Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Romans 1:22–23).
According to the Bible, idolatry is not one sin among many. Rather, the Bible teaches that the only alternative to true, full faith in the living God is idolatry. All our failures to trust God fully or to live rightly are rooted in idolatry. No sin exists in a vacuum. Underneath every sin is a drive to satisfy some deep need for power, approval, control, or comfort.
Idolatry is always the spring from which the filth of any sin flows. Why do we ever lie, or fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? The general answer is, “because we are weak and sinful.” But, the specific answer is always that there is something besides Jesus Christ that we feel we must have to be happy. Some finite thing has become more important to our hearts through disproportionate desires. Therefore, the secret to understanding ourselves and to experiencing real change always begins with identifying the idols of the heart.
If we are to labor at the process of uprooting the idols of the heart, we must first understand what they are and how they infect and enslave the human worship apparatus— the heart.
What are idols made of?
Idols form into a system. The world, the flesh, and devil are inseparably linked in their influences to produce idols in us.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1–3, ESV).
First, our “flesh,” our sinful heart, is by nature an “idol factory” (as Calvin put it). We are not born to worship, we are born worshiping. And since we are by nature idolaters, we are born worshiping idols. From the womb, the roots of our hearts are planted in the soil of sham sovereigns. The flesh is the part of you that disproportionately desires a finite thing. Birds fly, deer run, fish swim, and the flesh compulsively and disproportionately desires. The flesh takes all things to itself to feed its own emptiness. Its desire is to pierce the heart of any good thing and lap up the life of the wounded creature. As the flesh drains a thing it spews out the poison of death that is in it, withering the poor creature to which it clings. And for this, its thirst is never quenched. But, as it feeds it belches forth black vapors of sin that kill and pollute its surroundings.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15–17, ESV).
Second, the “world,” our social environment, coaxes us into various idols. The world is the realm in which the flesh does its compulsive and disproportionate desiring. It entices the flesh by offering an array of idols and declaring the gospel of each. The world is a kind of idolatrous hive mind created by the collective idols of any culture. As we see people apparently gaining success through their dedication to various idols, a cultural narrative develops that catechizes its people. “What is your only hope in life and death?” the world asks. The flesh answers, “That I am absolutely my own, and belong body and soul, in life and in death to me, my faithful savior.” If our sinful hearts are the “bad tree” (Matt 7:17), then what the Bible calls the “world” is the barren and arid soil in which that tree is planted. Our family’s idols, our culture’s idols, our class’s idols shape us either when we embrace them or reject them for their opposites.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, ESV)
Third, the “devil” works in us to stir up and enflame desires already in idolatrous bondage. If the flesh is the tree and the world the garden, then the satan is the gardener. The satan wants to be a counterfeit god, and so he creates twisted mockeries of trinitarian imagery. The world of idols are the vines, our sinful hearts— our flesh— are the branches, and the satan is the vinedresser. Rather than pruning you, he does all that he can to ensure that your desires will run roughshod over you. His garden is a wild, chaotic, overgrown mess— uncreation; tohu va vohu; sheol. In his mimicry of the Father, he is the author of death and all who tap into him— who worship him through the worship of self; idolatry— draw up poison and ruin and death.
The three “enemies” are three perspectives on how idols form.
The devil is the idol par excellence— the father of lies (In Psalm 24:4, the Psalmist says that the one who will ascend the hill of the Lord is the one “who does not lift up his soul to what is false” and the word translated, “what is false,” was a common Hebrew idiom for an idol. Idols are lies and they are given “life” by the father of lies). The satan represents the normative perspective on evil and idolatry. Descending from the fleshes fruit of sin to its roots of idolatry sunk in the rotten soil of the world, when we hit bedrock, we find a pretender to the throne of reality.
The world gives us the situational perspective on evil and idolatry. I recently listened to a podcast in which a dendrologist (a tree scientist) discovered that, below the forest floor, trees and plants have a vast network of interlocking “microfilaments” through which they share nutrients and even information in a way. The world, Biblically-speaking, is like that network. It is the sum of the interlocking and interwoven idolatrous roots of a whole culture’s idols. What does a whole network of idol worshipers interlocked and building their own kingdom look like? The answer to that question varies in the particulars from one culture to another, but the Bible calls these idolatrous kingdoms Babylon. It is a city built for the fading and derivative glory of man setting itself up against the City of God, as an alternative to God’s way of life.
The flesh gives us the existential perspective on evil and idolatry. The flesh is our personal experience of idolatrous desire, the point at which we individually tie into the vast idolatrous network of the world, through union with the world, and taste and see the “goodness” of our false god. The snake promises goodness and wisdom if we will but taste. But the promise of sweetness turns to ash in the mouth. What promised life brought death, and now we crave only ashes.
If we leave out or overemphasize any one of the three perspectives, we will reduce behavior to either “Johnny is bad” (flesh) or “Johnny is abused” (world) or “Johnny is sick” (devil). But all these approaches are simplistic compared to the Bible. Each serve as a perspective on the whole problem of idolatrous rebellion and sin. None of our behavior is simply the result of A) our inherent nature or B) our environment or C) our free choice. The Bible is not essentialist (“he was born that way, it is hopeless”), behaviorist (“he is a victim of what they did to him, it’s hopeless”), or existentialist (“it’s all a matter of choice; he can be whatever he wants to be!”) The Bible is holistic in its diagnosis of our dilemma and in its cure.
Idols have a “surface” and a “deep” dimension. “Deep idols” such as power, approval, comfort, and control are more subtle and basic. They are what the tap root of your flesh tap into. The are “deeper” below the surface of things. They are motivational drives. They are characteristics of God which he has in himself and that we seek to have in ourselves as we endeavor to usurp his throne. They have become idolatrous to us because at the end of the line of idolatrous worship you will find a mirror. Each of us is seeking to become God ourselves, so we are driven to acquire those things that characterize God. The problem isn’t that we want them, but that we want them for and in ourselves, without God. We are finite beings playing at infinity.
The question has been raised, “Well, what lies below the ‘deep idols’ of power, approval, comfort, and control?” That’s a good question with a profound answer. Why do you desire power? When I desire power it is because I want to be my own authority, set the rules of the game of life myself, to be the one who decides what is good and what is evil. I want to be God. When I desire approval it is because I want to be so good and beautiful and glorious in my own being, just as I am, so that everyone acknowledges my inherent worth. I want to be worshiped as God. When I desire comfort I want everything to exist for my joy and pleasure and delight alone, even at the expense of the comfort of others. I want pleasures forevermore to be at my right hand. Again, I want to be God. When I desire control I want to work all things together for what I perceive to be my good. In short, whenever I seek the “deep idols” I am seeking them as a means to enthroning myself as God and king of my own life.
Deep idols work through many “surface idols.” “Surface idols” are more concrete and specific objects and subjects such as your spouse or your career. Now these things— your business, your ministry, your music, etc.— are extremely good things that you need to detach from the deep idols, which are using them. That means they often (even ordinarily) may remain in your life, if they are put in their proper place. This is what Augustine meant when he spoke of the “right ordering of our loves.”
How do we do this? Basically, you don’t want to love a surface idol less, rather you must come to love and rejoice in God more than you do in it. When your love for a created thing is disordered you will be trying to earn your salvation— your sense of “okay-ness”— through it. When your love for the surface idol is rightly ordered— when it’s disconnected from the deep idol— it can resume its legitimate place as a good gift from God. It is important, therefore, to work primarily on your deep idols, or you’ll feel that the good things God has given you to enjoy are somehow polluted in themselves.
Question your motives, especially when your emotions surrounding your surface idol make you bitter, scared, discouraged, etc. Ask, “Why am I so upset?” When a surface idol is connected to a deep idol your contact with that surface idol will be frantic. We tend to feel as though the weight of our very lives hangs on the surface idol if it is connected to a deep idol. Often, after we have become Christians— or begun to take our Christianity seriously— we will have a period of confusion, even a drop in intensity, as we lose our old idolatrous motivations and learn gradually to pursue our ministry, marriage, work, etc. for Christ’s sake. But that is an extremely important transition. Only when we detach our surface idols from deep idols are we able to enjoy anything for its own sake. True virtue, is to love your music for its own sake, or your spouse for their own sake. You are free to love any created thing for its own sake when the gospel has freed you to love God for his own sake, not just to get rewards from him. That’s what grace does. Without the gospel, anything you do, any relationship you have will be for your own sake— ‘to get a name’ or ‘to prove yourself’ or ‘to satisfy yourself’ — not for the sake of the work or the person themselves.
Sin cannot simply be resisted through willpower, but we are not helpless victims. Sin must primarily be rooted out at the motivational level through the application of gospel-truth. We must identify the things we worship as our functional savior through works-righteousness. In what way are you rejecting the gospel of free grace and salvation through Christ? Of what are you saying, “This— not the free grace of God in Christ— is what really makes me feel okay?” Then we must repent and replace the idol with love and joy in Christ while simultaneously trying to change our behavior.
Idols create a delusional field. When you enter a covenant with an idol, it defines good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions. The idol spins out a whole false belief system. It promises blessing for those who succeed in obeying its false laws— power, approval, control, and comfort— and threatens curses for those who fail to live up to its false standards— impotence, shame, insecurity, and pain.
It is crucial to understand the web of false assumptions and definitions of success and failure, happiness and sadness, worth and valueless-ness that idols spin. There is legitimate sorrow, and then there is idolatrous, inconsolable sorrow, that is really the ‘curse’ of the idol. It is saying, “If you don’t have me there is nothing else that can satisfy you!” There is legitimate guilt, and then there is irreparable guilt. When people say, “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,” they mean that they have failed an idol, whose standards are different than God’s and whose approval is more important to them than God’s. It is the idol who will not forgive.
Idols thrive in a religious environment. Often it is possible to detach surface idols of sex or money or business success or independence from the deep idols of comfort, control, approval, and power. But, if when you enter the church, the deep idols continue to be served and looked to as your functional righteousness rather than Jesus Christ, you have only swapped out one surface idol for another, less obvious one. It is quite possible to serve the idols of power, approval, control, or comfort in religious forms. The elder brother in Luke 15 was seeking power and control through obeying the father, while the younger brother was attempting the same things through disobedience. The lack of clear surface idols (like prostitutes) in the elder brother’s life masked what his true motives. Religious surface idols are, therefore, far more dangerous than irreligious ones.
Using problem emotions to identify idols
Problem emotions function like the check engine light in your car. They are not the problem in themselves, but act as pointers to the real problem. Just as you cannot fix your engine by putting a piece of tape over the check engine light, you cannot remove idols by simply tamping down or venting problem emotions. You must take your problem emotions to the Lord and pre-reflectively pour them out in the presence of God and process them there— in the light of his word. As you do that, the chain of emotion, sin, surface idol, deep idol will become evident to you.
Anxiety is a problem emotion that is oriented toward the future. Suppose my god is my physical health. If I experience anything as a threat to my health, then I feel myself shaken to the depths. Nothing has happened to me yet, but my hope in a future of health and happiness is in danger, so I experience anxiety. I’ll talk more about rejoicing in the particular aspect of Christ that corresponds to a given idol later, but right now it would be helpful to mention that a future oriented idol causing anxiety requires us to shift our focus to the future aspects of Christ’s redemptive work. The problem with my idol of physical health isn’t that it’s too grand a vision for a healthy life, but too small. I must look to the hope of perfect health in the resurrection if I am to see my anxiety over the threat to my health remedied.
Guilt and bitterness are problem emotions oriented toward the past. Suppose I value my ability to teach and communicate clearly. If clear communication has become a surface idol for me— if it has connected itself to my deep idol of approval— then if I fail in teaching well I am stricken with neurotic guilt. And if there is anyone or anything else to blame in any way— or that I perceive as coming between me and my idol— I am stricken with neurotic bitterness. A past oriented problem emotion and the idol that I have failed (past tense) requires a past oriented aspect of Christ to counteract it. God, in Christ, has forgiven all my real sin and removed my real guilt. The verdict is in. I have been declared, “Not guilty” by the highest court in all reality. Not only that, but I have been given Christ’s perfect positive record of righteousness!
Boredom or emptiness are problem emotions oriented in the present. Boredom is a present feeling of emptiness. Boredom is an anticipatory form of being dead. Nothing is currently so captivating and beautiful that it gives me a present sense of meaning and value. To the extent which surface idols aren’t presently satisfying the need of the deep idol, boredom becomes pathological and compulsive. My subjectively experienced boredom may then become infinitely projected toward the whole cosmos. My own sense of emptiness becomes a cosmic emptiness. Then I collapse into despair. Everything is a disappointment. I’m disillusioned about life. I become cynic. The present problem calls for a present oriented solution. I must go to the word of God and taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
If you are angry, fearful, or despondent, ask, “Is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I must have? Is that why I am feeling this way— because I am being blocked from something or something is threatened or I have lost or failed something which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be.
Using Motivational Drives to Identify Idols
As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol. Work, a commandment of God, can become an idol if you pursue it so exclusively that responsibilities to your family are ignored. Family, an institution of God, can become an idol if you are so preoccupied with your family that no one outside your own family is cared for. Being well thought of, a perfectly legitimate hope (even a requirement for leadership in the church), becomes an idol if your attachment to it means you never risks disapproval.
We often don’t go deep enough to analyze our idol-structures. For example, “money” can be an idol, yet in another sense, money can be sought to satisfy very different, more foundational or “deep” idols. For example, some people want lots of money to control their world and life (such people usually don’t spend their money, but save it) while others want lots of money for access to social circles and for making themselves beautiful and attractive (such people do spend their money on themselves!) The same goes for sex. Some people use sex to get power over others, others to feel approved and loved, and others just for pleasure/comfort.
|Deep Idol||Price||Nightmare||Others Feel||Problem Emotion|
|Comfort (privacy, lack of stress, freedom)||Reduced productivity||Stress, demands||Hurt||Boredom|
|Approval (affirmation, love, relationship)||Less independence||Rejection||Smothered||Cowardice|
|Control (self-discipline, certainty, standards)||Loneliness, spontaneity||Uncertainty||Condemned||Worry|
|Power (success, authority, influence)||Burdened responsibility||Humiliation||Used||Anger|
Examples of Deep Idols and their Narratives
Power Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I have power and influence over others.”
Approval Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am loved and respected by ________.”
Comfort Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I have this kind of pleasure, experience, or particular quality of life.”
Control Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of ________.”
Typical Surface Idols and their Narratives
Helping Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— people are dependent on me and need me.”
Dependence Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.”
Independence Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.”
Work Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am highly productive, getting a lot done.”
Achievement Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am being recognized for my accomplishments, if I am excelling in my career.”
Materialism Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.”
Religion Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.”
Individual Person Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— this one person is in my life and happy there and/or happy with me.”
Irreligion Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and with a self-made morality.”
Racial/Cultural Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.”
Inner Ring Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— a particular social grouping or professional grouping or another group lets me in.”
Family Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— my children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.”
Relationship Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— Mr. or Ms. ‘Right’ is in love with me.”
Suffering Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I am hurting, in a problem— only then do I feel noble or worthy of love or am able to deal with guilt.”
Ideology Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— my political or social cause or party is making progress and ascending in influence or power.”
Image Idolatry: “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if— I have a particular kind of look or body image.”
- What is my greatest nightmare? What do I worry about most?
- What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live? What keeps me going?
- What do I rely on or comfort myself with when things go bad or get difficult?
- What do I think most easily about? What does my mind go to when I am free? What preoccupies me?
- What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?
- What makes me feel the most self-worth? What am I the proudest of?
- What do I really want and expect out of life? What would really make me happy?
Having thought through the things above, and answered the questions, look for common themes. Write down what you think your idols are. What are your functional masters? What things tend to be too important to you? What are your surface idols? To what deep idols do they tend to connect?
Uprooting Your Idols
Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (Romans 6:19).
After Identifying and naming your idols, you are ready to begin to uproot them. First, you must repent. Name your surface idols. Name your deep idols. In prayer, recognize how weak and worthless they are (“This idol cannot save me. It has no real value and importance in the light of your glory”); how dangerous they are to you and to those around you (“If I keep worshipping this idol, it will strangle me. I will crush and devour everyone around me as long as this is my true god”); and how grievous they are to God (“Lord, I am saying that you are not enough. This is more beautiful, fulfilling, and sweet to my taste than you are. You are negotiable, but this is not. Despite all you’ve done for me, I will only use you if you help me get this. You haven’t done enough for me— if you don’t help me have this, I will discard you. This isn’t just sin, it’s adultery.”)
Second, you must rejoice. “Rejoicing” is a way of praising God until the heart is sweetened and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else it thinks that it needs. The rejoicing is thus not strictly a second distinct step after repentance, rather it completes the repentance. In the same way, Christian repentance is not distinct from rejoicing, rather it begins the rejoicing! What you have turned from is the beauty, love, and joy of Christ. He offers what you have been seeking elsewhere. He awaits you, he “stands at the door” knocking (Rev 3:20), seeking a far deeper connection of intimacy with you than he has had previously. It is an appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done and what he offers you that will “replace” the idol. Notice how often (Col 3:1-9; Rom 8:6-13; Heb 12:1-3) growth and change is a dynamic of two interactive processes— “put to death” (repentance) and “set your mind on things above” (rejoicing in what you have and what you are in Christ). These are not really two separable things. Only rejoicing in Christ strengthens us to admit the worst about ourselves in repentance. Only the sight of our sin reveals to us how free and unmerited his grace is. Rejoicing and repentance must go together. Repentance without rejoicing will lead to despair. Rejoicing without repentance is shallow and will only provide passing inspiration instead of deep change.
This is a process, be patient, but aggressive!
Finally, after you’ve identified the idols that most often grip your heart, go to the word and find passages of Scripture that show how Christ gives for free what you are trying to buy from the idols. There is, in Christ, a particular glory that corresponds to the inglorious idolatry rooted in your soul. Find it. Read those passages, think about them, pray them, repeat; until Christ’s face can be seen with the eyes of the heart so clearly that it quenches your thirst. Prepare “Quick Strike” prayers and meditations that work to undercut problem idols.
For example, when I am tempted to seek my approval in the approval of an attractive woman to whom I am not married, I recognize that I want someone as beautiful as a goddess to say to me, “I will give myself to you. I want you. I desire you. Gaze at me, and you will know true blessing.” Then, I begin the meditation on God’s word like this: “NO! Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matt 5:8). O, Lord, what I really want is to see true beauty, to see your beauty! No woman’s beauty will ever compare to yours. No woman’s approval will ever satisfy me the way you do. As long as I need approval from any person except you I am in danger of destroying my whole life! I’m sorry that I believe the lie that her approval is more valuable than yours. The only way that I will see you is if I am pure in heart. ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple’ (Psalm 27:4). The greatest thing I can actually hope for is to gaze on the beauty of the Lord. Where do I see your beauty the most clearly? In the face of Jesus Christ! He who was the most radiant, beautiful being in all reality– beings of pure fire had to shield their eyes at the sight of his beauty (Isaiah 6)! But, on the cross, he was marred beyond recognition as a human being. He did that so that I, who had so twisted his image in myself that I am not recognizable as what a man should be, could be restored by seeing his beauty again.”
From what country does this love come that the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
It’s like hacking at the roots of a stubborn tree. You may have to hack and hack and hack at the roots that extend out from the main “taproot” for days, weeks, months, or even years before the Lord severs the taproot and you feel the sigh of relief as the idolatrous tree is gone. But, there is no other way you will experience freedom from you idolatrous addictions than to take up a new addiction, taking all your ravenous desire and fixing it where it was meant to be satisfied; in Christ. The only way to keep another poisonous idolatrous tree from growing in your heart is to plant the tree of life in its place.