Idolatry: Making Good Things Ultimate Things
By Kevin Probst
Two women were attending a party for those of the upper crust in their community. Neither cared for the other at all but both were fairly expert at putting on airs. One of the women was wearing a string of pearls and the other approached her with a gibe, “My dear, are those pearls real?” to which the other woman replied, “Why yes they are, can’t you tell?” The first woman retorted, “Well, the only way for me to tell would be to bite them.” The second woman’s witty response went something like this, “Yes, but for that you would need real teeth.”
We live in a world of counterfeits. Sometimes its hard to tell what is real and what is not. We have fake hairpieces, fake nails, and false teeth. We paint on faces and sometimes pay for someone to reconstruct ourselves. We can have artificial limbs, glass eyes and mechanical hearts. Obviously, counterfeits are not always bad.
But some counterfeits are unacceptable. You would not want to try to pass a fake $20 dollar bill at your local bank. Faking a diploma or college degree on a job application is probably not a good idea. Its fine for women to wear costume jewelry but it’s not okay for men to buy it.
Because our culture is so immersed in counterfeits it is very difficult to distinguish between what is fake and what is real. Though most of these counterfeits are harmless, there is one counterfeit we often try to pass off that is extremely harmful to society. We cause extensive harm when we try to replace He who is all powerful, all wise, all knowing and all loving for all of eternity with a cheap substitute.
Americans are deep into idolatry. We worship idols when we build our self worth on anything or anyone other than our Creator. We have a rather simple perspective of sin when we think sin is simply doing things that are bad. Sin is sometimes making good things the ultimate things in our lives. There is certainly nothing wrong with friendships and marriage and family but when we allow these to replace God as central in our lives we commit the sin of idolatry.
I sometimes counsel married couples who are struggling in their relationships. Most often the complaint is that their needs are not being met. When husbands and wives look to each other to fulfill all their needs they fail to realize the impossibility of that premise. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men”. There is a void in our hearts, a sort of puzzle space that only God can fill. When we try to fill that space with other things or other people we are guilty of idolatry. Loving something or someone else more than God violates God’s purpose for creating us and it can only lead to depression. Investing decades, even a lifetime in a relationship that can only bring relative satisfaction can lead to despair. Only God can satisfy all our needs.
A good thing can be elevated to the status of an idol. I asked a young co-worker the other day if her parents were Christians. She replied, “Well, my parents think they are okay, they may even call themselves Christians because they are good, hard-working people.” Sometimes our idol is our own moral record. “I’m good. I’m actually better than most people I know, therefore, God accepts me because I am good.” An idol is anything we look to for salvation rather than God. If we think our own effort to live ‘good’ lives will save us then we have an idol.
God expresses his hatred for idolatry by dedicating 20% of the Ten Commandments to this sin. Commandments one and two declare, “You shall have no other gods before me and you shall not create any gods of your own to worship instead of me.” The Bible mentions this sin over 1,000 times. Wasn’t it the sin of Adam and Eve? Didn’t Satan convince them that they could make a go of it without God? Wasn’t that Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness? It wasn’t really about turning stones into bread, it was about tempting Christ to strike out on his own and demand independence from his Father.
Rocky Balboa said, “If I can just go the distance I’ll know that I’m not a bum.” We have an idol anytime we define ourselves by anything other than Christ. Sometimes we define ourselves by our achievements, by our ability to amass wealth or by how much fame we can claim. What is it in our lives that we cling to in order to prove that we “are not a bum?” (1) If we can find what that is then we can identify our idol.
God created us to worship. We all worship something or someone whether we admit it or not. We wither worship God or we worship idols. Our pain and emptiness increase when we turn to idols for salvation. When we feel pain we turn to drugs or alcohol for temporary salvation. When we feel emptiness we go on a shopping spree or skip from one romance to another instead of turning to Christ. What are we really saying when we employ all of these poor substitutes for true salvation? We are saying to Christ, “Thanks, but no thanks. You are not big enough to solve my problems. I am more capable than you.”
If my wife were to come to me today and say, “Kevin, I love you so much but I want to share myself with another. You will still be number one. You will still get ‘most’ of my attention but I also want to love another.” I would feel within an anger and jealousy. My feelings don’t need some sort of psychological interpretation. They are put there by God to preserve the relationship he has given me. Doesn’t God feel the same way? He won’t allow us to love another. He will be jealous and he will expose our idols and demand we address our sin of idolatry….because he loves us so much!
1. Removing Idols of the Heart – Tim Keller
Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.