Christians talk of idols a lot. Counseling books discuss “idols of heart.” Pastors, such as myself, preach on idols from the pulpit. Our favorite reformer, John Calvin, said that our heart is an idol factory. But idols are not easy to identify in our culture. We have them, but they are not like idols of old, made of gold, sitting on a special table at home or in the temple for us to worship. So how do we know something is an idol in our lives? When do we know we have started worshiping the gift instead of the Giver? Here are two indicators that something or someone has become an idol for us.
First, an idol is something we find an ungodly satisfaction in. Losing it creates an inordinate amount of discouragement. Like the idols of old we look to these things for joy, delight, pleasure, and satisfaction. We feel like we cannot do without them. We are loyal to these things or people to a fault. We live for them instead of seeing them as gifts.
These idols can be almost anything. Our children are often idols. Even phases our go through can be idols. We love them as babies, but as awkward teenagers, not so much. Our spouses can become idols. Physical abilities, such as walking, hearing, strength can be idols. Money is the great idol of our age. Both the frugal and the wasteful often worship at the same altar. Our reputation can also be an idol. When people think well of us we are happy. If not we are devastated. And of course, there is sex, power, theology, jobs, science, the future, the past, etc. Many of these are good things, which we are supposed find enjoyment in. But they can slowly eclipse our love for God and trust in him.
One way to examine your heart for idols is to ask how you react when God removes it from you. When you are sick for a few days, your car breaks down, or someone slanders your reputation do you become moody, discouraged, irritable?? What about when your child goes through a difficult stage or you lose a job you love or your spouse isn’t quite as exciting as she used to be? Do you justify your sins, such as anger, apathy, bitterness, and laziness, because the Lord took something from you?
On the flip side, what are your greatest joys in life? What do you live for? Do you hunger for righteousness like you hunger for the latest Netflix show? Do you look forward to worship like you look forward to that football game? Do you look forward loving your kids behind closed doors as much as showing them off in public? Do you long to listen as much as you long to speak? Do you praise others as much as you want praise?
If we find ungodly satisfaction in something then we will feel an ungodly pain when it is lost. There is a godly pain, especially when something dear to us is lost. But that pain should be handled with faith and not despair. If the loss of something or someone sends you spiraling or causes you to excuse your sin then that thing or person is an idol.
We all have these idols. Part of our job as Christians is to continue to kill idols and seek our satisfaction in Christ alone. We will only find satisfaction in Christ. He is the one who can truly fill us. If we expect anyone or anything else to do that then we have created an idol.
Second, if you finish this sentence “I am holy because of…” with something other than Jesus then you might have an idol problem. I am holy because I home school or attend a liturgical worship service or eat healthy or read my Bible every day or pray or practice paedocommunion or work hard or send my kids to classical school or pray a lot or was a virgin when I got married or am more theological than other people or am not legalistic or my children are obedient or…[fill in the blank]. We would not say it out loud, but often we believe we are holy because of what we do instead of being in Christ.
Of course, many of these are good things. We should grow in holiness becoming more like Jesus. But that is the danger. We don’t make idols out of worthless things. We make idols out of good things. We turn gifts, not trash, into idols. But none of these make you holy. What makes you holy is Jesus. If you believe you are holy because of something besides Jesus then that something has become your god, the one who makes you righteous and takes away your sins.
We must believe in our bones that only Jesus makes us holy. We are clean because of Him. Nothing we do can wash away our stains. No act of obedience can atone for our sins. We cannot pull ourselves out of the hole Adam dug for us. Any growth in holiness is a gift from God given through the Spirit because of the work of Jesus Christ. To quote Paul, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7)
Satisfaction and holiness; two things that only Jesus can give. If you expect these from something or someone else then you are worshiping an idol. And idols always disappoint.