Fighting the Works of the Flesh: Idolatry
In the fifth post in this series covering the works of the flesh, we look at several strategies we can use to combat modern versions of idolatry.
Most people in the Western world do not worship tangible idols of an animal or person (although worship using physical objects is more common in predominantly Catholic countries). In many ways, ancient idolatry was much easier to identify. Throughout the Old Testament, we read about Israel’s struggle with the worship of idols. But just because it is not as obvious does not mean that idolatry doesn’t exist today!
The Bible makes it clear that there is more to idolatry than just worshipping statues and images. The apostle Paul wrote that “covetousness [wrongly desiring something you don’t have] … is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Idolatry actually refers to anything that a person places as a higher priority or more valuable than God in his or her daily life. A closer look at our society shows the undeniable fact that we are literally surrounded by idolatry.
God created and sustains the universe in which we live—is He not worth our attention and time? Putting the pursuit of physical stuff or pleasures before God is idolatry.Lies about idolatry
Lie No. 1: “God understands that He is the most important thing to me, even if I spend most of my time and energy on something other than Him.”
This lie is essential to the foolishly mistaken concept of “nonpracticing Christians.” The idea is that one doesn’t really need to do anything to please God, especially not give up precious time and energy. God is totally left out of people’s lives while they obsessively pursue the next bonus at work, the next sexual conquest, the next special deal or the next level up in a video game. Yet many believe that God is okay with this kind of one-sided, shallow relationship.
God created and sustains the universe in which we live—is He not worth our attention and time? Putting the pursuit of physical stuff or pleasures before God is idolatry. As the first commandment states: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).
Lie No. 2: “It’s not idolatry because I’m not bowing down and worshipping the thing.”
Inaccurate images supposedly representing Jesus Christ and crosses are plastered across billboards, church buildings and even around the necks of many who profess Christianity. The Second Commandment defines these as idols, since they are physical objects used to represent God, even if we don’t bow down to them. (Read more about this in the article “Is It Okay to Wear a Cross?”)
But more subtle idols are also worshipped (in different ways). Addicts of pornography and substances spend lots of money and destroy their minds and bodies in worship of their idols. Some people are workaholics and worship their jobs and the pursuit of money.
God tells us to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Just because we aren’t worshipping in the same way the ancients worshipped idols does not mean we are free of idolatry.
When the prophet Jeremiah was trying to save ancient Judah from its idolatry, which directly led to the nation’s destruction and captivity, he called Judah the “land of carved images,” and he said the people were “insane with their idols” (Jeremiah 50:38). With millions of people spending more time with entertainment and pleasure-seeking than serving and seeking God, can we honestly say our nations today are not “insane with their idols”?
Strategies to combat idolatry
1. Realize that idols come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t trivialize them.
Some modern idols are very obvious: the anatomy of the opposite sex (pornography), money (greed), alcohol (addictions), false ideas of God (choosing your own religious ideas instead of looking to the Bible), and so on. However, other idols may appear to just be misplaced priorities, while they are actually idolatry: an obsession with social status and image (making an idol of what stares at us from a mirror), allowing entertainment to become a black hole that sucks up our time, and so on. All kinds of idolatry need to be overcome, even if society considers them acceptable.
2. Examine our lives for potential idols and get rid of them.
This will involve a lot of questions: Why don’t I seem to have time to study the Bible and pray? Why don’t I spend more time with loved ones in uplifting conversation? Why does God seem to be getting the leftovers when He should be getting the best from me? What is getting the most of my attention?
If we are honest, the answers are not always pretty or pleasant. Remember that many things are not idolatrous in and of themselves. It is only when we make them our main focus and highest priority!
3. Learn to hate idolatry.
Idolatry takes people away from the true source of fulfillment and happiness in this life and the next: God. The purpose and happiness His way can bring to your life goes far beyond the temporary pleasure of pornography or material wealth. Psalm 106 shows the consequences of idolatry—once it takes hold and is embraced, people lose restraint and destroy themselves.
God wants a relationship with human beings. Idolatry hijacks that wonderful bond and lures people into a continuing relationship with … nothing. This is why the Bible repeatedly advises us to “hate evil” (Psalm 97:10; Proverbs 8:13; Amos 5:15), which includes idolatry.
May God speed the day when all idols will be utterly abolished (Isaiah 2:18).
To learn more about God’s Second Commandment, read “Second Commandment: You Shall Not Make a Carved Image.” Also see our article “Idolatry—Then and Now.”