In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis poignantly observes that all of history is “the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” He’s making a sweeping macro-scale statement (and he’s right), but even ignoring the broad narrative, we see it play out in our own lives nearly every moment of every day. We have fallen natures, and our own contentment, security, and happiness are the places we see this nature most intimately. I am never aware of my own sin more than when I am made to see that in which I trust — and that in which I naturally trust is rarely Christ.

We use different words for this thing we seek — identity and worth both come to mind. Happiness was Lewis’s word (it was a simpler time then?), and I’ve already used contentment and security. Basically, we all want to know we are okay.

In 1373, St. Julian of Norwich had a vision of Christ on the Cross in which she was struck by the hellish nature of her own sin. She reported that our Savior answered her saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It is only through the atoning work of Christ that we find contentment and an identity apart from sin, and only He can make all well.

But, we do not live with the Cross ever in our gaze. We are profoundly human, and we lose sight of our identity. I mistakenly find my all shall be well in my marriage, our children, my job, our friends — even my creative outlets of cooking and writing. When I am made to feel insecure in any realm, I immediately try to locate a realm in which I am secure — or, preferably, a realm in which I interpret some level of superiority. It’s sneaking around at the back of my brain, and appears, at a semi-conscious level, something like: “Her house is so clean — but, by damn, her children don’t ever say yes ma’am, and mine do like twenty-three percent of the time.” Or: “Her husband is always doting on her, but, really, is it genuine? I have an open, honest, and genuine marriage, and that’s better.” Or: “They make a lot more money than we do, but they don’t seem to have authentic community; bless their hearts.”

You are right to be disgusted at these sentiments — wretched (wo)man that I am.  And, worse, I am not alone. John Calvin tells us that “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” This has been well paraphrased by contemporary theologians: our hearts are idol-making factories. Later in that same paragraph, Calvin expands:

The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity…it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God.

God gives us good gifts in our relationships and vocations and arts — but they are not that from which we derive our worth and identity. And when we put them in the place of God, we find in them an empty phantom.

This is all daily life for the human. It’s actually quite unremarkable. We want to build our own gods. We all know we do this. As Lewis said, it is all of history. But, St. Jack has more to teach us, in another of his best works. The dangers of this worth-idolatry are not limited to the big, bad world. We find it in the most churchy of places as well. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis is imagining the workings of demons in the devil’s army. An uncle demon offers this advice to his nephew demon about how to use church association to tempt his “patient” away from reliance on Christ:

Success [in temptation] here depends on confusing him. If you try to make him explicitly and professedly proud of being a Christian, you will probably fail; the Enemy’s warnings are too well known…. What you want is to keep a sly self-congratulation mixing with all his thoughts and never allow him to raise the question ‘What, precisely, am I congratulating myself about?’ The idea of belonging to an inner ring, of being in a secret, is very sweet to him. Play on that nerve.…the great thing is to make Christianity a mystery religion in which he feels himself one of the initiates.

Recently, my friend Sarah Condon wrote a piece, which was published over at The Living Church, expressing some exasperation at the oft-used phrase Cradle Episcopalian. She pointed out that it can be alienating to a newcomer and that, ultimately, who cares? The reason no one should care is that our all shall be well is found nowhere but in Christ crucified. Not even in having attended church for a lifetime. And some folks got mad at Sarah. It smarts the most when our closest idols are attacked. When someone points out the missteps of my children, it stings big-time, because that is where I pour my energy, and that is, too often, where I find my worth.

Locating identity in the church is no less ridiculous — and perhaps even more dangerous — than locating it in a perfectly accomplished dinner party. To admit this tendency is painful, like all idol-crushing, but locating salvation in denominational allegiance is as much vainglory as locating it in the yes ma’ams of our children. God does not love me because I am a Christian. I am a Christian because God loves me.

God gives us the church as one of his greatest earthly gifts. We are to find our people there. As Drew Holcomb sings in his great anthem, “Take courage when the road is long. Don’t ever forget — you are never alone.” We are not alone because, in large part, of the saints of the church here on earth. When I am hurting — oft due to the crushing of these idols — the church is the best place of refuge. I flee to the pew where I sing words I desperately want to believe again. I sit under the reading of the Psalms and the preaching of the Word and, because God’s promises are all yes and amen, the idols fall, for a time. My fellow parishioners feed my person — body and soul. They teach my children to love the Lord; they teach me to rest in Him; and they bring casseroles when we need them. The church is Christ’s great prize, and He has opened it to us all. So, of course it is a great good.  Go there. In fact, come sit by me. But do not expect to find your salvation here. You will only find fellow sinners in need of a great God.

How do we know when we’ve confused the church for Christ and made our great prize into a great idol? It requires a good bit of self-examination, as searching out our idols usually does. Some questions I’ve found to ask myself: Does it hurt my feelings that people don’t care about my denominational affiliation? Do I talk more about my local instantiation of the bride of Christ than about Christ himself? When listing my identities, do I list associations before my Savior?

Pride at my cooking is one thing — but, in Lewis’s words, it’s a trumpery, puny little sin — compared to when I find my pride in my churchiness. God didn’t give us any gift to use as a baton, but it is especially grievous when I take the church for which He died and use it for my own glory.

Take heart: St. Julian’s vision remains. Even when I turn my church into my god, empty phantom that it will be, Calvary is there. The church’s one foundation is a God-man who hung upon a cross. King Jesus stands to save us — calling through the darkness, “all manner of thing shall be well.”