The Reality of Idolatry
Since Adam, all humans are idolators. We all perpetually break the first commandment by loving creation more than the Creator. As Calvin famously said, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory” (Institutes I.11.8). In some cultures, this looks like offering sacrifices to man-made statues (e.g., Hindu-influenced India). In other cultures, it takes the form of praying to deceased ancestors (e.g., Mexican Day of the Dead festivals). In modern America, we are less likely to find people bowing to statues or burning incense to their late relatives. That is because here we worship things like comfort, convenience, and affluence. We plunge ourselves into debt for the newest car. Lie, cheat, and steal to climb the corporate ladder. Kill our unborn babies in self-deception for the consequences of uncommitted sex. We sacrifice much on the altar of our idols. But as Christians, we are called to live a life free from idols (1 John 5:21). To pursue such a calling, we must answer two important questions: how can we identify our idols, and how do we kill them once we have identified them?
Before we answer these questions, I want to briefly think about why God commands us to flee idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14). First, God commands we worship him alone (Deut. 5:7, Matt. 22:37-38). Idolatry is, by nature, contrary to this command. It is worshipping something other than God by loving it more than him and finding our significance or security in it. (Deut. 5:8). Idolatry is clearly breaking God’s direct command and this shows us the second reason we ought to flee idols: because it leads to death. The Psalmist writes: “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. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 135: 15-18). Worshipping idols makes us blind to truth and reality. We become unable to see that our worship of sex will lead to disease, desertion, and death. We can’t see past the next engorged meal to the heart disease, organ failure, and death. The seduction of power makes us deaf to the warnings against lawsuits, debt, and destitution. And without Christ’s saving work in our hearts, the death resulting from idolatry is eternal. These are compelling reasons for us as Christians to first identify and then kill our idols.
Identifying our Idols
Idolatry is like cancer. There are many types, but all of them will kill us if left untreated. But to treat it, we need an expert to diagnose it and prescribe an appropriate course of treatment. Our idolatrous hearts are no different. To diagnose our idols, we need the saving power of Christ’s work, the illuminating light of God’s Word, and the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s Word penetrates our inmost being and judges what is hidden in our hearts (Heb. 4:12). Christ’s enlivening work in us allows us to see the truths revealed in Scripture and the Holy Spirit applies them to us (John 16:13-15, 1 Cor. 3:16). (Without Christ’s saving work, we are dead in our sins and utterly unable to see our idols, or even that we worship them.) So, we must prayerfully and humbly ask God to use his sword-sharp Word paired with the power of the Holy Spirit to show us our idols. As we humbly study God’s Word and sit under sound preaching, God will faithfully answer that prayer. To this we can add a practical guide Timothy Keller offers to identify our idols.
Keller suggests answering four simple and poignant questions to help us identify our idols: What do our thoughts and imaginations run to? How do we spend our money? How do we respond to unanswered prayer? What are our most uncontrollable emotions? Lest these questions stay in the realm of the abstract and impersonal, I will apply them to a specific idol: body image. If we worship the way our body looks, our thoughts and imaginations run to what workouts will make us look more toned or how many calories to consume to maintain our figure. We mull over our neighbor’s looks, comparing and imagining ourselves more beautiful or attractive. We spend our money on exercise classes, specialty diets, and weight sets. When God doesn’t answer our prayers, we spend more time at the gym, are more scrupulous with our diet, and compare ourselves more rigidly. Anxiety marks us.
As we ask these questions of ourselves, we may find our answers point to something else like lust or money. Or maybe they uncover a deeper idol like control, power, or comfort. No matter the idol, once we have identified it, we must answer the question: how can we flee from it?
The Cure for Idolatry
Consider again the example of the cancer patient. While she may do things to slow the growth of the cancer (i.e., following a specific diet), she is utterly unable to kill it without outside intervention from a skilled physician. Sometimes it is even necessary to remove the infected member. We are like a helpless cancer patient, dying slowly from a diseased heart. God is the great Physician who removes our diseased—no, dead—heart and replaces it with a new heart (John 3:3, 2 Cor. 5:17). Whereas our old heart was capable only of sin and idolatry, our new heart, washed in Christ’s blood, is being made more pure and holy each day (Heb. 10:22, Phil. 1:6). One author summarized it well: “One’s only hope in being delivered from reflecting the spiritually lifeless images of the world is to be recreated or reformed by God into an image that reflects God’s living image, which results in spiritual life.” In short, we must be born again not only to identify, but also to flee from our idols.
It is vital that we understand the necessity of this new birth and our own passivity in the event. For, our tendency toward idolatry does not automatically disappear when we become Christians. Rather, salvation begins a lifelong process of God, the potter, reforming “his sinful people, transforming them from reflections of earthly idolatrous images and remaking them into his image.” When we know that we did not initiate our transformation, we can rest easy knowing the completion of that work does not depend on us (Gal. 3:1-4). Yet, God still calls us to flee idols. So, the question remains: how do we—as new creatures in Christ—flee idols?
We flee idols by looking away from them to the One who saves us from those idols. We meditate on Christ and the work he has done on our behalf. Christ lived a life completely free from idolatry. “The idols represent the attempt to find significance and security by the works of one’s own hands. By contrast Jesus is the one whose significance and security from beginning to end are found not in the labors of his own hands, but in sacrificing his life for others. . . He is the inverted idol of God, the one who humbles himself to the point of death on a cross.” We meditate on this (and similar truths). We set our mind and heart on things above. Keller offers a succinct explanation of what this looks like in action:
“Setting the mind and heart on things above” where “your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3) means appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done for you. It entails joyful worship, a sense of God’s reality in prayer. Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol. That is what will replace your counterfeit gods. If you uproot the idol and fail to “plant” the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.
This is the key to fleeing idolatry: loving Christ more than the idol. The more we lovingly adore and worship him, the more we will start to image him and the less we will chase and resultingly resemble dead idols. Treasuring Christ more than our idols is not easy or natural. It requires knowing how Christ’s work applies to our specific idol. Just as in identifying our idols, to flee them we need the means of grace made effectual by the work of the Holy Spirit.
God has given us ordinary means of grace—preaching, prayer, and the sacraments—by which he shows us ourselves, feeds us spiritually, and transforms us into his image. As we sit under sound preaching and commune with God in prayer, we can ask the Holy Spirit to reveal not only our idols, but how Christ demolished the power of that idol through his life. Consider again the example of body image idolatry. Scripture tells us that Christ gave up his breathtaking beauty to become an ordinary looking man without beauty or majesty with which to attract us (Isa. 53:2). At his crucifixion, he hung exposed, battered, bloodied, and mocked (Matt. 27:27-50). Christ’s choosing to humbly obey God rather than grasp for the perfect body, frees us from making our body image ultimate. His work is applied to us, and we are rendered free to worship Christ for giving up his glory and majesty for us. The more we study Scripture with an eye to identifying how Christ crushes our idols, the more we will find examples like this one. There is no idol Jesus did not resist, and therefore, none we cannot.
God calls us to flee from idols. But to do so, we must see our idolatry with new eyes given us by the Holy Spirit applying Christ’s work to us. With these new eyes, we are able—when we utilize God’s means of grace—to see how Christ crushes our every idol. The more we understand the magnitude and comprehensiveness of his work for us, the more we will worship and love him. And the more we worship and love him, the less attractive our idols become.
So, if you are tempted to run to an idol for significance, comfort, or identity, look to Jesus instead. Look at what he did for you both generally and specifically in regard to your pet idols. When you are discouraged by the slowness and seeming insignificance of your progress, remember that God has promised to complete his work of remaking us into his image. And remember too that “This process of transformation into the divine image will be completed at the end of history, when Christians will be resurrected and fully reflect God’s image in Christ (1 Cor 15:45-54; Phil 3:20-21).” Fleeing idolatry is a lifetime fight, but through Christ we are sure to win.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.
As Christians, we will never face hell for our idolatry. However, God has so ordered the world that even Christians who stubbornly persist in idolatry may die from it. This can come in the form of many small deaths (death of our marriage, health, reputation) or our own physical death (drug overdose, STD).
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 168-170.
G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 279.
Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion, New Studies in Biblical Theology 36, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 123.
Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 171-172.
Beale, What We Worship, 282.