Sniffing Out Idolatry

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

—Exodus 20:2-3

Ask the average person to define idolatry, and you’ll probably hear something that coincides quite well with the above illustration: bowing in physical worship to an inanimate object believed to have supernatural power. This concept is present in various biblical accounts and condemned by God repeatedly. Many, especially those who identify themselves as Christians, can’t imagine committing such an abominable sin…yet they practice it without even realizing what they’re doing. But does idolatry always involve bowing down to some icon, such as the golden calf the Israelites revered?


Here’s a New Testament example: Colossians 3:5 equates greed and covetousness with idolatry. As you probably know, there are oh, so many things that we can be greedy or covetous about!

Consider this question:

Is there anything at all in your life that you do not regularly surrender to God, that you don’t continually seek His guidance about? Is there something (or someone) that is so undeniably important to you that it dominates your mind and pulls your eyes away from biblical living and your relationship with Christ?

Try this on for size: do you ever pray for something and hesitate to sincerely include “if it be your will, Lord” because the truth is, you don’t even want to FATHOM that it might not be God’s will for you? You want it anyway; it is an idol.

Do you realize that it’s entirely possible to idolize your family? Your job? A materialistic lifestyle? Your own self? I’d also dare to say that if the term “fanatic” can be attached to any noun in your life, there is danger of idolatry being associated with that thing.

At one time or another, we’ve all been guilty. We’re fallible human beings. However, it is entirely possible to conquer the vice of idolatry by readily identifying its presence, releasing your mental and emotional grip on the object, and sincerely seeking forgiveness. Perhaps a personal example (yikes!) will help paint a clearer picture…

A few years ago, Jonathan and I purchased acreage property in an upscale neighborhood in northern suburban Houston. This particular community is a beautiful, green haven filled with lakes, walking trails, sports facilities, and gorgeous custom homes. At that time, we had just recently paid off our credit card and Jonathan had been given a great raise at work.  We wanted to get further outside of the city, since we’d just started our family, so it seemed like a completely sensible purchase at the time. After all, there’s nothing wrong with scaling up, right? We did an excellent job of justifying the quest for a more extravagant lifestyle.

Here’s where the sin came in. We became absolutely consumed with designing the biggest and best house that we could possibly squeeze into our budget. It was all we talked about and researched on the weekends. This was going to be the home of our dreams, where we entertained our friends and family and raised our kids. It had to be the best possible, in our way of thinking. Nevermind that we already had a nice, comfortable home in a safe neighborhood with a payment that had us living well below our means. Staying there would have allowed us to contribute extra money to assist those in need, to missions, to any number of worthy causes, but we didn’t want to think about that.

It wasn’t long before we started dealing with one setback after another in our planning process, and pretty soon we had to face the realization that the custom home wasn’t going to happen. I wish I could say that we saw the error of our ways, backtracked, and set things right, but that isn’t what happened. We were stubborn! Several less-than-ideal real estate decisions (each heavily based on vanity and materialism) and years later, God finally got our attention (VERY PAINFULLY–because that’s what it took) and made us see what was going on in our hearts. We were idolizing the pursuit of a non-essential, high-end material possession. At the lowest, most excruciating point of this journey, my eyes began to clear; I became disgusted with the ugliness of my sin of idolatry that had literally controlled me. I realized that the trappings of the American Dream had become my idol.

Jonathan and I took drastic measures to re-prioritize, and I can’t begin to describe the positive differences we’ve seen in so many different areas. It is truly amazing how surrendering an idol and repenting of that sin dramatically changes your life! What you thought was SO VERY IMPORTANT slides way down the scale of the priority hierarchy, and the distance is a relief you never would have expected.

Do you harbor the sin of material idolatry? Hey guys, would you spend as much money on that car or truck if none of your friends would ever see it and admire it? Hey girls, would you spend as much money on that handbag if no one could tell it was designer? In other words, are labels and prestige more important than better financial health or, more importantly, giving? Are you more concerned about giving your kids the best worldly advantages rather than modeling biblical principles such as spiritual development and self-sacrifice?

Do you harbor the sin of self idolatry? Are your actions based on “following your heart’s desire” and putting your personal benefit above the benefit of others? Does self-fulfillment come before serving your family and friends?

What about the sin of idolizing loved ones? Does your life completely center on a person or a group of people rather than your relationship with Christ? Is your time with them the most important thing in your life? Are you more concerned with making those people happy than with pleasing God?

Spend some time thinking about the state of your priorities and how the current difficulties or emotional pain you’re experiencing may be related to unconscious idolatry. You might be surprised by what needs to be moved to a place of less importance in your life, or even eliminated altogether. It won’t be easy or always painless. The good news is, you’ll never regret honoring God by removing anything that hinders your relationship with Him; His blessings for that obedience will far outweigh your cost.

2 thoughts on “Sniffing Out Idolatry

  1. Well said. I have found (also via a more painful approach!) that if I’m not constantly on the lookout, asking the Lord to reveal what needs to be readjusted in my life, that the “little things” become the “big things” faaaaaar too quickly! 🙂

  2. Oh, my friend, how true this is! For me, the words of Ross Kings’ song “Clear the Stage” helps me to identify those “less obvious” idols:
    Anything I put before my God is an idol.
    Anything I want with all my heart is an idol.
    Anything I can’t stop thinking of is an idol.
    Anything that I give all my love is an idol.
    There are so many things that fall into the above categories that are entirely different from that golden calf picture…..

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