“Idolatry” and “idols” are words that are tossed around often in the Biblical Counselling world. It has been said that the human heart is a professional idol factory.
But what does it actually mean to worship an idol? Obviously, we aren’t talking about little wooden or stone statues that people make and claim are divine. In one way, they are the same—idols are something we worship as or more than God. But unlike those stone statues you often see in pagan cultures, idols today don’t have temples dedicated to them, they aren’t always a material thing, and the worship of them isn’t always as noticeable.
So what is an idol? How do you know if you are worshipping something as an idol? Before we get to that, you must understand that everyone worships something.
We All Worship Something
Though I don’t like this fact any more than you do, the truth of the matter is that we all worship something, and if it is not God, then it is an idol. I know this to be true because every human being was created to worship and glorify God.
For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NASB
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” Colossians 1:16 NASB
Everyone who is called by My name, And whom I have created for My glory, Whom I have formed, even whom I have made.” Isaiah 43:7 NASB
Sadly, God’s Word also says that though we were created to worship Him, we have gone astray and worshipped other things.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Romans 1:21-23 NASB
God has given us evidence in the beautiful creation around us that there is a Creator (v. 20), and yet we have chosen to worship something other than Him.
The sad fact is then that if you are not worshipping God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, you are most likely worshipping something else.
Paul David Tripp defines idolatry in his book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands in this way: “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God” (p. 65). If you have put something in the place of God in your life, then you have made that thing into an idol.
Because this is still a bit vague, I would say that within this definition there are three ways to really define whether or not something has become an idol to you.
1. You Really Want It
This one may seem indisputable, but it’s still important to consider. Idols are created from our desires, so when we really want something, it may be a good time to stop and think about how grand that desire has become to us.
Consider how often you use the word need. I need a car, I need money, I need food, I need coffee, I need friends, I need love, etc. If we stop and think about it, how many of the things do we say that we need that we actually do not need? In all technicality, all you truly need is God, water, and food. Everything else is extra.
When it comes to idols, often times it is a desire that has turned into an apparent “need”. So ask yourself: What do I believe that I need in order to be happy or live? What things have I considered a need that actually aren’t a need?
2. You Will Act Sinfully To Get It
If you are willing to break God’s commands due to an idol (or “need”), it has definitely taken rule over your life. There are a few ways in which this may present itself. You may act sinfully in order to receive your idol; for the person who idolizes sex, this would mean persuading someone to have sex with them. Or you may become sinful when you don’t receive your idol; for the person who idolizes acceptance and attention from others, she may become sinfully angry with someone who is taking that attention away from her.
Perhaps your sin is more subtle than that. Maybe you have sinfully elevated your standards of others in order to get your idol, like the man who demands high respect and perfection from his co-workers. It could be that you do not often voice when your desires haven’t been met, but instead your emotions rage inside of you because you were prevented from getting your idol.
Stop and consider for a moment: The last times I acted and thought sinfully, what was my goal? Is there a common goal or thing I am trying to get? If so, this may reveal to you something in your life that has become an idol.
3. You Place Your Hope, Trust, and Faith in It
If your apparent “need” is what you have placed your security in, then it may be an idol.
An exercise I was shown in a Biblical Counselling class at the Master’s University for uprooting idols was Psalm 18. Basically, you read through Psalm 18 and consider whether or not it is God who you would relate this psalm to, or if it is an idol. Throughout the psalm, David refers to God as his refuge, rock, shield, horn of his salvation, and stronghold. Is God your rock in difficult times? Is God your shield when you are being attacked? Is God your refuge when you are afraid? Or do you look to something else?
Consider where you run to for comfort: Do you seek God in prayer and His Word, or do you run to food or your boyfriend? Consider what gives you peace of mind: Is it God’s sovereignty and providence, or is it how much money you have in the bank account? If you have placed your hope, trust, and faith in something other than God, then you are worshipping an idol.
Ridding Yourself of An Idol
Now that you have determined what things are idols in your life, what do you do with this knowledge? Specifically, this will vary from idol to idol as to how you should attack it. Generally, however, there are a few things you can and should do no matter what your idol is.
Confess and Repent of Your Idol
Like every sin, we must come before God, asking for His forgiveness and determining to repent.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 NASB
The Bible says that if we confess our sins God will not only forgive us but also cleanse us and help us overcome these sins.
Seek to Know God More
When we know how great God is, we will not be satisfied for idols. No matter what the idol is, it in no way compares to our glorious God. God is perfect, they are imperfect. God is eternal, they are mortal. God never fails, idols always do. Understanding how awesome God is, you will not want or desires those vain idols. Study God and know Him. Seek to learn more about God in His Word. No idol can fulfill you like God.
Thus says the Lord,
Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
And whose trust is the Lord.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit.” Jeremiah 17:5-8 NASB
My prayer for you is that you will no longer seek idols to fill your life, but will instead seek God and find full satisfaction and trust in Him alone.
In love and grace,