You shall have no other gods before me….Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (Exodus 20:3; 1 John 5:21)
At Jester III Prison, we are teaching on “Authentic Manhood” as modeled by Jesus. This article builds on a recent class. I also used some of this material at Belhaven University, in other classes, and in pastoral counseling, mentoring, and disciple making. Some parts are adapted and expanded from Eric Geiger of LifeWay.
What is idolatry? Martyn Lloyd-Jones says: Anything in our lives that invades the place that should be occupied by the Lord God alone (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Anything that holds my life and devotion, anything more central in my life, anything that seems more vital or essential to me than Christ. An idol can be anything I worship, live for, and depend on. Anything that moves, rouses, attracts, and stimulates me. Anything to which I give too much of my time, attention, energy, and money. Anything that holds a controlling position in my life can be an idol.1
An idol (a false god) is not just a physical image we bow down in front of. Idolatry in biblical times involved ways of living opposed to trusting and obeying the Lord. Tim Keller defines an idol like this:
An idol is anything more important to you than God, that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, that you seek to give you what only God can give….A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would not feel worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought….An idol is whatever you look at and say in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”2
Martin Luther believed that every sin starts by breaking God’s first commandment and putting a false “god” ahead of the true and living Lord. If we lie, it’s because we value something in our heart above Christ that we think is worth being untruthful for. If we steal, it’s because we cherish something more than Jesus. If we are covetous, envious, jealous, wrongly desiring anything that other people are or have, then we are not content with Christ and what He gives us. If we don’t love our neighbors and are selfish, it’s because something else is more important to us than pleasing our Lord and serving His image bearers.
Eric Geiger writes about “four root idols” (under the surface) that drive sinful behavior. Jesus’ people must repent sincerely of wrong heart motivations, confess our wrong, and get back to following Christ in daily life. We must seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, then all we need will be given to us.3 Geiger believes that beneath all specific and surface behavioral sins, four root idols drive sinful thinking, feeling, speaking, and doing:
Power: an excessive longing for significance, influence, or recognition
Control: an excessive longing to have everything go according to our plan
Comfort: an excessive longing for pleasure
Approval: an excessive longing to be accepted or desired.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting these things in a righteous way, but distortion of desire can make even good things sinful. John Calvin stated: The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much….Idolatry is worshiping God’s gifts in place of the Giver Himself.4 Too much of things can destroy us and 21st century people are amusing ourselves to death.5
Keeping Ourselves From Idols
How can we avoid idols? Pastor Thomas Chalmers (in “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”) said we cannot overcome the world with human-centered morality or self-discipline. Christians crush worldly living in ourselves by getting more captivated by Christ’s beauty and excellence. We overpower sins’ attractiveness, by seeing that Jesus and His way of life is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably more attractive and satisfying.6 Chalmers cited 1 John 2:15:
Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods.
Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. (MSG)
Chalmers understood that we can’t put off idolatry by our own internal energy, might, or goodness. Without the Holy Spirit’s help, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”7
To be continued. You can read Part 2 here.
Go in peace, beloved. Walk with King Jesus today and be a blessing to others!
1 Adapted from Lloyd-Jones, Life in God (Vol. 5, p. 196). 2 Adapted from Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, p. xvii-xviii. 3 Matt 6:33. 4 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.36. 5 See Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. 6 Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) was a Scottish minister, professor of theology, and political economist. 7 Isaiah 64:6.