What is Idolatry?

Golden calves and false gods

If you’re like me you don’t normally spend your day thinking about idolatry. In fact, most of us don’t even give it a thought and if we do, we think of the Old Testament—golden calves and people worshipping “Baal.”

But idolatry is deeply intertwined with most sins we embrace. Our hearts, the mission control center of everything we do (Proverbs 4:23), are prone to idolatry. Now don’t revolt or get up in arms thinking “I would never bow to a chunk of rock,” let me explain what I mean.

We are worshippers by nature and many of us live every day choosing to love something else more than we love God. The problem is we are deceived. We are blind to our idols unless we intentionally seek them out.

Scripture on Idolatry

The apostle Paul describes idolatry in terms of an exchange:

“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25).

The first commandment speaks to idolatry:

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

And Jesus states here is no room for any other when he reiterates Deuteronomy in his earthly ministry the great and foremost commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37-38).

Idolatry has to do with love—loving God and serving others. If what we love most is not God then we have replaced THE God with a god of our choosing. Our hearts are to be set completely on God. We are to love God with everything and give him our undivided complete devotion (Matthew 16:24,25).

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Remarkably, In the book of 1 John, John writes about what genuine fellowship with Christ looks like and then ends his letter with a warning about something he hasn’t even mentioned:

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

In other words, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts. Why? Because nothing but God will satisfy your heart (Psalm 90:14, 63:5).

Idolatry robs God of the glory that he alone deserves (by allowing a person or thing to capture our heart, mind, or affections more than God).

What does an idol look like today?

So, what does idolatry look like in your own life? Is there conflict in your relationships? Your idolatry, my idolatry, takes a huge toll on our relationships. Your wife, husband, children, friends, co-workers, or fellow students are affected by your idolatry. What we want the most, what we desire the most, affects our relationships. It impacts everything whether we choose to admit it or not.

You are an idolater and so am I.

Paul Tripp says, “Do you have any conflict in your life? Do you experience moments of irritation toward someone you would otherwise love? Are there people who simply push your buttons more than others? Do certain things drive you crazy on a daily basis? The answer to all these questions is that we think of our lives as our own and we are more committed to the purposes of our OWN kingdom than we are to God’s. We need to recognize that the people in our way have been sent to us by a wise and sovereign God. He never gets a wrong address and he always chooses just the right moment to expose our hearts so he can realign it to his” (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands).

It’s easy to love people who are easy to love, but God puts people in our lives who hurt us and are difficult so that he can expose our hearts. When someone does something we don’t like, when we are hurt or discouraged, or when our marriage isn’t what it used to be, it is then that we find out:

  1. What we believe about God in the circumstance
  2. What we believe about self—our rights, goals, expectations, desires
  3. What we believe about what is important to us

Conflict, harshness, and pain exposes what is in our hearts. How we react reveals who rules our heart. Do we focus on what we think we deserve or how we were wronged? Do we treat that person poorly or do we focus solely on pleasing God and serving and loving that person?

When something no longer deepens and intensifies our love for Christ it begins to compete with Christ. What do you live for? If God is in his rightful place our lives WILL function the way he has designed us.

We were made to find our greatest joy in God not in things or in other people.

“O God…earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you… Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” (Psalm 63:1–5)

How to identify idols

What could be an idol in your life? These questions can help you determine if a desire has become an idol in place of God:

  1. If you are unhappy, what do you believe will make you happy? How would you answer- “I will be happy if ________.”

  2. Parents face very unique idols. Do you not want to be disagreed with? Do you not like your comfort interrupted? Are you more worried about looking good in front of others or actually parenting well?

  3. What do you love?

  4. What do you live for?

  5. What most satisfies you?

  6. What prevents God from having first place in your life?

  7. What do you think about the most?

  8. If you lost ________would it rattle you? “What would happen if you lost ________?”

Below are a few examples of wants and desires.

Are you willing to sin to get any of these? Are you willing to sin if you think you are going to lose any? Do you run to these for refuge instead of God?

  • Having the perfect house
  • Looking a certain way
  • Being recognized at work
  • Having the latest iPhone
  • Getting married
  • Approval of other people
  • A hobby
  • The best lawn in the neighborhood
  • Appreciation
  • Success in business
  • Having a boyfriend/girlfriend
  • Happiness
  • Security
  • Good grades

Call to action

So the real question is:

  • Do you love God with all your heart?
  • Do you DESIRE to love God with all your heart?

God has never been willing to share his WORTHINESS with any other “gods.” Be honest, check yourself to see if other “gods” are fighting for your loyalty, your energy, your love and your devotion.

If there is chaos (ungodly emotions, relationship conflict, lack of peace, security, hope, joy) in your life, are you willing to do the hard work with his power? Will you commit to pursuing and cherishing ONLY him? Remember good gifts from God were never meant to be masters but servants.


About the author

Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her three children and their 12 year old yellow lab…and sushi too.

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