Scripture paints quite a picture of idolatry in both Old and New Testaments as God’s people are continually surrounded by those who sacrificed to images of wood and stone. In ancient Israel, idolatry looked like altars to Baal and Asherah poles built to worship Canaanite gods. In the New Testament, it is compared to greed (Matt. 6:24) and gluttony (Phil. 3:19). Idolatry often keeps company with witchcraft (1 Sam. 15:23, Gal. 2:20), and is listed as a sin of the flesh. With this perspective, it’s easy to see how Christians have limited the scope of idolatry to only the visible worship of another god or the manifestation of sinful pursuits. It is even easier to see how the modern believer might think herself free of such a sin.
But idolatry looms large in the church today. We have simply stopped learning how to recognize it.
What is idolatry?
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller says that an idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”
This definition broadens the initial perception of idols being limited to pagan statues or disdainful attitudes like greed and arrogance. It’s important to understand that our idols are often good things that God has given us, twisted by our sinful desires to become something we worship or in which we place our trust, happiness, or identity.
How do we recognize when we’ve turned something into an idol? There are a few common red flags.
What do you worry about?
Often, our worries tell us where our idols are because they reflect a lack of trust in a good God who provides. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells his disciples that worrying cannot add a single day to life, and that God knows our needs (vs. 25–34). Why then do we put our hopes in things that moth and rust destroy, things which are temporary? We’re told instead to store up treasures in heaven for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vs. 19–21). When we’re consumed by worry over our finances, our children, our education, or relationships, we’re letting our hearts refuse the comfort of the LORD who says he will provide for us.
What makes you angry?
Anger is a sin that often goes unchecked in Christian circles. Are you still not getting recognized at work, are you still waiting on an apology from a friend, or does nothing ever seem to go your way? Are you mad at the government, your difficult family, or strangers on Twitter? A lot of us can admit to being angry at someone or something. Maybe we’re even angry over good causes! But the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). We’re told to remove from ourselves anger and wrath (Col. 3:8) because we have been made new. We have a new Father, and he is jealous for our hearts and affections (Exod. 34:14). Our anger betrays our idol of self. This should not characterize Christians who boast in nothing but Christ (Rom. 3:27). Instead, we should be marked by our gentleness, humility, and patience (1 Tim. 6:11).
Where is your identity?
Identity is a hot button issue these days. Are you an anti-masker? Pro-life? Democrat or Republican? Even more ingrained in our thinking are questions of singleness, parenthood, and employment. Do you define yourself by these things? We so often make idols out of our sexual identity, national identity, and relationship status, placing our self-worth in these temporal markers. But what does the Bible say about our identity? “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In Psalm 87, we read the promise of being registered with the peoples born of Zion, and in response we may sing of God, “All my springs of joy are in you.” If your identity is in your sexual orientation, your contributions to your community, or who is interested in you, you will miss the true source of joy and peace: our adoption as heirs to an eternal inheritance by a living God.
What do you “need”?
If you have ever made an ultimatum with God, it’s likely you’ve erected an idol in your heart. How many times have I prayed, “God, if you’ll just give me a husband, I’ll do whatever you want!” It seems silly to write that now, knowing that we should have hearts that long to do what God wants of us even when he withholds certain blessings. Do you “need” more obedient children or a resolution to your financial pressures more than you need God’s saving grace? This is not to say that we cannot experience good and godly desires and the grief that comes when those desires are unmet. Even Hannah pours out her heart to the Lord, promising to dedicate her son to the temple if God will give her one (1 Sam. 1:12–18). The problem is when we place this “need” over Christ, depending on it for our source of fullness or joy instead of him.
God doesn’t detest our idols any less than he did Israel’s high places of pagan worship, but praise him that he does not abandon us in our folly: “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jer. 24:7).