Idolatry . . . it’s everywhere and we all do it. “The definition of idolatry, according to Webster, is ‘the worship of idols or excessive devotion to, or reverence for some person or thing.’ An idol is anything that replaces the one, true God” (quote source here). And if we don’t think we do it, just take away the object of our desire and see what happens.
Money, materialism, status, ego, sex, celebrity worship, self . . . the list is endless. If we say we don’t have issues with idolatry, we are only fooling ourselves. 1 John 2:16 pretty much sums it up: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” The J.B. Phillips translation of this verse, along with the two surrounding verses (1 John 2:15-17) states:
See “the world” for what it is
Never give your hearts to this world or to any of the things in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. For the whole world-system, based as it is on men’s primitive desires, their greedy ambitions and the glamour of all that they think splendid, is not derived from the Father at all, but from the world itself. The world and all its passionate desires will one day disappear. But the man who is following God’s will is part of the permanent and cannot die.
It’s hard to separate ourselves from the material world. In fact, it’s impossible. And living in a prosperous society like America presents us with an innumerable number of things to attach our hearts and desires to–including other people (such as celebrity worship). We idolize so many things and people, and God gets shoved to the background if we even believe in Him at all, and most of us do according to a 2013 Harris Poll which found that 74% of Americans say they believe in God (source here).
Idolatry, without a doubt, is one of the hardest areas for Christians to get a handle on since it is so incredibly easy to attach ourselves to things and/or people. In fact, it is so common that we don’t even recognize it for what it is–an affront to the very God we say we serve. The first and second commandments of the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20 state:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:2-6).
Unfortunately, we fail to realize just how much our lives are filled with desires for everything we can see, touch, feel, possess, own, etc., above our desire for God, and these things/and or people are the real gods we worship.
I ran across an excellent description regarding these idols in a book I mentioned in my recent blog post titled, “So Goes The Culture.” The book is titled, “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity” (2004, 2005) by Nancy Pearcey, who is Professor of Apologetics, Scholar in Residence, and Director of the Francis Schaeffer Center for Worldview and Culture at Houston Baptist University. The description is found in Chapter 13: True Spirituality and Christian Worldview, under the title “Idols of the Heart” (pp. 356-358):
Idols of the Heart
A pervasive theme throughout the New Testament is that Christ’s death and resurrection were not merely objective events that happened in history–though certainly they were that first of all. We should never give up our conviction that the objective truths of Christ’s death and resurrection are the basis for our justification. But the next step is to take Christ as the ongoing model for our lives. As the medieval spiritual writers put it, we are called to practice “the imitation of Christ.” Not in a moralistic sense of trying to mold our behavior by certain ethical precepts, but rather in a mystical sense that our own suffering becomes a participation in Christ’s suffering. That’s why Paul wrote, “Our old self was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6); and, “That world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
Only after sharing in Christ’s death is there a promise of sharing in His resurrection power. Again, the order is crucial. “Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes, “that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we may walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). It is impossible for us to receive a new life until we have truly given up the old one. We do that at our conversion, of course, in a once-for-all transaction where God, as the Judge, declares us forgiven of our sins and adopts us into His family. But being declared righteous in a judicial sense in only the beginning. After that, we are called to begin a process in which we die spiritually, day by day, to deeply ingrained sinful patterns, so that we can be liberated from sin and grow spiritually into a new person.
Moment by moment, we must learn to say no to sin and worldly motivations. In a world of moral relativism, where everything is reduced to personal choice, simply saying no is in itself a very hard teaching. If it does not seem hard, then we are probably accommodating to the world without realizing it. If we are no saying no in ways that bring us to our knees to seek God’s enabling power, then it is likely that we are no standing against the sinful system of the world as we ought.
The principle of dying to worldly systems applies beyond obvious sins. In a culture that measures everything in terms of size, success, and influence, we have to say no to these worldly values as well. In a culture of material affluence, we have to say no to coveting a better house, a sleeker car, a more upscale neighborhood, a more impressive ministry. In a culture that judges people by reputation and achievements, we have to resist the lure of living for professional recognition and advancement. Not that those things are wrong in themselves. But when they fill our hearts and define our motivations, then they become barriers to our relationship with God–which means they become sin for us. As Paul says, anything not of faith is sin, because it blocks our singleminded devotion to God and hinders our growth in holiness.
God calls such barriers “idols of the heart” (see Ezek. 14:1-11)–and they can even include genuine needs that are completely right and proper in themselves. This is where the principle becomes really difficult. When our natural needs become a cause of anger and bitterness, or a reason to oppress or attack others, then we must say not to them as well. For example, it’s perfectly proper to want intimacy and respect in our marriage. But people are sinners, and at times even Christian spouses may find themselves lonely and unloved. The one of two things will happen: Either we will become angry and reject the other person–or we will learn how to die to even our valid personal needs, and trust God to work good even in an imperfect situation. Again, it is proper and right to want a job that fulfills our God-given talents, where we enjoy the respect of colleagues and supervisors. But in a fallen world, we may have to accept work that is less than fulfilling; we may not be successful; or we may work for bosses who are demeaning and exploitative. What then? Either we will find ourselves shaking our fist at God–or we will put our talents on the altar and die to them, trusting God to honor our sacrifice to Him.
Putting our valid needs on the altar does not mean shutting our mouths and closing our eyes to a sinful situation. If someone is truly in the wrong, then the loving response is not to give in but to confront the person. It is not an act of love to allow someone to sin against you with impunity. Sin is a cancer within the other person’s soul, and genuine love must be strong and courageous in bringing that sin to the light, where it can be diagnosed and dealt with.
Yet it is all too easy to do the right thing in the wrong spirit. Only as we offer up to God our anger, fear, and drive for control do we develop the kind of spirit God can use in confronting others. “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps,” Peter writes–with the ultimate purpose “that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 2:21; 3:18). So, too, when we suffer, even unjustly, the ultimate purpose is to equip us to bring others to God. Moment by moment, as we suffer the effects of sin and brokenness in a fallen world, we need to ask Him to use those trials to unite us to Christ in His sacrifice and death–so that we can then be used to bring others to repentance and renewal. (Source: “Total Truth” pp. 356-358).
We do live in a culture that measures everything in terms of size, success, and influence, and it’s not often that we say no if/when it comes our way. In fact, it has invaded the church culture in America and oftentimes has become our own “model for success” by superimposing itself on what the New Testament has to say about what the true church should be and act like in any culture at any time in history. It’s a hard sin to break when it appears that everyone else is doing it even in most Christian circles.
Let’s take a closer look at what idolatry looks like in our culture today. In answer to a question on “GotQuestions?org,” which asks, “What are some modern forms of idolatry?” four “altars” that we regularly worship at are mentioned:
All the various forms of modern idolatry have one thing at their core: self. We no longer bow down to idols and images. Instead we worship at the altar of the god of self. This brand of modern idolatry takes various forms.
First, we worship at the altar of materialism which feeds our need to build our egos through the acquisition of more “stuff.” Our homes are filled with all manner of possessions. We build bigger and bigger houses with more closets and storage space in order to house all the things we buy, much of which we haven’t even paid for yet. Most of our stuff has “planned obsolescence” built into it, making it useless in no time, and so we consign it to the garage or other storage space. Then we rush out to buy the newest item, garment or gadget and the whole process starts over. This insatiable desire for more, better, and newer stuff is nothing more than covetousness. The tenth commandment tells us not to fall victim to coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). God doesn’t just want to rain on our buying sprees. He knows we will never be happy indulging our materialistic desires because it is Satan’s trap to keep our focus on ourselves and not on Him.
Second, we worship at the altar of our own pride and ego. This often takes the form of obsession with careers and jobs. Millions of men—and increasingly more women—spend 60-80 hours a week working. Even on the weekends and during vacations, our laptops are humming and our minds are whirling with thoughts of how to make our businesses more successful, how to get that promotion, how to get the next raise, how to close the next deal. In the meantime, our children are starving for attention and love. We fool ourselves into thinking we are doing it for them, to give them a better life. But the truth is we are doing it for ourselves, to increase our self-esteem by appearing more successful in the eyes of the world. This is folly. All our labors and accomplishments will be of no use to us after we die, nor will the admiration of the world, because these things have no eternal value. As King Solomon put it, “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:21-23).
Third, we idolize mankind—and by extension ourselves—through naturalism and the power of science. This gives us the illusion that we are lords of our world and builds our self-esteem to godlike proportions. We reject God’s Word and His description of how He created the heavens and the earth, and we accept the nonsense of evolution and naturalism. We embrace the goddess of environmentalism and fool ourselves into thinking we can preserve the earth indefinitely when God has declared the earth has a limited lifespan and will last only until the end of the age. At that time, He will destroy all that He has made and create a new heaven and new earth. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:10-13). As this passage so clearly states, our focus should not be on worshiping the environment, but on living holy lives as we wait eagerly for the return of our Lord and Savior, who alone deserves worship.
Finally, and perhaps most destructively, we worship at the altar of self-aggrandizement or the fulfillment of the self to the exclusion of all others and their needs and desires. This manifests itself in self-indulgence through alcohol, drugs, and food. Those in affluent countries have unlimited access to alcohol, drugs (prescription drug use is at an all-time high, even among children), and food. Obesity rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed, and childhood diabetes brought on by overeating is epidemic. The self-control we so desperately need is spurned in our insatiable desire to eat, drink, and medicate more and more. We resist any effort to get us to curb our appetites, and we are determined to make ourselves the god of our lives. This has its origin in the Garden of Eden where Satan tempted Eve to eat of the tree with the words “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). This has been man’s desire ever since—to be god and, as we have seen, the worship of self is the basis of all modern idolatry.
All idolatry of self has at its core the three lusts found in 1 John 2:16: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” If we are to escape modern idolatry, we have to admit that it is rampant and reject it in all its forms. It is not of God, but of Satan, and in it we will never find fulfillment. This is the great lie and the same one Satan has been telling since he first lied to Adam and Eve. Sadly, we are still falling for it. Even more sadly, many churches are propagating it in the preaching of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel built on the idol of self-esteem. But we will never find happiness focusing on ourselves. Our hearts and minds must be centered on God and on others. This is why when asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). When we love the Lord and others with everything that is in us, there will be no room in our hearts for idolatry. (Quote source here.)
Idolatry is deadly to our spiritual life and relationship with God and Jesus Christ. As Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 16:26-27, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
So what are we doing?
Living for ourselves?
Or living for God . . . .
YouTube Video: “Change Me” by Shannon Wexelberg: