About a year ago, my wife and I watched the movie The Greatest Showman and loved it. Musicals aren’t usually my thing, but I thought this was really well done—it was subtle, meaningful, compelling, and entertaining all at once. One of the movie’s themes I chewed on for months following is idolatry, and one scene in particular stood out.
The Snare of the Adulteress
By the middle of the film, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) has established his empire through his circus. He has wealth, acclaim, and power, yet we see that even now, he’s not content. There’s something missing. He’s been gazing upon—and striving after—the desires of his heart; he’s achieved all of his success expecting that he would find satisfaction in his achievements, yet he hasn’t found the satisfaction and rest he was expecting his success and status to provide.
During the song Never Enough (performed by Loren Allred), that we see Barnum most enraptured by his idol. We watch him gaze upon everything he’s ever dreamed of—beauty, world-renown fame, ever-abounding wealth—and he’s transfixed by it. He’s captivated by the experience of his deepest wants on full display before him and his gaze is locked upon it, so much so that he can’t hear the irony of the lyrics declaring that the life he’s lusting after simply serves to mask the aroma of death that the life is producing.
As the camera focuses in on Barnum watching the performance, we hear the words he’s missing: “All the shine of a thousand spotlights/All the stars we steal from the nightsky/Will never be enough.” We understand that no matter how many eyes look to him in adoration, no matter how my times he does what his impoverished upbringing says he shouldn’t have been able to, it won’t be enough to fill the void he feels. He either doesn’t hear it, or doesn’t want to—his idol has overwhelmed him and he can see nothing other than his desire. He follows after his adulteress as complacently, “as an ox goes to the slaughter” (Pro. 7:22), having been persuaded by her seductive speech and succumbed to the lure of wealth, power, and desire.
His example of idolatry may seem extreme to many of us. It’s not likely that we will reach the heights that Barnum does in the film, but the question this scene poses remains applicable for all of us: What are you gazing at?
We’re All Gazing at Something
Gazing itself isn’t necessarily wrong, as long as we evaluate the object of our gaze. When we see something we like—when we see something we love; something that resonates deep within us—we don’t just look, we fix it with our stare, observe and contemplate it. This is the thing that, if jeopardized, we will defend the most vigorously, what will reveal what’s profoundly true about who we are and what we value. These things our eyes are locked upon are not always inherently bad, but if that thing isn’t God, then it’s an idol. As Tim Keller often states, “idols are anything other than God, even good things, which have become ultimate things.” If we allow anything to unseat God’s rightful place in our lives, then we aren’t being pragmatic, or thoughtful—or whatever other lie we tell ourselves—we’re being idolatrous.
Of course, it’s easier to remove the speck in our brother’s eye than it is to see the log in our own. It’s easy to see where P. T. Barnum gets it wrong, but less easy to identify the problem areas in our own hearts. As Americans living in the 21st century, we take our abundant individual and corporate wealth as a something to be hoarded, instead of a gift of God’s grace that is to be dispersed liberally for the betterment of others. Mindful of the insecurity and poverty of much of the world around us, we give ourselves over to the respectable idols of comfort and stability in fits of situational amnesia, forgetting that the hallmark of our faith is to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow after our true Lord, Jesus (Matt. 16:24). We project our own potential onto Barnum—from hard work and ingenuity (as well as con-artist-level deception) he moves himself and his family from a life of poverty and anxiety to one of luxury and security. We look at Barnum and think, “Why can’t that be me?” And really, from a worldly standpoint, why shouldn’t it? If this life is all there is, then why would we not make everything, and everyone, subject to the ultimate end of all meaning, “me”?
What keeps Barnum gazing upon this life—and I suspect many of us—is not only the things that come with his position, but the public acclaim and adoration that position provides. Herein lies his defeat: Barnum has everything, but not the approval of some (most notably the circus skeptics and his in-laws) and these dissenting voices define his worth for him. With the world, it’s all or nothing. In our social-media driven age, we quantify the world’s adoration through likes, retweets, and followers—or, more rightly, those that haven’t liked, retweeted, or followed us. Even as Christians, we so badly want the love and approval of others—and the power that approval gives—that we forget that we already have the ultimate approval of God. Like Barnum, we’re quick to sell our souls to gain the world, not realizing that we’re only getting fool’s gold in return (Mk. 8:36). Human love and adoration is fickle, shifting with every new trend and hashtag, leaving us alone with our ever-present inadequacies, sins and failures. This is the downfall of a life spent gazing in the world’s mirror: we’ve given it everything, and are left exactly as we were—frail, broken, and insufficient.
What can break our gaze apart from that which Thomas Chalmers calls the “expulsive power of a new affection”? The effectual power of the gospel alters our affection by replacing its object with something more wonderful. The good news tells us that Christ has broken the bonds of the lusts of the world on our hearts, healed our wounds with his stripes, given his own righteousness to cover our insufficiency, and united us to himself, thereby earning for us the approval of the Father forever. Rather than suffer the fruitless strife of endlessly working for our own comfort and security, the Holy Spirit himself gives us great joy and pleasure as we share in the trouble of others (Phil. 4:14). We are enabled to share our own comfort with others, giving above and beyond our means even to the point of begging for the opportunity to relieve fellow saints (2 Cor. 8:3-4). In Christ, we’re marked by a willingness to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10), and we’re constantly considering how we might stir one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). The lens of the gospel directs our gaze out, not in. When our eyes are firmly fixed on the truth of having been crucified with Christ, we can live our lives by the confident faith that enables us to see our blessings from God as his means of blessing others. As H.B. Charles Jr. says, “We’re blessed not to be prosperous, but generous.” We loosen our grip upon the potential idols of worldly riches, approval, and comfort, and by doing so strengthen our grip upon the eternal glory we’ve been promised.
Listen to the Word(s)
We’re not left to identify and conquer these idols on our own. God has given us his Spirit who bears witness to us, and with us, that we are indeed, through faith in Christ, children of God. He has given us his Church to be a community that believes the best about us and confronts the worst in us. This means that when our gaze lingers on something that doesn’t deserve it, we have an advocate with us reminding us of our great High Priest, Jesus Christ the righteous, who lives to make intercession for us, and it means that the church is there to confront us and make sure we listen to the truth of this reminder.
Instead of looking at this picture of Barnum and thanking God he hasn’t made us like him, we look at Paul’s declaration and are admonished: “and such were some of you, but…” (1 Cor. 6:11). We were just like Barnum, and often we fall back into old tendencies, but thanks be to God that he has taken our hopeful gaze off of the world and placed it upon his Son. Jesus Christ came, lived, died, rose, and is seated in heaven, and our gaze is fixed on him, our true righteousness, meaning, and worth.
Matt Boga is the associate pastor at Reality Church of Stockton in Stockton, CA, where he lives with his wife and three children. Matt is an MA student at Western Seminary, and in his free time, he enjoys reading, building with his hands, and playing basketball.