“More shiny blather on idolatry from a mega-church pastor with a two-book publishing contract,” I thought when I looked at Empty Promises by Pete Wilson. I follow Wilson on Twitter, so I’ve never seen him string more than a few words together. With a book to fill, though, he crafts a carefully polished mirror to help us see our idols clear as day. It hurts, but Wilson writes with a paternal arm around his readers. The same mirror that exposes us reveals his struggles alongside our own.
Wilson writes profoundly at times, but he’s no Dallas Willard. Though he’s a clear thinker, he prefers the practical over the philosophical. Instead of mining for the theological roots of idolatry, Wilson unearths the false worship hidden deep within each of us. “Idolatry,” he says, “is when I look to something that does not have God’s power to give me what only God has the power and authority to give.” He goes on to say that “idolatry isn’t simply a sin. It’s what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart.”
Most of the book reads like a collection of warning labels: “The Seduction of Achievement,” “Addicted to Approval,” “The Perils of Power,” “Money Always Wants to be More Than Money,” “Religion Lies,” “Addicted to Beauty,” and “Chasing a Dream.” Each chapter demystifies its “idol” by explaining what it is, how it grows within the human heart, and why it’s so dangerous to let it live there.
But Wilson doesn’t just explain how things work. Each chapter also holds up a mirror, helping us see ourselves more accurately by asking penetrating questions. For example, in “The Seduction of Achievement,” he asks, “Do you believe that if you make mistakes, you are a failure? When you’re criticized for your job performance, do you tend to take it personally? If you lost your job tomorrow, would you lose your identity?”
As the chapters build on each other, the mob of idols swells quickly. Wilson tackles every slippery beast by wrestling it into the uncompromising light of Scripture. As a result, the truth of Scripture shines brightly. Strategic and powerful, it exposes each idol from tooth to bowel. For this reason, Empty Promises would make a fantastic small group study.
What I love most about this book is that it’s obviously written by a man who’s slogged through painful valleys both as a pilgrim and pastor. The book isn’t cut-and-paste sales fodder lifted from last November’s sermon series at Cross Point Church (where he pastors). I’m pretty sure these principles are woven into Wilson’s entire approach to ministry. He’s seen deadly idols disguised in every form imaginable, and his mission is to help us root them out so we can worship God in spirit and in truth.
Accepting this mission with gusto, Wilson throws down an increasingly challenging gauntlet for readers. He seems determined to nail every one of us with something by the time we reach the last page. I’d strolled through much of the book mostly unscathed until I reached Chapter 9, “Chasing A Dream.” Several paragraphs in, I read these words: “Your dreams, no matter how wonderful they may be, will always make a lousy god.” Ouch. As a chronic visionary, I muttered a prayer and then announced, “You got me, Pete.” Except it wasn’t Wilson who got me. It was God.
Regrettably, Wilson is no wordsmith. His “and now for the next idol…and the next…and the next…” approach becomes a little tiresome by the end of Part 2, but it’s still worth the trip. These are real issues with eternal implications. As a Mennonite Brethren committed to radical discipleship to Christ, I relished the invitation to endure some much needed heart surgery under the knife of a skilled and seasoned pastor.
In the book’s final section, Wilson attempts to offer a way forward. In “You Are What You Worship,” he reminds us that we become like whatever we bow to. When it comes to idols, he points out, “those who make them will be like them” (Psalm 115:8). The opposite, Wilson says, is also true – when we worship God, we become more like Jesus (Romans 12:1, 2). What an amazing thought!
Wilson slices into the problem of idolatry with delightful precision. I sorely needed his insight and my soul is better for the procedure. When the stitches were tied off after surgery, however, it became obvious he’s spent more time diagnosing the problem than understanding the cure. I’m not sure the final chapters offered enough direction for readers like me who long to leave idols behind.
Don’t get me wrong; Empty Promises is a great book. It’s well worth the read. Unfortunately, it also left me wanting a little more than Wilson was able to deliver.