Contending Idolatry

January 29, 2008

This morning, the guys in my discipleship group came over for breakfast before we all went to class. We had a great meal, and excellent conversation, but what stuck with me after all was said and done, and we’d gone on our separate ways, was this idea of Idolatry, or dedicating ourselves to something that is not God.

I was thinking about what I did yesterday and I discovered that I’d dedicate at least three hours of my time to watching and reading the news, and less than half an hour to spending time with the Lord. So I decided to sit down and pray over what this meant, and I found myself in Paul's writings in 1 Corinthians, on Idolatry. Below is the passage (with my personal commentary in parentheses), followed by more of what I've learned on the subject on Idolatry and the pursuit of God. It's a bit long, so please stick with me if you have the time.

1 Corinthians 10: 1-14

1 For I do not want you to be ignorant (sounds like me already) of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (This is a reference to Exodus. What Paul is doing is making a connection between us and our spiritual forefathers of the Jewish faith)

3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (This same connection, a community of people in the old testament, with whom the triune God, Elohim, was active in their affairs, much like the church today)

5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. (That is to say, although they were God’s children, not all of them were committed to the word of God and His teachings)

6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. (You can be a spiritual person, be part of a church, be one who Christ lives in and with, but still have your heart set on what is wrong, and be doing wrong things. Paul provides us with an example:)

7 Do not be idolaters, (the primary theme here) as some of them were; as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry." (Instead of having a drink, these people would get drunk, instead of eating, be gluttons, and would fornicate and lust after one another (commit homosexuality, bisexuality, or have sex before or outside of marriage) all while still being a part of the church - a reference to Ex. 32.)

8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. (a shocking event in Jewish history, where it is my understanding that a plague of snakes came and killed 23,000 people, and where the only thing found to be in common among them was their participation in sexually immoral acts with and for one another)

9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. (to not test the Lord – to not assume that God will overlook one small action here or a mess up there, that He will let us off the hook and that our actions don’t really matter in comparison to the rest of the things we do)

10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (to not complain over this commandment of God: to not be dedicated to, or disciples of, the flesh, and to not go against the Lord’s intent for our lives)

11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! (even those of us who are doing well on Monday may not find ourselves in the same place next week regarding our relationship with God. - But the urge here is to say that Paul doesn’t understand! That my situation is too hard, that no one can understand me, no one can relate to me; I suffer alone because my situation is too unique. But Paul goes on –)

13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. (whatever it is that you are struggling with, there are a bunch of people struggling with the same thing) And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. (so we can’t claim that we are a victim, that we cannot help ourselves. To say I have no choice, that I have to be like this, that I have to make this decision in my life, I had no choice) But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (but when temptation comes, there is always a possibility to get out of that sin, and a way to continue to honor God in the decisions that we make)

14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. (Don’t eat too much. Don’t drink too much. Don’t have sexual sin… But how do are we suppose to do that? His response, simply, don’t go there – keep yourself away, run if you have to)


Now at first all of this seemed confusing. Aren’t all sins essentially equal? Sure, getting drunk is a sin, lying is a sin, arguing and grumbling against God is a sin, and sex before marriage or sex outside of marriage is a sin, just like pornography and perversion, so isn’t idolatry just another sin?

From what I’ve learned, I believe that Idolatry is not just any sin, but in fact the root of all sin. Martin Luther summarized the Ten Commandments (a) by noting the first two commandments are about idolatry, and all the rest follow. If you never broke the first two, you would never have problems with the other eight. The underlying cause of sins, like drinking or lying or obsession or addiction, is our idolatry to something that is not the Lord. It’s a matter of concentration. And Paul isn’t here condemning, he is merely forewarning of that in our lives that could and often will lead to other sins in our lives. Watching CNN is not a sin. What is a sin is letting that master us, the bulk of out time and energy, and losing our ability to do other things, like our homework or worshiping the Lord - the reason for which we are made. (Genesis 1:26-28, Romans 1)

That which we give our time, energy, money, love, our hopes, and our fears to, that becomes our God. The philosopher Peter Kreeft says, "The opposite of Christianity is not Atheism but Idolatry." That which takes our worship and adoration most poigniantly away from God is that which, in reality, has all of our love, adoration, worship. And those who call themselves atheists are not void of spirituality, as they claim. They devote themselves to science, they are people that worship their own mind, experience, and their own five senses. They devote themselves to rationalism, and by that make rationalism their God. (I often feel like atheists have more faith in their lives than I do, but that is beside the point)

My point is that we are all constantly in the act of worship, and constantly dedicating ourselves to something in our lives. The amazing resource that is defines idolatry as such, “worshiping something or someone other than the One True God of the Bible, or worshiping God in a way that is contrary to His Word.” (b) How many people in America worship their car? A band? Their religion, as opposed to their faith?

How many people (and Christians) find themselves to be overzealous, or so thirsty for justice that they will pursue evil, and openly condemn it, in any way they can, when the bible specifically tells us not to do just that! To not stir up dissention when we speak of God and represent His word (Proverbs 29:22), and to be a good witness of the Christ, Jesus, who did not come to condemn, but to lead, to love and to serve. (Mark 10:45)

Idolatry seems to be the over-pursuit of something that is good, and that later consumes us, and that is where we go awry. I once heard it said that the biggest difference between George Orwell and Aldous Huxley was that one said that our ultimate destiny was to be enslaved by that which we hate, while the other claimed our ultimate destiny is to be enslaved by that which we love. We love our family, our health, our car. Our knowledge, our boyfriend, our girlfriend, our job, our beauty, our style - and all of these things are good! But when we let those things master us, it is no longer permissible (1 Corinthians 6).

The pastor Mark Driscoll surmises the concept of having idols as this:

We each design ourselves a ‘little hell.’ Being poor, being ugly or fat, being unloved or alone or unappreciated. That fear of that hell then compels you to chose for yourself a false Savior-God, to save you from that hell, and then you worship that false Savior-God in an effort to save your from that self-described hell. For instance, many people are single, and for them hell is being single or unmarried, and their Savior becomes a spouse, or a boyfriend or girlfriend. And so they keep looking for someone to worship, to give themselves to so that person  can save them. Some are lonely, and their hell is loneliness, so they choose a person or a group of friends, and they worship that friend and would do anything for them, because they are their functional savior, and that is by definition Idolatry.

Much of this stems from our greatest fears. We all want success, we long for our knowledge to grow, or to never be alone, but we are scared of never being loved, to be misinformed, or to be a failure. And we need to ask ourselves what it is we run to when it all goes wrong. Do we run to food, or to alcohol. Do we run to sex or bury ourselves in work or a relationship, do we run to anger, violence, or despair. Idolatry turns out to be a very real and present danger in our pursuit of leading a good life, but we cannot serve God and Money (Matthew 6:24), or any other God that is not the One True God, creator and redeemer, Lord above all lords (who defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien by giving him food and clothing! - Deuteronomy 10).

So where should our priorities lie? It is clear that we cannot only devote ourselves to the Lord and expect to live a normal life, because that in itself would be enslaving ourselves in a way that prohibits us from functioning, and could be no different in our lives than being enslaved to any other sin. This is a bold statement, but we are not meant to live with one foot in the grave, we are to be mindful of the present day! Let me clarify.

Rob Bell describes people as being the compromise of Angels and Animals, the spiritual and the physical. He denotes this relationship in his book, Sex God (a book about the connections of sexuality and spirituality), in this way:

An Angel is a being with a spirit but without a body. When we deny the spiritual dimension to our existence, we end up living like animals. And when we deny the physical, sexual dimension to our existence, we end up living like angels. – And both ways are destructive, because God made us human… This is a primal struggle in all of us, and it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The temptation was, and is, to trade our full humanity for something else.

Compare that to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), where Jesus tells us to live for today and to, “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,” and all the things we need (i.e. food, clothing) will be given to us as well. To seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, to give ourselves, our worship to the Lord, first, and live our lives by the standards and example of Christ; to abstain from idolatry, which leads to sin.

If and when we are able to seek the Kingdom first, the priorities in our lives will then start to align, and allow us to enjoy the created things here on earth in a healthy way, in a way we are meant to; one that does not include obsession. So where do my priorities lie?

What are we defining in ourselves? Hell is being fat. Hell is being poor. Hell is being stupid. Hell is not having enough free time. Hell is spending one more year at college. If I’m broke, I need money to be my savior. If pleasure is what I worship, I need pornography, or someone to date, and if I could just get out of that hell, I wouldn’t need to worship anything anymore. If I could just prioritize my life around this little hell, this discrepancy in my life, all my problems would go away, and I could be happy. We choose these idols, and we expect them to make us happy, to give us worth; a Savior to get us out, so we don’t have to live in this hell.

But I believe once that momentary hell has passed, it won’t be enough. When we worship an idol to meet the needs in our minds, we give our lives to worshiping something that will not satisfy. We are lonely, we find someone to date. We want a spouse, so we get married, and then that’s not enough, I need kids, a bigger house, a bigger tv. This isn’t a greed story, this is a success story, and it never ends within us.

John Calvin once said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” It takes that which is good - real estate, kids, sex, all good gifts that God gives - and perverts them into an obsession, and we get frustrated when they don’t continue to bless us, and don’t fulfill what we need them to do to save us from ourselves. The world operates at two extremes: There’s a hell, and we don’t want to be in it, and there’s a Savior, to rescue us from that hell, and all you need to do is devote yourself to that Savior, and you will be where you were meant to be all along.

Look to the media. You’re overweight? – we have a Savior, come join this diet, go to this gym, reach heaven. Devote yourself? – and you’ll be out of fat hell. Are you ugly? Well that’s ok, there’s a Savior in plastic surgery, a new wardrobe, and a heaven full of beautiful people. If you’re lonely, there’s a new website to save you from the pitiful hell you’re trapped in. Worship this Savior, give to that Savior, and your world will be a better place.

The problem is that Idolatry is not about grace. Idolatry is not about a Savior that loves you, serves you, or embraces you (not because of who you are, but in spite of who you are). It is a Savior that  doesn’t love you because you are good, but to make you good. Not because you are lovely, but to make you lovely. It does not follow a Gospel of grace, it is always searching for a way to make you better, smarter, skinnier, prettier, cooler, more loved than before, and if you could just reach that point, you could be saved, but you’ll never get there.

And the concept of religion is no different. It is not a religion that saves us, it is a God that saves us, who loves us through the example and sacrifice of His Son, and the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Religion tells us if we are just better, if we can just put in a few more hours, give a little more money, we’re in right standings with God, and our sins are clean, but God is not a God of deeds alone, He is a Lord of the heart. Religion can be a means, but it is never an end. It is the posture of our hearts and the meditations of our minds, and thereafter our actions and words that prove us before the loving Father. If you say you love the Father, but you are continually living in sin, than you are turning your back on the one you say you love. The word of God calls this the unforgivable sin, to have a full knowledge of sin, and to go deliberately against that truth (Hebrews 10:26-27, in the gospels – on many accounts, this is referred to as blaspheming the Holy Spirit, recognizing the Word of God, and choosing to disobey with full knowledge of our actions).

Clearly this state of living in constant sin carries a heavy cost, so how is this addressed? The way I see it sin is like bad fruit on a tree. And we could easily just pick that fruit, remove that idol or addiction from our life and just try to move on, but as long as that root of idolatry that leads to sin remains, we can never be free of that one obsession. That one overpowering desire that keeps us in our little hell. There’s nothing wrong with having kids one day, with having a drink, with working hard at your job, with participating in a religion. But we need to realize, as Paul says, that we are ignorant and that our hearts automatically lean towards idolatry and addiction. Luther calls this "the default mode for the human heart." i.e. My idol is free time, that’s why I never go to class. My idol is marriage, that’s why I keep dating losers. We can look at our lives and see a default pattern in them.

Our only solution is to break free of our idols, to cast them to the fire (like the golden calf in Exodus 32), and most importantly, not substitute them with a different idol! How often does a Christian look down on someone who gets drunk, because they once struggled with that same sin, but now they have saved themselves; that once were overweight, but now make fat jokes, because they had the dedication to go to the gym, and this person does not. Their idol may have been destroyed, but it has been replaced by their own self-worship of their accomplishments. This is why we seek first the Kingdom of God, and give it all up to Him who brought us to where we are today.

People who seek to be saved by their idolatry or their own works cannot succeed, because in the end all they are left with is pride, or depression – possibly even to the extent of being suicidal because they just can’t do it alone. The good news in all of this, is that we are not saved by ourselves, but by Jesus; by his works, his sinless life, his sacrificial death, and bodily resurrection. Our salvation comes through him, and luckily not by our own works, because they will never be good enough. Salvation does not come by a substitutional God, but by the creator God. He saves us from sin and from ourselves, by taking our place in a way we never could, bridging the divide created by sin that keeps us from reaching the one true heaven when we leave this earth.

Ultimately, we must replace our idols with the creator God, and rejoice in worship. Because if we are not praising God, we will worship that band we love, that knowledge we desire, that friendship we so long have craved for despite it all, because it is our default. Seek first the Kingdom, and we can rightly pursue a life in peace with God. I can have a drink without a need to get drunk, because I don’t worship alcohol, and it doesn’t rule over me, I rule over it.

I don’t need a friend’s approval, because I have my foundation in Jesus, and I can love and respect my friends, but I don’t have to elevate them to the level of Gods, and seek their approval that I am doing the right thing. I can live life with only one God, one who loves me and wants to spend time with me, and allow me to live life at its full extent, not worrying about self-defined hells. I can let the creator God be the creator, the Savior Jesus be my Savior and example, let the Holy Spirit facilitate my guidance through God’s word, and most importantly just let life be life, and an opportunity by which to appreciate the things within it.  We are all spiritual people; we are all worshipers. The question is not, "do I give my self to a Savior," but "which Savior I will devote my time, passion, and talents to" - and it is that Savior which will attest to whether you live in happiness, or despair.

Peace be with you, and thank you for reading.




a. The Small Catechism, by Martin Luther   (


c. It’s worth noting that most of my language and guidance on and in this passage was directly influenced by the works of Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Bible Church, in Seattle, Washington, and also by Mark Balmer of Calvary Chapel Melbourne, in Melbourne, Florida. This work is not all my own, but a reflection of God’s words and the works by the stewards of His teachings.

d. If you would like to talk to me about anything, in this note or not, please shoot me a message or comment below.


Taylor said...

You're onto some good thoughts here Danny. I think that you're right about idolatry being the central sin of humanity.

It is so difficult not to allow ourselves to be ruled by our idols of money, appearances, sex, entertainment, relationships, etc. Perhaps the best teaching I've heard on how to take seriously Jesus' call to "seek first the kingdom" despite our tendency seek first other things is Richard Foster's little chapter on "Simplicity" found in his book "Celebration of Discipline."

Anyways man, enjoyed it.

Taylor said...

Hey Danny, I just remembered one part that I wasn't sure what you meant or if I agreed. It was when you said, "How many people (and Christians) find themselves to be overzealous, or so thirsty for justice that they will pursue evil, and openly condemn it, in any way they can, when the bible specifically tells us not to do just that!"

Now, don't get me wrong, I think that we can be confused into pursuing justice apart from God (for its one sake, as a sort of false god) and apart from Jesus' commands to have mercy on our enemies. Nevertheless, I think that the Bible clearly speaks in many instances of God's passionate desire for his people to pursue justice and condemn evil (not people, but actions). The minor prophets are full of such examples.

And while I do believe that God would have us forget petty disagreements about drinking, sabbath keeping, evolution, etc, for the sake of unity in the Body of Christ (e.g. Romans 14); I don't think that God would want us to turn a blind eye to evils such as hypocrisy among religious leaders (Mt. 23:1-36), economic oppression (Mt. 21:12-13), racism (Galatians 2:11-14), etc. All of these passages are cases where these injustices are openly confronted and condemned.

Anyways, I respect the fact that you may totally be on the same page as me already about this stuff and that I might just be misinterpreting your words; but as I said, I just wasn't sure what you meant.

Your brother,

Au-Cumulus said...

Hey Taylor,

thanks for your comments, you and i have already talked about this in person, but i'd like to put a reply on here incase anyone comes across the comments. I completely agree with a healthy, and religious, pursuit of justice. The kind that might concern me would be the zealous type who might let a pursuit of justice thwart their focus on God first, and thereby not be seeking the Kingdom as they should.


chet said...

Danny, I just found this post. Wow. I recently started Rob Bell's "Jesus Wants to Save Christians" and he puts some interesting insight into idolatry as well; just in the first chapter.

It is worth reading for sure.

Missed you at Bible study last week.