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Recognizing Idolatry

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5, emphasis added; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated).

In a recent post, I mentioned idolatry four times. Ezekiel 36:25–27 mentioned that God would cleanse us of our idolatries.

It may say “In God We Trust,” but money is an idol for many Americans. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

After posting that article, I realized some people may not realize that this verse speaks directly to them. Many Christians think, “I don’t have a statue of Buddha or some other image of a pagan religion. I’m not an idolater.” Others think they are off the hook because they do not have crucifixes, rosary beads, or pictures of the Virgin Mary.

The New Testament teaches that idolatry is more than just praying to a statue or image. Colossians 3:5 says covetousness and/or greed (some English translations use the latter term) is idolatry. We desire things more than we desire God. Many of us have forgotten what Jesus said:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

The Apostle Paul adds to this by saying:

“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5).

While the Second Commandment tells us that we must not make or worship a graven image, the New Testament reveals that there is a deeper spiritual aspect to this commandment. To fully obey it, we must avoid building spiritual idols in our hearts that keep us from drawing closer to God. In its catechism, the Book of Common Prayer says we fulfill this commandment when we “put nothing in the place of God.”

So, how can we know if we are guilty of idolatry? Here are a few questions you may ask yourself:

Do I buy things that I cannot afford? If you own things you do not need (besides food, clothing, and shelter) and are going into debt to buy them, you probably have an idol. Incidentally, going into debt includes the use of credit cards. Too many people do not know the difference between “needs” and “wants” and fall into a snare as a result. First Timothy gives us God’s perspective on this:

“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness…” (1 Timothy 6:6-11).

You need food. You need clothes (not necessarily expensive, trendy, or flashy clothes). You need a roof over your head (not necessarily a mansion). You do not need a brand-new luxury sports car, the latest $500 cell phone, cable television package with all the premium channels, etc. Recognizing the difference between needs and wants is necessary for overcoming idolatry.

Do I have things that I do not really need, but I do not give to the Lord and His work? If you spend your money on yourself and ignore the needs of God’s people and the needy, you have an idol. Sincere Christians may disagree whether we are obligated to tithe. Personally, I believe we should give 10% to the Lord, His Church, and the advancement of His kingdom. Others believe that we should be generous without specifying a percentage of our income:

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

I could add countless verses where God’s Word says that His children should be generous. You cannot justify greed by saying, “I won’t give because I’m not cheerful about it.” Remember, it says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Scripture never says that “God loves a greedy grouch.”

Do I disobey God’s Word or compromise my faith to get what I want? If you are willing to lie, cheat, or steal to get what you want, you are probably an idolater.

Do I pray for what I want more than I pray to be fruitful for God?

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:3–4).

It is not always about money. In a society blessed with wealth and ease, we can become idolaters about things besides money. I have known people who say they are Christian, but never attend church between September and January: football comes first to them. Others worship their political party, musicians (it is no accident that a popular TV show is called “American Idol”), actors, other entertainers, hobbies, etc. Anything that keeps you from worshiping God and doing His will can be an idol. Here is a little project you can try to see if you might be an idolater in a nonfinancial area of your life:

  1. Ask a few friends who are not in your church or Christian circles what they think are the three things you value most. You can ask family members if they are not Christians. If your faith does not come up regularly (i.e., people are not mentioning “God,” “Jesus,” “Christianity,” “church,” “your faith,” etc.), take note of the things people do mention. There might be an idol there. You may need to remove it completely from your life.
  2. Ask the same people who they think are the three people you admire most. If Jesus is not mentioned, but someone else usually is, you might have an idol.
  3. Consider what you have learned. Are there idols that you have to remove from your life? Take the proper steps to remove them. Seek godly counsel from a pastor or other mature follower of Christ if necessary.

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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