Ashort drive from my house, the Hsi Lai temple in Hacienda Heights, California, welcomes crowds of Buddhists who burn incense to their large collection of bodhisattvas. In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, people bow before, kiss, or light candles to statues or icons of saints, the apostles, Mary, or Jesus Himself. Every year since 2002, a new “American Idol” has been announced to the television-watching world. And every November, millions camp out for “black Friday” deals; some people even resort to violence to ensure they get the flat-screen television, gaming system, or dress shoes they’ve set their hearts on. What of the above is idolatry? Some of it? All of it? What is idolatry anyway? The Heidelberg Catechism gives us a helpful definition: “Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in his Word” (Q&A 95).
Most of us recognize that many things can become idols (hobbies, work, pornography, flattery, friendships, health, money, junk food, possessions), but rarely do we step back and ask why people place their trust in these particular activities, people, and things. In this article, I probe beneath the surface expressions of idolatry and consider the idolatrous heart which is trusting in these things “in place of or alongside of the only true God.” We will see that at its core, idolatry is a worship of our wants and desires, an expression of the self-love characteristic of these last days (2 Tim. 3:1). Yet God confronts this self-worship, pursuing those with wayward hearts and alluring them with His deliverance and tender words (Hos. 2:14). The same God whose compassion grew warm and tender for idolatrous Israel (Hos. 11:8) shows His grace and mercy to idolaters today, exposing the folly of their misplaced trust and revealing Himself as their true refuge and strength (Ps. 46:1).
The Idolatry Behind the Idols in Scripture
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). When God gave His law to Moses at Mount Sinai, He clarified His relationship to Israel. The creator of the world was also their redeemer, a God close at hand, entering into covenant with them and promising blessing and protection. Nevertheless, God’s people were prone to wander, so He began with these words: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). This first commandment addressed the temptation to seek comfort, blessing, and protection from anyone or anything other than God. This misguided quest lies at the heart of idolatry.
Though Israel often fell into gross idolatry—carving images and worshiping the gods of the surrounding nations—even this idolatry was rooted in hearts gone awry. In exile, God gave Ezekiel a glimpse of the relationship between the external and internal aspects of idolatry. In Ezekiel 8:5–16, God showed Ezekiel visions of men worshiping statues, wall carvings, foreign gods, and the sun itself. But in Ezekiel 14:1–5, Ezekiel also learned that these outward actions were related to internal longings in the heart: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezek. 14:3). Though in exile for this very sin, they still sought protection and blessing elsewhere, refusing to seek God alone to satisfy their longings.
In the New Testament, this internal character of idolatry was developed further, closely aligning idolatry with the heart’s desires. In Athens, Paul saw that the city was “full of idols” (Acts 17:16). But like Ezekiel, Paul also recognized an inner component to idolatry: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). To the Ephesians, Paul even stated that “covetous people are idolaters” (Eph. 5:5). It is important to note that Paul explicitly correlates covetousness—sinful, out-of-control wants and desires—with idolatry. Imagine the dismay of those in the church at Ephesus who had never entered the temple of Artemis, yet recognized that their plotting, self-absorbed, and lustful hearts made them as guilty of idolatry as those who had.
One more passage is worth considering as it illustrates two aspects of idolatrous desires. In James 4:1–3 we read: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” First, James notes that runaway desires are demanding despots. They call for obedience no matter what or whom the cost. James notes that desire-idolaters will dutifully sacrifice others for their desires. They would rather gossip, slander, use vicious words, or even kill than say no to their wants. Second, James alerts us to the fact that idolatrous desires can be even for good things. After all, James 4:2–3 indicates that the unfulfilled desire stems from wrong motives, not because the object of desire is sinful.
We’ve seen that God’s Word presents a multilevel approach to idolatry, one that connects this sin with the love of wants and desires. And by doing this, it shows that in serving their wants, people are worshiping themselves. How does this play out in modern life? It is to this question that we now turn.
The Idolatry Behind the Idols Today
Though in our day we do see images used in false worship, worshiping wants and absorption with self is the most prevalent type of idolatry. Even Christians struggle with this. Consider this: What drives our thinking at any given moment? Do we see circumstances as opportunities to glorify God and reflect His glory outward to others in love and service? Or is every circumstance viewed in terms of satisfying our perceived needs, fulfilling our desires, and getting what we want? Do affliction and disappointment drive us toward the God who is glorified in our efforts, or does it make us resentful of those very efforts, seeing that they didn’t pay out as we had hoped? Can you identify with the idolatry occurring here?
Perhaps like never before, modern Western culture is obsessed with self. Past generations cultivated character through self-control. Self-sacrifice was a highly prized virtue. In our day, however, a new set of words are typically hyphenated with self: self-expression, self-gratification, self-fulfillment, self-esteem, self-actualization. We live in a therapeutic, self-focused world concerned more with how we feel than anything else. David Wells explains: “In the therapeutic world, it is all about self-fulfillment. It is not about self-sacrifice and self-discipline, self-restraint and self-abasement, which is what Christianity is about” (The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 170). This culture encourages what is natural to fallen creatures: pursuit of the self.
This modern self-worship—the worship of our wants—lies beneath the surface of specific behaviors often labeled idolatrous. The man who works late every night and skips out on time with his kids is said to be worshiping his work. The woman who downs the fifth of vodka she hid in her glove compartment is said to be worshiping alcohol. The teenager who is sleeping with his girlfriend is said to be worshiping sex.
In reality, however, this kind of analysis misses the deeper aspects of idolatry we’ve been considering. Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju warn against being “hasty or simplistic in labeling what a person’s heart is worshipping.” They continue: “A thirty-four-year-old addicted to video games is not worshipping his Xbox. A sexually active teen is not worshipping her boyfriend. Like the Canaanite fertility gods that Israel was so drawn toward, these objects are typically means of attaining something else. Israel was enamored not with a carved piece of wood, but with what they thought that god could grant them: fertility, wealth, prosperity, safety, belonging, generational perpetuity—in other words, life on their own terms” (The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015], 74–75).
The people mentioned above are idolaters, but the things they seem to be worshiping are just aids to their worship. They use things like work, alcohol, and sex to attain and/or avoid something that they believe will satisfy their desires. Because of this, simply exhorting them to stop fails woefully. Not only is this like treating a broken bone with Tylenol, but also it misses a wonderful opportunity to minister the gospel to deeper issues of the heart, showing that Christ alone is the source of true satisfaction.
What would happen if we took the time to ask questions of people like these, probing the situations in order to better understand what desires are motivating their actions?
How is the man who works too much engaged in worship? Perhaps he wants others to think highly of his skill and charisma, so he uses success at work to elicit the praise and acclaim of his coworkers. Or perhaps the man is trying to escape a wife who constantly nags and finds fault with him. He intentionally works long hours thinking, “At least I’m appreciated here.” Because of an inordinate desire for tranquility and appreciation, he is unwilling to “gently restore” his wife (Gal. 6:1) and “nourish and cherish” her (Eph. 5:29) by lovingly confronting her with her critical spirit.
What about the alcohol abuser? What does she fear, and why does she flee to drunkenness for refuge? Is she numbing pain from abuse committed against her in the past instead of entrusting her soul to her faithful Creator (2 Pet. 4:19), the One who can redeem the pain of the past unto His glory and her well-being? Is she bored and seeking to be entertained even if that involves a drunken stupor? Might she be angry that her family doesn’t treat her the way she wants to be treated? Instead of helping them to grow and learn selfless behavior grounded in the gospel of grace, perhaps she drinks to punish them and manipulate them into giving her what she wants.
Does the sexually active teenager think too highly of himself? Perhaps he wants his friends to stroke his ego by commending him for his sexual prowess, or maybe he sees sleeping with his girlfriend as a prize he’s earned. Conversely, might he think too little of himself and use sex to feel valuable and wanted instead of rejoicing in the great value he has as an image bearer of God and seeking to love and serve others in light of that?
How about the woman spending exorbitant amounts of money on clothing, hair, and nails? Or the family more interested in club soccer than going to church on Sunday? What is the woman who fishes for compliments really serving? Or the man who habitually overeats? Or the man who views pornography? What lies behind the desire for such good things as obedient children, a supportive spouse, good health, or a well-ordered church? God’s glory or self-love?
Lying behind drunkenness, sexual immorality, neglect of family, or an overly controlling demeanor are hearts that are seeking refuge in someone or something other than God. We find people who love satisfying their desires above worshiping the true God. And sadly we find people who are missing the delights and satisfaction being offered to them by their heavenly Father.
Dealing with the Idolatry Behind the Idols
The prophet Isaiah proclaimed to a sinful nation that God was merciful: “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all whose who wait for him” (Isa. 30:18). Isaiah went on to speak of God’s redeeming work: restoring sinful and rebellious people to blessing and favor. Israel’s ears would be opened to the ways of God so that they would repent and abandon their idols: “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” (Isa. 30:22).
This same merciful God comes to us in Christ, reminding us of His preeminent worth and beauty and wooing us away from our false gods. What can we do, then, to forsake the idols in our hearts and enjoy the freedom that God offers us in His beloved Son?
First, identify your idols. When you find yourself sinfully responding to unmet desires, don’t be distracted by the surface issue. As important as it is to flee drunkenness, pornography, or materialism, these are but symptoms of a worship disorder in the heart. Often a series of X-ray questions can help to identify the idols of our heart (Note: This list is adapted from Ken Sande, The Peacemaker [rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 105):
With what am I preoccupied? What is always on my mind?
How would I answer the question: If only __________, then I would be happy, fulfilled, and secure.
What do I want to preserve or avoid no matter the cost?
When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression?
Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to hurt others or sin in order to have it?
Once you have identified these idolatrous desires, remind yourself that these render you guilty before God and require the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Once you identify what your sinful actions are aiming to protect or avoid, you will be able to pursue true repentance and change.
Second, repent of your idols and flee to Christ in all His grace and sufficiency. There is a saying: “The bad news is worse than you thought, but the good news is better than you could ever imagine.” Admitting that your idolatrous desires are a personal affront to God can be a bitter pill to swallow. Yet once you have accepted these idols as a sin worthy of condemnation, the sweetness of the gospel is all the more overwhelming! Paul proclaims: “God shows his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
When you cry out prayers like “Father, forgive me for seeking acclaim of man” or “Please forgive me for loving my peace and quiet more than you and my children,” God hears your prayer, for Christ is interceding on your behalf (Heb. 7:25). What is more, Christ sends His Holy Spirit to help you flee these and other idolatrous temptations: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:13–14).
Third, reorient your thinking to your true identity. Your idols reveal what you really believe about yourself, your functional identity. When you are ruled by your wants and desires, you live as though you are an empty cup: one whose chief purpose is to satisfy your needs, fulfill your desires, and get what you want. Unfortunately, empty cups are consumed by getting filled. They focus on themselves and view every situation as something which can either assist or prevent them from getting what they need. But satisfying every desire and indulging every want is an impossible task, leading only to disappointment, bitterness, resentment, and ingratitude.
God’s Word, however, shows a better way of viewing yourself. Scripture says that you are a mirror. You are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and designed to reflect His glory. In spite of your besetting sin (cf. 1 John 1:8–10; Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 114), you are being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) and therefore being renewed in the image of the Creator (Col. 3:10). Because of this, every situation is an opportunity to bring glory to God (1 Cor. 10:31) and give thanks to Him (1 Thess. 5:18). Unlike the hit-and-miss success of self-fulfillment, God is able to derive glory in any and all circumstances. When you are consumed with praising God and loving others, you will find that nothing can thwart these noble desires. This is a slow process and a hard-fought battle, but take heart, Christian. Because of your justification by faith alone, your sanctification will one day be complete. After this life you will be fully and perfectly conformed to Christ in glory (Rom. 8:16–17; 2 Cor. 4:17; Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 58, 115).
At the end of his first epistle, the apostle John contrasted the abounding grace and mercy we receive in Christ with the false hopes and disappointment found in other so-called saviors: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20–21). Our demanding desires will never fully satisfy; they cannot make good on their promises. Thanks be to God for the redemption we have in Christ’s blood and the riches of His grace which He has lavished upon us (Eph. 1:7–8).
May God give us grace to flee from our worthless idols, and flee instead to His powerful and open arms.
Rev. R. Andrew Compton is pastor of Christ Reformed Church (URCNA), Anaheim, CA.