Idolatry is huge in the Bible, dominant in our personal lives, and irrelevant in our mistaken estimations. — Os Guinness
Imagine a man who has been coughing constantly. This cough keeps him up half of the night and interrupts any conversation he has that lasts more than a minute or two. The cough is so unrelenting that he goes to the doctor.
The doctor runs his tests.
Now imagine the doctor knows how tough the news will be to handle. So he doesn’t tell his patient about cancer. Instead, he writes a prescription for some strong cough medicine and tells him that he should be feeling better soon. The man is delighted with this prognosis. And sure enough, he sleeps much better that night. The cough syrup seems to have solved his problem.
Meanwhile, very quietly, the cancer is eating away at his body.
As a teacher and church leader, I talk to people every week who are coughing.
They come to me and share their struggles.
They unload their frustrations.
They express their discouragement. They display their wounds.
They confess their sins.
When I talk to people, they point to what they believe is the problem. In their minds, they’ve nailed it. They can’t stop coughing.
But here’s what I’ve discovered: they’re talking about a symptom rather than the true illness — the true issue — which is always idolatry.
CASE STUDY: No Big Deal
She’s a young woman who grew up in our church. Her family wants me to meet and talk with her. They’re concerned because she’s about to move in with her boyfriend, who isn’t a Christian.
This ought to be a fun one.
I call her twice and leave messages, but she doesn’t return my call. The third time she picks up. She knows why I’m calling and tries to laugh it off.
“I can’t believe my parents are making such a big deal out of this,” she says with a nervous laugh. I can picture her rolling her eyes. In her mind this whole thing is a mild cough and nothing to worry about.
“Well, I appreciate your talking to me for a few minutes. But I have to ask, do you think it’s possible that you’ve got this backward?”
“What do you mean?”
“That instead of making a big deal out of nothing, it could be that you’re making nothing out of a big deal?”
More nervous laughter. “It’s not a big deal,” she says again.
“Do you mind my telling you why I think it is?”
She sighs deeply and proceeds to give me her prediction of all the reasons she thinks I’ll produce. I interrupt her with a question. “Have you thought about how much moving in together is going to cost you?”
“You mean the cost of the apartment?”
“No, I’m not necessarily talking about money. I mean the way your family feels about it, and the pressure you’re getting from them. That’s a kind of price, right?”
“Yeah, I guess it is, but that’s their problem.”
“And what is this going to cost your future marriage?”
“I don’t even know if we’re going to get married,” she responds.
“I’m not necessarily talking about your getting married to him, because statistically speaking, you most likely won’t.”
She understands what I’m getting at, but I push it a bit farther.
“How much is this going to cost your future husband? What price will he have to pay for this decision?” She has to stop and consider that one.
I continue to count the ways that this decision is a big deal, because it’s costing her more than she knows.
“So here’s what I suggest. If you’re willing to pay a price, then this must be pretty important to you. It must be a fairly big deal if you’re willing to go through all of this.”
I take her silence for reflection, and I finally get to my point.
“When I see the sacrifices you are willing to make, and the fact that you are willing to ignore what God has to say about all this, it seems to me that you’ve turned this relationship into a god.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“A god is what we sacrifice for and what we pursue.”
“From where I sit, you have the Lord God on one side saying one thing, and your boyfriend on the other side saying something else. And you’re choosing your boyfriend over God. The Bible calls that idolatry, and it’s actually a pretty big deal.”
No nervous laughter this time. She confesses, “I’ve never thought about it like that.”
What Lies Beneath
Idolatry isn’t just one of many sins; rather it’s the one great sin that all others come from. So if you start scratching at whatever struggle you’re dealing with, eventually you’ll find that underneath it is a false god. Until that god is dethroned, and the Lord God takes His rightful place, you will not have victory.
Idolatry isn’t an issue; it is the issue. All roads lead to the dusty, overlooked concept of false gods. Deal with life on the glossy outer layers, and you might never see it; scratch a little beneath the surface, and you begin to see that it’s always there, under some other coat of paint. There are a hundred million different symptoms, but the issue is always idolatry.
One of our problems in identifying the gods is that their identities not only lack the usual trappings of religion; they are also things that often aren’t even wrong. Is God against pleasure? Sex? Money? Power?
These things are not immoral but amoral; they are morally neutral until they are not. You could be serving something that is, in itself, very commendable. It could be family or career. It could be a worthy cause. You could even be feeding the hungry and healing the sick. All of those are good things.
The problem is that the instant something takes the place of God, the moment it becomes an end in itself rather than something to lay at God’s throne, it becomes an idol. When someone or something replaces the Lord God in the position of glory in our lives, then that person or thing by definition has become our god.
So to identify some gods, look at what you pursue. Another way to identify the gods at war in your life is to look at what you create.
Remember your commandments.
First: no other gods.
Second: no making other gods to worship.
The profound wisdom of that second commandment is that anything in the world can be hammered into an idol, and therefore can be a false god, if misplaced at the top spot of our affections. It’s DIY idolatry: choose from our handy assortment of gods, mix and match, create your own.
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the people waiting below whined because it was taking so long. Moses had left his brother, Aaron, in charge, and the people began clamoring for a god to lead them. They gathered everyone’s gold, put it on the fire, and made a golden calf to worship. A little bit ironic, don’t you think? The very moment God was telling Moses about having no other gods before him, the people were down below rigging up a god.
From later in the Bible, here is a reflection on what these people did:
The people made a calf at Mount Sinai; they bowed before an image made of gold. They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating bull. — Psalm 106:19-20
That’s not a good trade. They traded the Creator God for a god of their own creation.
Are we really any different? We replace God with statues of our own creation.
A house that we constantly upgrade.
A promotion that comes with a corner office.
Acceptance into the fraternity or sorority.
A team that wins the championship.
A body that is toned and fit.
We work hard at molding and creating our golden calves.
I already hear what you’re thinking.
“You could say that about anything. You could take any issue, anything someone devoted anything to, and make it out to be idolatry.” Exactly.
Anything at all can become an idol once it becomes a substitute for God in our lives.
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Forward to Friend
with permission from gods at War by Kyle Idleman, copyright Zondervan.