Recognizing Idolatry

“…an idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”



While Moses was on the mountain to receive God’s commandments, the people that God had led out of slavery in Egypt melted their gold and molded it into a golden Calf to worship. Then they burnt offerings, feasted and partied, engaging in sexual immorality. God told Moses what was happening in Moses’ absence. He disclosed to Moses that the people had defiled themselves, and God commanded Moses to return to the people Moses had left at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32: 1-8)

Before Moses left, God revealed that His anger would destroy the defiled people because of their rebelliousness. Moses pleaded for God’s mercy on their behalf, and God was merciful. Moses then returned to the people as God had commanded where Moses observed the Calf idol, the people’s rebellion, and their wickedness. Moses threw the Ten Commandments that God had written on two stone tablets to the ground where they lay broken at the foot of the mountain. Moses melted the golden Calf, ground the gold into powder, and sprinkled the powder into water that he compelled the people to drink. Moses then shouted, “All you who are on the Lord’s side, come over here and join me.” And all the Levites came and stood with Moses. Others rejected the Lord. Moses then told those who had joined him, “Jehovah the God of Israel says, ‘Get your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other and kill even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.’” They did what Moses commanded, and about three thousand men died that day. Later, God sent a great plague upon the people because they had worshipped the golden idol. (Exodus 32:9-35)

Idolatry — idol worship — is a sin. It harms us and it angers God. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament condemn it. In the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament (those that God gave to Moses), the first is, “You may worship no other god than me.” (Exodus 20:3) The New Testament states that when asked which of God’s Ten Commandments is most important, Jesus replied, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. ” (Matthew 22:37-38)

The Bible then warns us not to be seduced by worldly things to the point they become more important to us than God: “Away then with sinful, earthly things; deaden the evil desires lurking within you; have nothing to do with sexual sin, impurity, lust, and shameful desires; don’t worship the good things of life, for that is idolatry. God’s terrible anger is upon those who do such things.” (Colossians 3:5-6)

The Bible also warns of the consequences of idolatry: “So it was that when they gave God up and would not even acknowledge him, God gave them up to doing everything their evil minds could think of. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness and sin, of greed and hate, envy, murder, fighting, lying, bitterness, and gossip. They were backbiters, haters of God, insolent, proud, braggarts, always thinking of new ways of sinning and continually being disobedient to their parents. They tried to misunderstand, broke their promises, and were heartless – without pity. They were fully aware of God’s death penalty for these crimes, yet they went right ahead and did them anyway and encouraged others to do them, too. ‘Well,’ you may say, ‘what terrible people you have been talking about!’ But wait a minute! You are just as bad.” (Romans 1:28-32)

And, yes, we are just as bad. Most of us, perhaps all of us, have committed idolatry at some point in our lives. Maybe we didn’t consciously have that intention. Maybe we didn’t realize that was what we were doing. Maybe we are guilty of it now. But we do it whenever something other than God dominates our thoughts or becomes the most important thing in our lives.

I used to believe that idol worship referred only to the worship of gods of other religions. What a foolish blunder. Although it can mean that too, idolatry doesn’t have to be connected to a religion at all. Nor does idol worship require that we lay offerings, burn incense, or pray in front of a godlike statue, even though that is also a form of idol worship.

Idol worship does not require a physical object: It can involve another person, an ambition, a dream, or an idea as well. As in all cases where idol worship involves intangibles, when idol worship involves a physical object, it isn’t the object that is dangerous. It’s us – and our capacity to sin.

Simply put, anything, anyone, or any idea that becomes more important to us than God becomes an idol. Idol worship occurs whenever we have priorities other than our love of, and obedience to, God. In his book, “Counterfeit Gods,” Tom Keller asserts that “…an idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”

Unfortunately, idol worship is prevalent in modern culture, among Christians and non-Christians alike. People today possess the same sinful and rebellious nature as the people who worshipped the golden Calf thousands of years ago. The difference lies in what and how we worship. There are countless examples of things that can take the place of God in our lives if we allow ourselves to be seduced by them. These include money, possessions, power, self, identity, political causes, social media, sex, fame, popularity, personal comfort, career, violence, sports, adventure, and entertainment. Jeffery Curtis Poor wrote, “When a good thing becomes an ultimate thing ultimately it becomes a destructive thing in our lives.”

And let’s face it, it isn’t always easy to resist the temptations of our world due to our sinful nature. Social norms, leaders, systematic untruths, and peer pressure often are working against us.

But even though today’s idols may be different than the golden Calf, they remain sinful and anger God. Perhaps the troubles and unrest we are experiencing in our world today are not only of our own making, but also a warning from God to return to Him. A warning given out of love, as a parent warns a child not to get too close to the fire. Perhaps current world events constitute a “wake-up call” mercifully given so that we may reflect on our priorities, seek God’s forgiveness, and realign with God while there is time to do so. Perhaps we are being called to make God first in our lives and to obey Him. Perhaps we are being asked the modern day equivalent of Moses’ call, “All you who are on the Lord’s side, come over here and join me.

And there is good reason to hope: We are not alone because God is waiting for us to ask for His help. God forgave those who worshipped the golden Calf when they repented, even though they were punished for their sin. (Exodus 32:33-34) Through Christ’s sacrifice, we too can be forgiven our sins if we seek forgiveness and change our ways.

We can take comfort in the fact that God love us, He is merciful, He is kind, and He is patient. “Don’t you realize how patient he (God) is with you? Or don’t you care? Can’t you see that he has been waiting all this time without punishing you, to give you time to turn from your sin? His kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4) But God will not wait forever, and we cannot expect His love to ignore our disobedience.

We have been mercifully given an opportunity to reflect, with prayer, on the things that matter to us and make sure we have given our love and prioritized our values correctly — and according to God’s will. It isn’t necessarily the things in our lives that are inherently dangerous, but rather the importance we are giving them in our hearts and the time we devote to them in relation to God. Whether we, as individuals, are guilty of idol worship is a secret matter between us and our Heavenly Father. Whether we, as a society, are guilty of idol worship is a public matter that is fairly clear.

We may not need to eliminate all the things in life we enjoy to avoid idolatry, but we need to subordinate all to God in our hearts and minds, and to make certain our attention and actions are compatible with Jesus’ teaching. If we determine that anything in our lives is more important to us than God (or otherwise contrary to Jesus’ teaching), then we must change or risk spiritual death. We can start by praying for God’s guidance during reflection and by asking His help in realigning our priorities to Him. Although God has given us the ability to know right from wrong (Romans 3:12-13), we cannot find our way to eternal life with our Lord without changing sinful behavior and thoughts. Change including how we look at the world, how we act, and how we feel towards the people around us. Change in how we represent the Word of God. Change that withstands ridicule, hate, and persecution from those who don’t love and obey God. Unless and until we change to make God first in our lives and to obey Him, we undermine God’s will and we give God a bad name.

After all, salvation is not given to those who know what to do, unless they do it. The day will surely come when at God’s command Jesus Christ will judge the secret lives of everyone, their innermost thoughts and motives; this is all part of God’s great plan, which I shall proclaim.” (Romans 2:16) “…You say ‘Don’t pray to idols’ and then make money your god instead. You are so proud of knowing God’s laws, but you dishonor him by breaking them. No wonder the Scriptures say that the world speaks evil of God because of you.” (Romans 2:22-24)

“…For God is… looking for those with changed hearts and minds. Whoever has that kind of change in his life will get his praise from God, even if not from you.” (Romans 2:29)


Photo: NYC Stock Exchange Bull, Manhattan. May be subject to copyright.

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