The Idol of Idolatry
What is idolatry?
I think that’s a really important question, since idolatry is one of the things that God hates the most.
But my suspicion is that most people in mainstream Evangelicalism have not only misunderstood what idolatry is but actually have an idol of idolatry. For many church leaders and church members, almost anything and everything is made out to be an idol.
Let me explain…
I have a buddy that went on a mission trip to Africa recently. There wasn’t any electricity in the village in which he was staying and Africa isn’t necessarily known for its crisp, cool weather. When he got back he said, “Not having air conditioning really exposed my comfort idol.”
What on earth is a “comfort idol?” Is that a real thing? How do you bow down to comfort? Did my friend actually love comfort more than God?
Now, I know what he meant. What my buddy was trying to say is that he really enjoys comforts that he has here in the U.S. (like electricity, air conditioning, Netflix, and bean-bag chairs), but he didn’t realize how important they were to him until he didn’t have them.
But, for some really weird reason, mainstream Evangelicalism has grown accustomed to using the word “idol” to mean anything that you really like—anything that you really enjoy.
I very much doubt that my friend liked air conditioning more than Jesus. He probably just meant he really appreciated air conditioning. If that is true then why did he call it an “idol?”
In Evangelicalism (and in the “Christian counseling” world in particular) its almost like the word “idol” has come to mean anything that you even remotely enjoy. If you like watching the Dallas Cowboys then you must have a sports idol. If you enjoy shopping at Target then you must have a Target idol. If you want a better marriage then you must have a marriage idol. If you enjoy a good meal then you must have a food idol. If you workout too much then you must have a body-image idol, but if you don’t workout enough then you have a laziness idol…
We have created an idolatry of idolatry.
Now, forget the fact that in the Bible the term “idolatry” is used almost exclusively to denote physically bowing down to a statue. Forget the fact that in the Bible the term “idolatry” can also used for loving something more than God. For some reason mainstream Evangelicalism has begun defining idolatry as anything you really like.
But that is not idolatry. That’s just liking something.
Idolatry is not where you love something. Idolatry is not where you love something a lot. Idolatry is where you love something more than or equal to God.
If you really love your kids but don’t love them more than God, then they are not idols. If you really love your wife but don’t love her more than God, then she is not an idol. If you really love your job but don’t love it more than God, then it is not an idol. If you really love a hobby but don’t love it more than God, then it is not an idol.
There are three major dangers with defining idolatry as anything you just happen to really like. They are:
It leads to mediocrity because we refuse to be experts in anything out of a fear that if they are doing too good of a job or spending too much time on something then that thing must be an idol.
It leads to people not praising God because they don’t fully enjoy his good gifts, for they always have a suspicion that they are enjoying them too much.
It leads to people fighting idolatry by getting rid of gifts instead of learning to love the giver.
Let’s evaluate each of these in turn.
Christians used to lead in every field. We were the best artists, best philosophers, best theologians, best musicians, best businessmen, best writers. The guys in our corner were guys like Augustine, Michelangelo, Calvin, Beethoven, and Bach.
But that’s no longer the case. We now put out the worst, cheesiest, and irrelevant books, music, and movies the world has ever seen. One of the top selling Christian books last year was an adult coloring book—I kid you not.
Now, there are a lot of reasons for this and this blog can’t go into all of them, but one of the reasons that Evangelicals are not the best in their field because of a false sense of idolatry. We are afraid that if we practice too long, or read too much, or focus too hard, or train too strenuously, then we must be committing idolatry. We use the fact that because we are justified by faith alone we are not commanded to also do everything we do to the glory of God.
We hide a beige, mediocre pursuit of some goal under the name “faithfulness” because we assume that fully pursuing something must be idolatry. A man trying to lose weight just wants to lose a little bit of weight so he can be “faithful.” If he actually exerts himself or starts looking good or growing muscle he must have an image idol. So he only halfway stewards his body.
A woman wants to finish her education but thinks that because she’s really interested in a particular field of study and really enjoys it she must have an idol, so she only halfway stewards her mind.
A person who is trying to run a successful a business is afraid that if they make too much money that they might have a greed idol, so they hinder their business from growing too much. They only halfway steward their finances.
Traditionally Christians believed we should be the best at everything we do because our work is a form of worship. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
You cannot halfway do things for the glory of God.
Not Enjoying God’s Gifts
Another problem with thinking that anything you enjoy must be an idol is that it cuts you short of the joy God intends for you in those things. God is a good Father and he gives good gifts. You are not meant to always have this strange twinge of guilt anytime something good happens or you are having fun because you are afraid you are “liking it too much.”
1 Timothy 6:17 says that it is God, “…who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” In Acts 14:17 it is God who, “…did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” And I could mention many other passages. He made alcohol to give us glad hearts (Psalm 104:15). He gives us a spouse to delight in sexually (Proverbs 5:19). He gives us children as a reward (Psalm 127:3). In fact, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17).
Contrary to our assumptions, one of the marks of false teachers is not that they allow you to enjoy good things but that they forbid them (Colossians 2:18; 23). 1 Timothy 4:3-5 says that it is false teachers, “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” It is the pastor who preaches against alcohol, or dancing, or playing cards that is the false teacher, not the pastor that affirms them.
So what is at stake here is the very worship of God and the very joy of man! A false fear of idolatry means we enjoy wine but we don’t enjoy it fully. We enjoy sex with our spouse but don’t enjoy it fully (and often carry a false sense of guilt). We enjoy food, our vacation, or our kids, but only half-heartedly.
Half-hearted enjoyment of God’s gifts is only half-hearted worship.
Trying to kill a passion
Lastly, our false definition of idolatry leads us to not love things we should actually love.
It is very difficult to kill passion. It is very difficult to love something you love less than you love it. The solution is not to love something less; it is to love God more.
For example, if I love my kids and I think that I’m making them an idol, should I then love them less? Should I spend less time with my kids or give them less attention or be less happy around them because I’m afraid they could become an idol? What if my wife is an “idol?” Should I just love her less or divorce her?
Of course not. I am called to love my kids and my wife. I can’t love them less; I can only love God more.
You cannot kill a passion. You have to replace it with a greater passion—and that greater passion is Jesus.
I knew a guy who loved to play golf—and he feared that he might love to play golf a little too much. So, he stopped playing. Now, this is a problem for several reasons:
It didn’t actually remove his “idol” of golf. He still felt the same way about golf as he had before he stopped playing it.
It potentially caused him to see God as the enemy of his joy rather than the provider of it. He saw God as the one who took away something he liked; instead, God was the very one who gave it to him to enjoy in the first place!
Since his “idol” wasn’t sinful in and of itself (there is no command not to play golf), he should have continued to play golf, thanked God for the good gift of golf, and just dealt with his sinful heart as he continued on.
What Idolatry Really Is
Now, I don’t want to end without a warning about what idolatry really is. Idolatry is when you love something equal to or more than God. It is true that some people really do love their kids or their spouse or their job or golf as much as they love God. That is actual idolatry. Most of our idols today are not metal, they are mental. Most of our “bowing down” isn’t physical, it’s spiritual. If there is something you find your ultimate joy in other than Christ (notice the word “ultimate”), then that is actual idolatry.
Additionally, sometimes you may not have an idol, per se, but you end up neglecting something you are called to do for the sake of something else. Playing video games is not sinful, but neglecting your spouse, or your kids, or your Bible reading so you can play video games is. Youth sports is not sinful, but if you never attend worship on Sundays because your kid has 36 T-ball games every weekend, you may be in sin. The activity is not sinful or idolatrous, but neglecting other things you are called to do may be. Most of life’s decisions are not between good and bad, but between good, better, and best.
I have two fears in writing this blog. The first is that someone will just disregard what I’ve said because it sounds too scandalous to believe that you can actually enjoy things. The second is that someone uses what I’ve said as a license to not deal with real idolatry in their heart.
You will have to wrestle through what things actually control your joy or your life or your hope (an idol), versus what things you just really enjoy. Enjoyment is not idolatry. But loving what you enjoy more than or equal to God is.