussing this was, “They just feel better when they have that cup in their hands.” Are we talking about children with a security blanket or grown ladies who profess that God alone can meet all their needs?

So maybe I am being hyper-sensitive since I am struggling to exercise self-discipline, choose water instead of Coke or tea, choose applesauce instead of Reece’s cups, while watching most of the world and most of the church glory in their vast amounts of coffee consumption. But is some idolatry recognized as sin and some celebrated? If you are to the point that you need something to keep you from being grumpy, to help you concentrate, to make you feel better and coffee is what you turn to, then let me suggest that coffee has become an idol for you just like comfort food has for me. I have heard an idol defined as something you will sin to get, or something that makes you sin if you don’t get it. “Don’t mess with me until I’ve had my coffee.” Hmmm…

Just my thoughts. Take them for what they’re worth, which probably isn’t much. And please still be my friend even if I stepped on your toes. But before you write me off as ridiculous, count your coffee cups tomorrow. Could you go a day without coffee and still have joy? If not, maybe your toes were already sore before I wrote this. 

“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

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6 Responses to The acceptable idol

  1. I’m sure that was easy to write and tough to post publicly. Although I am a coffee drinker, I have also been concerned about the way that people replace the Holy Spirit with coffee (and I haven’t been an exception to this). It was especially evident at the conference last week. This year I was extra sensitive to this before arriving in Indy. I relied heavily on Him for my strength and He was sufficient!!! And I avoided a lot of long lines! =)

    • Way to go! I’m sure you did avoid long lines! 🙂 We all have idols. Mine isn’t coffee, don’t even like the stuff. But I hope by sharing my own, readers will not feel condemnation, just concern that this particular idol does not get recognized for what it is. Thanks for reading!

  2. ambertaube says:

    This has been on my heart as well, but I have no platform and no courage to write it. I live in Nepal and we are not getting any power so no coffee this morning! Had to just say, OK and deal with my kids any way!

  3. “Are we talking about children with a security blanket or grown ladies who profess that God alone can meet all their needs?” SO GOOD. I love this. Thanks for being brave and writing. I love you and your words.

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