Dr. Timothy Keller, one of the better selling Christian authors in America today, became well-known, in part, for his insights on idolatry. His concise summary, that “an idol is when you take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing in your life” is spot on. While many people think that idolatry is the primitive practice of behind-the-times Eastern cultures, the reality is that idolatry is as much or more an issue today in the Western world as it has ever been in any corner of the planet. In fact, one could argue that the idolatry practiced today in the United States is more embarrassing and more dangerous than bowing down to little carved images because we don’t even realize we’re guilty of it.
Years before Keller, Martin Luther made a similar comment about idolatry when he said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.” Whatever we daydream about, whatever we wake up in the night thinking about, whatever drives us to our emotional edges, these are good indicators of what our idols might be. Whatever we give regular and generous offerings to in our lives, these are likely our false gods. Our time, our energy, and our finances, our adoration and praise, and most intimately, our hearts, belong to these functional gods which we believe will satisfy us, make us whole, and in true Humpty Dumpty fashion, put the broken pieces of our lives back together. This is worship. We all worship. The only difference is what/who we worship.
The original sociologist, Satan himself, crafty as ever and knowing the pride of the 21st century West, which possesses a refusal to bow to any overt gods, has transformed modern idolatry into a highly subtle and internalized practice. While there are over 200 references to idolatry in Scripture, most refer to gold and silver images. However, there is one passage in particular that I believe summarizes modern idolatry well. In Ezekiel 14:2-4, God tells his prophet Ezekiel to say this to the elders of Israel…
“Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry.'”
My guess is that it’s very possible that the elders of Israel, upon hearing this message from Ezekiel, said, “What’s he talking about? We’re not idolaters! Check our tents. We have no idols!” The idolatry they were guilty of was idolatry “in their hearts.” They had taken good gifts from God and found their own personal value, their strength, their identity, and their hope in such worldly blessings. They assumed worldly good could fulfill the desire of their hearts and solve the problems of their mind. They were wrong. And so are we when we believe likewise.
So what are these invisible idols that rule our hearts? The mature Christian knows that they exist. The mature Christian accurately recognizes that lust for sexual immorality and the greed of wealth and materialism are common idols. But Satan’s savvy is generally two steps ahead of even the mature Christian. What about those idols we’re not fully aware of, those that are important, valuable, noble things in our lives that occasionally become more important, more valuable, and ultimate to us, to the detriment of our relationship with God?
Over the course of the next weeks we’ll take a look at some of the more prominent ones: success, love, sports, beauty, family, and even religion. We’re going to identify not only what the common subtle idols of the Christian are, but also why we cling to them, and how they can be destroyed in our lives. I hope you can join me.