By Jennifer Slattery, Crosswalk.com
Idolatry. This ancient yet modern sin fuels countless heartaches and frustrations. It destroys jobs and relationships and distances us from God, the only One worthy of worship. The only One able to fulfill our deepest needs and grant us the joy and peace we seek.
When life feels uncertain or our longings go unmet, it’s easy and comforting, momentarily, to grasp on to temporary fillers. If only we had more money, more friends, more experiences, or achievements, then we’d be happy and content. But this type of mentality leads to idolatry by shifting our focus off of Jesus and placing it instead on the temporary and insufficient pleasures of today.
Whatever we treasure more than God, whatever drives our thoughts and actions, becomes an idol, and these idols dull our spiritual hearing and harden our hearts to things of God.Photo Credit: Unsplash©
What is an Idol?
The Bible understands that idolatry extends beyond the worship of images and false gods. It is a matter of the heart, associated with pride, self-centeredness, greed, gluttony ( Php 3:19 ), and love for possessions ( Matt 6:24 ).
Idolatry is a major theme of the Bible. It challenges God's sovereignty and attempts to offer an alternate explanation to the issues of life. But Scripture not only records people's failures; it also records the hope of repentance. In his mercy, God raised up men and women who challenged the faulty theology of the community.
As Tim Keller states in his book Counterfeit Gods, an idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”
Essentially, an idol can be anything that takes the place of God as the most important focus and priority in our life. This article will go through ten examples of idols and idolatry in the modern era. Discover what makes these examples prevalent and dangerous substitutes for God as the primary essence of our lives.
Photo credit: pxhere
What Does the Bible Say About Idolatry?
According to Baker's Biblical Dictionary, the most prevalent form of idolatry in biblical times was the worship of images or idols that represented or were thought to embody various pagan deities.
In the Old Testament, from the beginning, the threat of idolatry was in the midst of Israel. The forefathers were idolaters and, while Abraham was called out of a polytheistic background ( Joshua24:2 ), some persons brought their gods with them ( Gen 35:2-4). Israel's sojourn in Egypt placed them under the influence of the Egyptian religion, but God's sovereignty was manifest by his judgment upon the gods of Egypt ( Exod 12:12 ; Num 33:4 ). Israel, however, quickly succumbed to idolatry by worshiping a golden calf at Mount Sinai ( Exod 32 ).
The first commandment is to have no gods before God ( Exod 20:3 ; Deut 5:7 ). In addition, the construction of any images ( Exod 20:23 ) or even the mention of the names of gods ( Exod 23:13 ) was forbidden. Invoking the name of a god was an acknowledgment of its existence and gave credence to its power. By swearing in the name of another god ( 1 Kings 19:2 ; 20:10 ), the people would be binding themselves to an allegiance other than God ( Joshua 23:7 ).
Since idolatry substituted another for God it violated the people's holiness and was parallel to adultery; hence the frequent use of negative sexual imagery for idolatry, especially by the prophets. Both intermarriage and formal treaties were prohibited because of necessary affiliation with pagan gods ( Exod 23:32-33 ), leading to eventual fellowship ( Exod 34:15 ) and worship of idols ( Num 25:2-3 ).
Bible Verses about Idolatry
“You shall have no other gods before me."
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths.
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!
And have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed.
“You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God.
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.
Now let's look at 10 specific things that can quickly sneak into our lives and become idols.
Photo credit: pxhere
We are a self-obsessed people, or at least, I am. Throughout the day, I filter everything through the lens of how it affects me, and in social settings my focus usually lands squarely on myself. Though I know I exist to glorify Christ and reveal His love to a hurting world, so often, I easily slip into self-elevation mode.
Our culture might convince me this is beneficial. After all, if we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? According to Scripture, Christ. We belong to an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful Savior who gave His everything so that we might live. In return, He asks that we willingly give ourselves to Him.
Through surrender, we break free from the idol of self and in so doing, find the freedom to be all that God created us to be—men and women of purpose designed to glorify our Creator God.
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The challenge with modern day idols is they often arise from really good things, even necessary things. These are needs and pleasures our loving heavenly Father longs to provide. The problem comes when we attempt to fill our needs, be it for significance or security, in our own strength, apart from God. Because our efforts will always be insufficient, our hearts will remain empty, which means we’ll continue grasping.
This is precisely how the idol of security rises up. We know inherently, everything we rely on apart from Christ is shaky at best. Careers end, relationships fail, stock markets crash, and unexpected medical bills can wipe out, in a moment, every insufficient foundation we’ve amassed beneath us.
But Christ never fails. When we place our security in Him, we remain strong, unshakable, no matter the chaos we encounter. To find freedom from the idol of security, we simply need to lean deeper into Christ. As we do, we discover He is strong and present enough to carry us through whatever we’ll face.
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We were created as social beings, to live in interdependent community with one another. Therefore, it’s normal to want to belong. God placed this longing within the human heart in order to draw us closer to Him and one another—to help us experience the same oneness God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit enjoy with one another.
The problem arises when we place our desire to be liked above our relationship with God. Whenever we fail to obey when prompted, whether that means speaking truth or reaching out to the marginalized, for fear of what others might think, we’ve fallen into the trap of idolatry. In valuing man’s approval more than God’s, we demonstrate where our true loyalties lie. But “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24, NIV).
Therefore, when we feel the idol of approval tug on our hearts, we need to ask God to help us rest deeper in Him.
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When my daughter was young, I was obsessed. She was the center of my every thought and action. But no human can fill the empty places in our hearts. In fact, when we seek fulfillment from others, be it our children, spouses, or friends, and especially if we elevate those relationships above God, we end up feeling depleted.
Only Jesus Christ can meet our deepest needs to love and be loved. When we’re centered in Him first and fully, we’re freed to enjoy our relationships with others in a healthy manner. Therefore, when we recognize the idol of relationships invading our hearts, we must draw closer to Jesus. As we surrender everything, including those we hold most dear, to our Savior, He saturates our souls and brings light and wholeness to our interactions.
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What do you do? Often, upon meeting someone, that’s the first questions we ask. And when we’re enslaved by the idol of success, this simple inquisition can trigger one of two reactions: insecurity or pride. We soon find ourselves listing all our accomplishments in an effort to prove our worth or gain respect. But God measures success based on obedience, not results. In all things, our role is to obey; He’s responsible for and sovereign over the outcome.
Our identity is and must be found in Christ alone. He wants us to know who and whose we are, and Scripture says, in Christ, we’re cherished, chosen, and empowered men and women of God handcrafted for an eternal purpose. Our value doesn’t increase when we reach our goals or get promoted. Nor does it decrease when we’re laid off or encounter rejections. Knowing this, and anchoring our hearts in grace, frees us from the idol of success and enables us to become all we were meant to be.
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Whatever we feed grows. Similarly, what we starve begins to die.
Our culture bombards us with enticing advertisements convincing us to buy, acquire, and accumulate. With one click and a swipe of a card, we can amass a plethora of gadgets and toys that marketers promise will entertain and fulfill us. But eventually, those things lose their allure and leave us grasping for that next best thing.
Scripture tells a story of a rich ruler who had everything one might want yet felt incomplete. Upon seeing Jesus, the ache within drew him to the Savior with such urgency, he broke out into a run and fell to his knees before Him. “Good Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, NASB).
In love, Jesus replied, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then follow Me” (Mark 10:21, paraphrased). Not because Jesus needed the man’s money but rather because He wanted his heart. He saw clearly this ruler’s need and the idol that enslaved him. Generosity would be the man’s key to freedom.
The same holds true for each of us who find ourselves entrapped by materialistic idolatry.
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As is true with potentially every idol we chase, it’s usually not that “god” we cling to so much as what we hope it will provide. We vehemently guard the idol of self out of fear of harm or unfulfillment. We grasp hold of countless false securities for fear of want. We fight for other’s approval and obsess over human relationships for fear of rejection or loneliness. We seek lasting joy, something Christ Himself wants to give us, through material things, and we strive for respect and vitality through gym memberships and fad diets.
It’s good to do what we can to improve our health. Increased strength and energy often leads to enhanced productivity. The problem arises when wellness shifts from a tool to an object of our worship. To know when we’ve crossed the line into idolatry, we can ask ourselves some key questions:
Which do I think of more — my weight or my Savior? Do I more readily clear my schedule for a gym workout or Bible study meeting?
Our schedules usually reveal where our deepest love and loyalties lie. When we sense we’ve elevated exercise and nutrition above our Savior, we have the opportunity to go deeper in our relationship with Him. As our intimacy with Him grows, all the fears and insecurities that fuel the idol of health diminish.
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Chocolate reveals the heart of our good, loving Father. He could’ve given all nourishment a single flavor or created us with the ability to detect perhaps a handful of varieties. Instead, He blessed us with a banquet filled with the sweet, tangy, salty, and savory and granted us tongues with 10,000 taste buds that enable us to enjoy every bite.
Scripture tells us every good and perfect gift comes from God and is designed to bless us and draw us closer to the Gift-giver. Unfortunately, our hearts are fickle and easily swayed so that we trade intimacy with our Savior for the momentary rush of a sugar high. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently stated, “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. … like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
The solution, then, isn’t to forsake pleasure but to set our hearts on the One who is the source of all that is good, right, fulfilling, and pleasurable.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Ali Inay
For years, I not only wanted to be smart but wanted others to think I was as well. I found fulfillment in searching out answers and sharing my “wisdom”. But over time, this God-given drive to learn morphed into pride and self-elevation. Soon, even my Bible reading, which was supposed to draw me closer to God, turned into more of an academic pursuit. I cross-referenced and digested numerous verses and commentaries, filling my head with knowledge while starving my heart.
God gave us intelligence and the curiosity to make use of it — for a grace-filled purpose. So that, as we investigate our world, we’ll discover its Creator and hold Him in awe. When surrendered to Him, our studies become acts of worship that bind us intimately with our Creator. Intellectual pursuits apart from Him, however, are not only futile, but dangerous. Whenever we seek truth more than its embodiment, Jesus, we slip into idolatry. The solution? Remember our sin — where we were and where we’d be without Christ.
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I like my large, almond milk, vanilla-flavored latte. I love soft pillows and air conditioning and easy access to the Internet. I enjoy eating ice cream while watching Netflix. Many times I choose these modern comforts over crossing the street to initiate a conversation with a neighbor. I prefer an extra hour of sleep over getting up early to serve in the nursery on Sunday morning.
I prefer beach vacations to participating in disaster relief efforts, and sitting with my friends during church over enduring the social awkwardness to reach out to a stranger. In short, I often elevate my comfort over my obedience—over the gospel, and whatever holds higher priority in my heart than Jesus. This then becomes an idol.
I’ve found the only way to escape the idol of comfort is to intentionally embrace something that makes me uncomfortable: Initiate conversation with someone different than me, serve in an area I feel ill-equipped, or donate my latte money to help fund international missions.
Jesus is the anecdote for every idol that infiltrates my heart. The more I lean into Him, prioritize my time with Him, and surrender to Him, the more He fills the deepest, darkest crevices within me until there’s room for nothing else.
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Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who’s addressed women’s groups, church groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Restoring Her Faith and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com. As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she and her team love to help women discover, embrace, and live out who they are in Christ. Visit her online to find out more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event, and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE to learn of her future appearances, projects, and releases.