Idolatry is not as visible as we may believe. It’s an insidious deception that permeates the world and the church and true worship is our only protection.
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (1 Corinthians 10:14)
Back in Bible days, idolatry was ‘out there’ and boldly visible. It’s hard to miss a golden calf and a whole bunch of people dancing and worshiping before it. As a result, it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing people could hide or disguise as true worship – though how they thought God wouldn’t notice is beyond belief. Still, we often look at the Israelites in a kind of bemused wonder. With the parting of the Red Sea, manna and quails, and pillars of fire and cloud, they really still turned to idols? We very easily judge them because their sin was so visible. But because it’s not as visible in our world today doesn’t mean today’s verse isn’t relevant. If anything, it’s more critical than ever before.
What is idolatry?
This is a good starting point, because mention the word idolatry, and we immediately think golden calf. Or totems, statues, carvings, and other visible substitutes for the one true God. In Exodus 20:3, God tells His people: You shall have no other gods before Me. A simple definition of idolatry, therefore, is having other gods before Him. But things get a little more complicated when we consider the reality of what ‘other gods’ actually means. The most common response is to identify the various ‘known gods’ in other religions. These could be the ancient gods, such as those from Greece and Rome, or those still worshiped in various religions today. Essentially, they’re ‘entities’ in that they have natures, characters, and personalities, and have a recognisable form, be it human, animal, or a mixture of the two. This is a dangerously narrow understanding of what ‘gods’ really means.
We read over and over in the Bible that there is only one true God. Any other ‘god,’ therefore, is false. They are a creation of man and put in the place of the great I AM. While they are basically inanimate, they may, of course be – and usually are – demonically empowered. Demonic presence, however, doesn’t make them animate, nor does it make them gods. What makes them gods is not what they are but the way people relate to them. The moment we worship something – give them the glory, praise, honour, and worship that belongs to Jehovah – we define them as gods. Idolatry, therefore is creating and worshiping something that is not a god as if it were a god, instead of worshiping the one true God.
Idolatry in the world.
Based on this definition, we can immediately recognise that idolatry is alive and well in the world. The frightening thing is that usually disguised as something else entirely. We could call that ‘something’ the actualisation of self, to borrow from psychology. What this really means is that self has replaced God in the world at large. Teaching, training, social norms, and even law place self at the pinnacle of human focus. Some even promise to ‘release the god in us.’ Everything is geared towards self-satisfaction, self-gratification, self-protection, self-potential, self-aggrandisement, self-success, self-achievement, and self-indulgence. All of these philosophies are cleverly disguised as either super spiritual enlightenment of our fundamental rights.
Of course, there are countless other things that also qualify as gods or idolatry but which masquerade as good and desirable. The beauty, sport, and media industries are good examples. Unprecedented popularity and financial booms within these sectors has outstripped all expectations. Family life is sacrificed on the altar of indulgence, and any pretext at ‘right living’ is replaced by fun and dissipation and a breakdown of social moral standards. Then, we have the very obvious pursuit of wealth, which loves to disguise itself as ‘proper financial planning’ or ‘family security.’ Mammon, of course, is more easily recognisable, but it’s become adept at hiding itself beneath the ‘right’ terms and justifications.
The church has not escaped idolatry.
It’s very easy – and satisfying – for churchgoers to look down their noses at ‘the rest of the world.’ Church idolatry is the most dangerous and the most insidious, because it is buried beneath the semblance of real worship. While it seems impossible that we should find this sin in the church, the reality is that it’s alive and well – and even thriving. One example that comes to mind is the almost mass-hysteria response to church worship. This does not apply to all churches, but there are those who worship worship. They have made an idol of worship, and their focus in coming to church is the ‘feel-good’ experience that isn’t at all different from a rock concert.
Some churches worship church. In other words, they have made a god of the ritual, pomp, ceremony, and elaborate trappings. The Spirit is often entirely overlooked in favour of tradition. Some spend more time on their programmes or outreaches than they do on God. Church growth is another idol that creeps in when leadership measures their spiritual success by butts in seats or membership numbers. Tithes are another area of weakness, where more attention is given to the budget than to the preaching or real worship. I even know of a church who now takes the collection during worship. They unashamedly admit that this ‘guilts’ people into giving more. The size and grandeur of the church building is another idol. Pastors can become idols when they’re charismatic or manipulative. The list, tragically, is endless.
Idolatry starts with individuals.
The real truth is that idolatry starts with me and you. There will never be a popular moment unless someone, somewhere, starts it. We can self-righteously bemoan an idolatrous generation, but we’re part of it. Our individual compromises affect larger issues. If we put the latest test match above attending church, that’s idolatry. We can sit in judgement on the unsaved, whose lives are idolatrous simply because they have turned from God, but our sin is worse. We claim to serve and worship God, but we daily place our mini-gods ahead of the one true God. The danger is that our definition is way too narrow. Because we expect a golden calf, we cannot see the idol sitting on our TV console. It doesn’t fit our definition or expectation, so it’s not a god.
The Bible is very clear though. Anything that occupies a place of greater importance in our lives than God is a god. The attention we give it is idolatry. It doesn’t have to have horns, hooves, and a tail, or be made of gold. If I, for example, spend more time worrying about my finances than I do trusting God for my finances, that’s idolatry. I’m effectively saying that the issue of finances is bigger than God. Instead of worship, praise, and thanksgiving, I’m devoting my time to worry. We need to understand these subtle deceptions, because we carry our compromise into the church and the world when we should be salt and light. If no one stands against idolatry, the other gods will continue to prosper.
Idolatry is defined by the position God holds.
With this kind of uncompromising truth, it’s easy to fall into condemnation – and unnecessarily so. The reality of idolatry doesn’t mean we should smash the TV set and not be financially sensible. It’s a very scary truth is that every single thing has the potential to become and idol if not managed. But this doesn’t mean that everything will become and idol. The position God holds in our lives will determine whether we have fallen into idolatry or not. An obvious example is our work. The Bible tells us that if we don’t work, we don’t eat. We have to work, and we have to be conscientious and committed to keep our jobs and even be promoted. This is not idolatry, because we are obedient to the Word of God.
When our work takes precedence, however, that’s a problem. When we pursue the promotion based on greed and sacrifice our integrity or our family in its pursuit, that’s idolatry. God is not present in it. We don’t work for the glory of God in thanksgiving for the opportunity but for the financial gratification. When the work becomes more important than God, the work becomes our god. We worship the power, status, money, and security it brings, rather than the God who has provided the blessing. The wise Christian will always check to see the position God holds in everything we do. Even our leisure time can be done to glory of God. If that is our sincere motive, we’re not in idolatry. While we should never presume that we won’t fall, we should also honestly judge ourselves in relation to the position God occupies in every aspect of our lives.
Dealing with idolatry.
Before we can confront idolatry in the world and the church, we need to first deal with it in our own lives. It’s a simple fact that when we stand righteously with God as our focus, we will automatically challenge the gods of this world. To discover how to deal with idolatry, we need only look at the recurring pattern in the lives of the people of Israel. The common thread is confession, repentance, and forgiveness. When we surrender in humility and contrition, God welcomes and restores us. The key, here, is to recognise our error, and that can only happen when we listen to God. When we genuinely and sincerely search our hearts, He is quick to reveal the hidden idols that lurk within.
Over and over in the Bible, God calls His people back from idolatry, and He hasn’t changed. We must, however, be willing to listen, to hear, and to obey. It’s comforting to know that God will call us back when we’ve gone after false gods. In many instances, it’s a subtle, slow deception that creeps in insidiously and masquerades as something good. Our God is infinitely patient, and if we recognise the sin and turn from it, He will not ignore our cries. But we cannot afford to sacrifice our true worship to the extent that we no longer hear His voice. Though other gods may be present in our lives, we must remain in relationship to hear when He reveals the truth. Remaining continually filled with the Spirit is our protection and our guide. God is gracious to forgive when we turn back with humble and contrite hearts.
Protection from idolatry.
There is a wise saying that prevention is better than cure. By the grace of God, there is a way to be protected against idolatry. That is the way of worship. It’s critical that we understand that worship is so much more than the songs we sing on Sunday or in the car on the freeway. God tells us to love Him with all we have. He tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down our lives. This is the fundamental nature of worship – to love God with everything, including every aspect of our lives. It’s a lifestyle, not an action. If we daily lay ourselves down in worship, He will protect us. When we daily choose to place Him at the very centre of all we do, He will enable us to recognise idolatry and empower us to resist it. His life in us is our safeguard and our strength, and we have access to that when we yield our all.
Father God, thank You for Your patience and faithfulness. Thank You that You always call us back and are merciful and gracious to forgive, even when we fall into idolatry. Quicken our hearts and grant us spiritual wisdom and discernment. Guard our hearts with Your Word and Spirit. Make us quick to recognise and quick to repent, and help us to worship You in all things, great or small, so that we might see the danger before it overtakes us.