I think sometimes when we read the Bible and it’s warnings against idolatry we can become a little conceited or arrogant. Because we read things like Exodus 20:4 that says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Our modern, “enlightened” ears find it hard to believe that people would create something and then call it their God. We see it as complete foolishness and folly like Isaiah did in Isaiah 44:16-17: “Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
And while there are many places that still worship something they themselves have made, most of us would never be won over to this kind of faith. We understand that God cannot be made by our hands lest we be God for making Him. So maybe many of you, like me, saw the countless warnings of the Old and New Testament a bit redundant and unhelpful.
But recently I have been doing a group study by a pastor named Timothy Keller and he shared some thoughts on what idolatry truly is. So I wanted to share some of the bits I picked up from it with you because I think it will help us see this dangerous sin lurking in each of our lives.
First, because we do not make carved images like people of ancient times, we must identify our idols. Carved wooden images of before have been replaced with our more modern idols of status, possessions, fame, acceptance, approval, work or even independence. We have not, like we wish to believe, become more intelligent and enlightened than our ancestors. Rather, we have just exchanged the idols of old for new ones to fit our modern culture. So while idols may continue to be something we can hold, (money, possessions, a person), they are more likely something we dream of, want, wish to attain or strive for.
For each person the idol may be different, but if you look deeply they are there. You can find your idol mainly in two ways. First, think of the thing you are most afraid to lose and that is most likely your idol. So for example, if you are worried about people not liking you, then your idol is most likely approval. If you are most worried about your job or career not working as planned or becoming a failure, then you may have a work idol. Secondly, look where you spend your time and money. If all of your time and money is spent trying to make yourself look good, (clothes, make-up, the gym, etc..), then your idol is probably your appearance. If you spend your time and money on a specific social cause, then that may be your idol.
The thing about idols is that not every one of them is inherently bad. Social justice, people liking you and being successful at work are all good things. But they become idols when they take the ultimate or supreme place in our lives. This is why God’s first commandment was “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Because idolatry is a sin we must take this seriously. I hope that each of us can take a long look at our lives, (our greatest fears, our greatest desires, where we spend our time and money), and try to identify which of these modern idols are taking hold in our life.
Secondly, once we have figured out which idols we struggle with, we need to smash them. Just like God commanded the Israelites to smash the idols in their midst, (Exodus 23:24 for example), we too must smash our modern idols. But doing this may be more difficult than it sounds because there is nothing physical to smash most of the time. If you idolize your appearance it doesn’t mean you need to beat yourself up. And if you idolize approval it doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk so people won’t like you. Rather, smashing idols is moving them back down to where they belong and putting God back up where He belongs.
How can this be done? Hard work, will power and trying your best won’t suffice, especially if this particular idol has had a hold on your life for a long time. Also, if you remove this idol it is likely another will fill it’s spot, (many of us struggle with multiple idols so if we take down one another one will pop up quickly). So we must displace the idol or idols in our life with something greater: God.
God alone can and deserves to take the highest place in our lives. He alone is able and He alone is worthy. In order to do this, we first must repent. We must confess to God our idols and not pretend like they are not a problem, (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” 1 John 1:9-10). One we have confessed and recognized this idol in our life, the idol starts to lose it’s power and hold over us. So we first must come to God in humility and confess whatever it is we have placed above Him.
Next, we need to work at replacing the idol with God. This is done by spending more time and money focused on God than our prior idol. This is done by spending more time in prayer and studying God’s Word than on whatever idol took that place before. This is also done by finding greater joy and peace in God alone and recognizing that this idol can never give us the joy and peace that God alone can. And as we continue to do this we begin to see God reigning in our lives where He alone belongs.
Now this isn’t some quick two step process to get yourself idol free. This is something that takes years and will have to be done over and over and over again as new idols pop up in our lives. But if we continue to confess and repent before our Great God and daily crucify our desires and misplaced joys then we can start to have victory over these idols in our life by, through and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So I hope that we can all come to realize what idols are holding power in our lives right now. Look at your time, your money and your fears and see what thing, (maybe even a good thing), is wrongly taking the place of God. Then repent, confess and go back to God for His help. May we not be so arrogant as to think the warnings of idolatry were only for those in the ancient world. May we see these dangerous modern idols for what they are and daily displace them with He alone who is worthy to be Lord of our life.