We Become What We Worship: Why False Stories Hurt Us—And the Poor

Excerpted from Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019), 52-55.

Humans beings are created to be image bearers. To be an image bearer is to act as a mirror, reflecting the image of whatever god we are worshiping onto the rest of creation.1 There are three important components to this profound truth.

First, every human is worshiping something, whether God, money, sex, power, fame, or something else. The term worship in this context doesn’t mean just singing hymns on Sunday morning. Rather, we worship whatever we love most, the magnet that has the greatest pull on our hearts. As Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith notes, “At the heart of our being is a kind of ‘love pump’ that can never be turned off,” so that we are always worshiping something.2 The question is not whether we worship but what we worship.

Second, the reason we’re able to act as image bearers of whatever god we’re worshiping is because we’re actually transformed into the image of that god. Whatever has captured our deepest affection, whatever becomes the focus of our attention, whatever consumes our energies and our passions is what we become like. Thus, when other people or the rest of creation encounters us, they encounter a reflection of whatever god we are worshiping, for we actually bear the likeness of that god.

This reality sheds a different light on the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). As our Creator, God has the right to demand that we worship Him above all else. But it’s also true that God loves us and wants what is best for us. He knows He made us to bear the image of whatever we are worshiping. So, He wants us to bear the image of the most wonderful thing in the whole cosmos: Himself! The first commandment, like all the commandments, therefore, is an expression of God’s love for us. God is not demanding that we worship Him because he is insecure. Rather, He is calling us to worship Him because He knows that when we do so, we experience liberty, joy, dignity, love, and life. God wants us to fully flourish as human beings, and the first step to such flourishing is to worship Him.

Psalm 115 shows us what happens when we choose to worship something else:

Not to us, Lord, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness.

Why do the nations say,
“Where is their God?”

Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.

But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.

They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.

They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.

They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them, 
and so will all who trust in them.

(Ps. 115:1-8, NIV, emphasis added)

Those who worship idols take on the characteristics of those idols! Similarly, those who worship God become more and more like him: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18, NIV).

Third, humans create culture in their own image. If you have kids, they undoubtedly reflect your qualities, both good and bad, because they’ve been deeply influenced by growing up in your household. Similarly, if you’re a coach, a carpenter, or an artist, you’ve played a huge role in shaping your players, woodwork, or paintings. They reflect your qualities, for you “made” them.

We worship what we love, and because our loves reflect our minds, affections, and wills, they shape our entire lives. If, then, human beings are transformed into the image of whatever god(s) they are worshipping and then creating culture into that same image, to analyze where people and culture are heading in any particular setting, we must first ask what god(s) they are worshiping. Idols are incredibly powerful. Although they cannot speak, see, hear, smell, feel, or walk, they have a powerful impact on the world, for they transform those who worship them into their likeness, ultimately shaping the world in which those worshippers live.

These truths have tremendous implications for how we design our poverty alleviation ministries. Jayakumar Christian, National Director of World Vision India, offers both an encouragement and a warning: at the end of any poverty alleviation initiative, people will be worshiping something.3 The challenge is to design our ministries in such a way that people end up worshiping the one reality worthy of praise: the triune God. This is easier said than done. When outside organizations provide assistance to a materially poor community, it’s common for the organization or their resources to become the object of worship. The community ends up worshiping the gifts or those who deliver them rather than the one true Giver. After all, the outside organizations are the ones providing the malaria nets, drilling the wells, and dispensing the penicillin.

For example, leading development expert Bryant Myers shares about a tribal community in India that added a prominent Christian humanitarian aid organization to its list of gurus—those who have answers the community does not have. Not only that, prayers and sacrifices had been instituted to ensure that this new guru (i.e. this organization) kept helping the community. “If money is the focus, then money is perceived to be the key to transformation,” says Myers. “What we put at the center of our program is our witness. We must always ask if we are acting as a dependent people, looking to God for every good thing. We want people to observe us and say, ‘Theirs must be a living God!’”4

  1. See Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015); See also J. Richard Middleton, “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” Christian Scholars Review 24, no. 1 (1994), 8-25.
  2. See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 51–52.
  3. Bob Goudzwaard, Aid for the Overdeveloped West (Toronto, ON: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975), 14–15.
  4. As quoted in Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, revised and expanded ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 313.

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Brian Fikkert

Brian Fikkert

Dr. Brian Fikkert is a Professor of Economics and Community Development and the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He is coauthor of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts as well as Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, and From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance.
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