When we hear the term idolatry, we might picture primitive people bowing down before statues. We tend to think of the golden calf, or Baal, or Dagon.
We might think of the Greek gods like Artemis (Acts 18:21-41). Acts 17 describes the city of Athens as “full of idols” (17:16)—so much so that they did not want to leave anyone out and thus built an altar “to the unknown god” (17:23).
What Is Idolatry Today?
Few of us are tempted by that kind of idolatry—literally bowing before images—and thus we might not realize that we are tempted to be idolaters every day.
The truth is there is another, more subtle, form of idolatry. The English Puritan David Clarkson called it “soul idolatry,” which he described like this: “when the mind and heart is set upon anything more than God; when anything is more valued…; anything more trusted, more loved, or our endeavours more for any other thing than God,” then we are guilty of soul idolatry.
Ezekiel 14:3 talks about taking idols into our hearts. Paul called covetousness idolatry (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5). Think about that. Do we view coveting as idolatry? No, in America we call it shopping! In 2 Timothy 3, Paul said in the last days “people will be lovers of self, lovers of money… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-4). 1 John 2:15 says don’t love the world because if you love the world, you are an idolater. You are not loving the Father.
So, what is idolatry? Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, gives this definition: “[An idol] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
Most of us probably recognize that you can make a god out of money and material things; you can make a god out of sports, hobbies, TV, or Internet surfing. But we might not recognize that anything can become an idol, even good things. In fact, Keller points out, “the greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.”
Recognizing Our Idols
In order to guard ourselves against idols, we have to recognize and identify the idols of our hearts. The sad fact is, as Calvin said, “man’s nature…is a perpetual factory of idols.” We are constantly looking to other things rather than God for fulfillment. What are the things that are usurping God’s place in your life?
What are the things you are looking to for significance and security and satisfaction? Maybe it is your reputation or your career or success. Maybe it is your marriage (or a fairytale dream of marriage) or your family that you value more than Christ. For some, it is technology (social media, iPhones, and endless gadgets) or a house or car or clothes, or maybe even a clean house and a perfect yard. For many people in our culture, it is their physical appearance; we worship at the fitness center. Keller said, “We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image.”
Perhaps today the supreme idol is self: putting myself at the center of the universe and seeing everything and everyone in relation to me; revolving around me and my needs and desires, rather than having God at the center of my life and focused on His glory; concerned that Jesus Christ would increase and I would decrease.
What are the idols of your heart? How do we recognize them? Clarkson suggests that things we most highly value we make our God. The things we most love and trust and fear and desire and delight in we worship as God. So examine the workings of your heart. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). What are the things you can’t do without? What do you spend a great deal of time and money on? Keller asks, “What do you enjoy daydreaming about? What do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?” William Temple said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.”
Holiness and Idolatry
Read all 4 articles in Mark Stevenson’s series on Holiness and the Problem of Idolatry.
Mark Stevenson (PhD, University of Wales) has been teaching in the Bible and Theology Department at Emmaus since 1999. He is the author of the book "The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place." He and his wife Tonya have 4 children and live in Dubuque, IA.