Idolatry is so pervasive in our culture and the heart of people today that it is at the center of nearly every sin and spiritual problem today. Early on in the biblical counseling movement, Jay Adams identified idolatry as the cause of many of the problems Christians deal with today.1 To be sure, anyone desiring to make progress overcoming their emotional problems and progress in spiritual growth and maturity must identify and pull down their idols. For counseling and discipleship to be effective, the person’s idols must be addressed. In this article, we will discuss the idols that are present in nearly every life, and how to help people move forward toward repentance spiritual growth and maturity.
Living in a World of Idols
Some may argue, on the basis that we don’t have statues of idols in our homes and on our buildings like they had in the ancient world, that people today don’t have idols or engage in idolatry in the modern world today. Christians, particularly, may refuse to see idols in their lives, as they profess to worship only one God. However, biblically speaking this is a naive defense that must be confronted if there is to be any progress toward spiritual growth and maturity.
David Clarkson, Puritan writer and Presbyterian minister in London (1622-1686), wrote an excellent piece addressing the idols of the heart entitled, Soul Idolatry Excludes Men Out of Heaven. In his exposition of Ephesians 5:5-7, from a distinctively Puritan perspective, Clarkson discusses the inner workings of the idolatry of the human heart and the inordinate passions people develop for the things in their life.
Indeed, every reigning lust is an idol, and every person in whom it reigns is an idolater. ‘The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life,’ i. e. pleasures, and riches, and honors, are the carnal man’s trinity, the three great idols of worldly men, to which they prostrate their souls; and giving that to them which is due only to God, they hereby become guilty of idolatry… In Satan’s kingdom, everyone bowing himself to his lust worships it as an idol.2
Clarkson makes the point that spiritual idolatry is not any different, and perhaps worse, than physical idolatry where one physically bows to a statue or material thing. Clarkson is correct, for on this basis, one can make practically anything at all an idol. With this in mind, John Calvin wrote, “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”3 Idols are false gods to which we attach ourselves for desired favors.
The phrase “idols of the heart” is found in Ezekiel 14:1–11, where the prophet describes the elders of the people as having idols in their hearts.4 Ezekiel writes, “these men have set up their idols in their hearts and put right before their faces the stumbling block of iniquity…(Ezekiel 14:3). Craig Keener says, “Ezekiel is likely reacting to some practices that the Israelites in exile have been adopting from their hosts.”5 Alex Jassen states, “The metaphor expresses that one’s inner disposition toward sin has not changed, notwithstanding the outward appearance of acceptance of membership in the covenant community.”6 With this we may conclude, regardless of the profession of Israel to be within the community of faith and part of God’s elect covenant community, in their hearts they were not true to Yahweh and were unfaithful to Him.
Paul, writing to the church in Colossae writes,
Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore, consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry
Paul calls the Colossians to a new moral vision, one that is determined by their solidarity with the triumphant, exalted Lord and their experience of dying and being raised with him (Col 3:1, 3). Consequently, they are to seek the “things that are above” and exchange what is earthly for what is heavenly (Col 3:1–2, 5). This vision entails a complete reorientation of their existence, and a radically different way of imagining the world. They must live no longer by the norms and values of the world, but by those of God’s future heavenly kingdom (cf. Col 2:20).7
Paul asserts that because they have died with Christ in baptism, Christians must put to death earthly vices (sexual sins of any sort, impurity in the sense of any immoral intent, passion, lust in the sense of all evil longing, and covetousness) are the characteristic sins of paganism (Col 3:5). They represent not only gross self-seeking but recall the sexual activity that was part of the idolatrous worship of the ancient gods.
The NASB translates the Greek word epithymia as “desire.” This is the strong desire to have what belongs to someone else and/or to engage in an activity which is morally wrong.8 The meaning of this word goes far beyond the mere meanings of greed or covetousness although it certainly includes them. The word implies inordinate or displaced desires and using things and persons for one’s own benefit and self-interest which expands the scope of the condemned vices to include materialism of all sorts. Interestingly, even the Roman moralists of the first century condemned the “accursed love of getting”9 that is so prevalent in our culture today. All of this, Paul says, “amounts to idolatry” (Col 3:5).
Paul challenged the cultural idols
Paul, throughout his ministry challenged the cultural idols of the first century. Paul preached to people is such a way, as to reveal their idolatry, and it changed them. Paul’s preaching reoriented their way of thinking and their worldview, and the way they lived in the world that and it effected the culture. Today, there are many professing Christians who believe in God, and even Jesus Christ, who say they believe but there is no noticeable difference in the way they live. They watch the same movies and TV shows as nonbelievers, and they shop at the same malls and buy the same things as their secular counterparts. I suggest the reason for this is because their idols were never confronted with the gospel when they first believed.
Paul confronted his converts idols with the gospel in such a way that it caused them to change the way they lived (see Acts 19:27). Of course, the most familiar place in Scripture where Paul publicly challenged the philosophical minds of the culture was when he challenged the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). Paul discerned the spiritual temperament of the people and the idolatry throughout the city. Like Paul, we must address the idolatry of one’s heart if we are to make any progress with them with regards to helping them with their emotional problems and spiritual growth.
It cannot be emphasized enough; you will not be very effective with your counseling ministry if you fail to recognize the idolatry in the person’s heart.
You must discover through your discussion with the person their passions and interests and what is meaningful to them. If they become defensive, you will know you have trespassed into an area that is sensitive, perhaps because that is a stronghold of some sort. In doing this, you will be able to identify the idols that take priority in their life and hold them captive. Every person has a set of idols, every culture has idols, every class has a set of idols and every race has a set of idols. Paul knew what these idols were and we also must recognize them.
What is an Idol?
An idol is anything in your life that is so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it. Idolatry is anything that when you look at it and say in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then my life has value and meaning—then I will be complete,” that’s an idol. If you can say, “If I lose that, I don’t know how I would live or go on,” then you have an idol.
You see and idol can be anything. It could be family, career, money, achievement, critical acclaim, social standing, relationship, competence, skill; it could be physical beauty either of yourself or your partner, it could be a political or social cause, it could even be your moral record, religiosity—religious activity or success in ministry. All of these things could be idols and here’s why. When you lose one of these things and it’s a good thing, you’re sad. But if you lose one of these things, and it’s become an ultimate thing, then you feel like dying and you want to throw yourself under a bus. That’s how you know if any of these things have become an idol to you. And, I guarantee, at least one of these things have become idol to you at one time or another.
There’s all kinds of people in the world today, especially in America, who would say, “I believe in God and I even go to church every week,” and yet they are so invested in their career or a relationship that if it goes sideways, or they’re so invested in their ministry that if it fails, they would feel like killing themselves. If this is the case, then it shows that you are in the arms of an idol. When you take a good thing and turn it into an ultimate thing, you’ve created an idol and you will be consumed by it.
Anything, an object, relationship, pursuit or material thing can become an idol to you—especially the best ones can take on the role of deity in your life and deity in the culture. And because Paul, saw idols everywhere, he was a really effective preacher. Paul discerned the idols of his day.
There are three kinds of idols you must expose if you are going to be effective with counseling and discipleship
In order to be effective with counseling and discipleship, you must know what the idols are because the idols stand in opposition to the gospel of Christ. The gospel says you are saved by grace, but the idol says you are saved by something else.
It is one thing to say you are saved by grace and not by works, but do you realize how many other forms of works there are? Do you really understand how many various forms of works-righteousness there are out there? Unless you know what form you’re talking to—what idol, how do you know how to apply to gospel to it?
Here are the three most common idols that must be exposed:
- Personal idols
- Religious idols, and
- Cultural idols
Every individual, Christian or not, because we’re sinners and we don’t want to believe we’re justified by grace and we don’t want to rely on God and Christ for our salvation, we want to rely on something else. However, any life that’s not built on God’s grace and salvation through Christ is going to be built on the deification of something else. It’s going to be built on turning something else into a pseudo-savior so the person can save themselves without going to God, so they think they have things under control all by themselves, but this is only an illusion. Romans 1 says this is the progress on how sin works itself out in our lives. It is always idolatry. Americans are proud of their rugged self-reliance and self-sufficiency, but this too is an idol because too many elevate it in the place of God and rely on themselves rather than God.10
Let me illustrate for you now by giving you the three main personal idols that we find common in counseling and discipleship today:
We live in a world where children, and families, are sacrificed for the sake of business and money. Parents leave their children in the wee hours of the morning to catch the bus, train, plane to get to the office bright and early to prepare for the dreaded Monday morning meeting, and then arrive home late at night, hopefully at least before the kids have to go to bed. The only time parent enslaved by a career have for their children is on the weekend (provided they don’t have to work), and then they are really too tired to do well with their kids. If you want to survive in the business world today you have to sacrifice your family, for our economy is structured that way and companies demand it. There is absolutely no way to be a good father or mother in the world today if you’re a working parent. Now, some people willingly sacrifice for career and money because they have spent their entire lives working towards the dream. But if this describes you, you have become ensnared by an evil taskmaster of an idol and you need set free.
Another Personal idol is romance. If you love someone it is very powerful, and this is a very difficult line to draw for most people. But if you look to that person for your sense of worth and value and importance in life, they have become, or the relationship has become and idol to you. There are a number of problems with the pathology involved with the idol of romance. First, if you feel like you’re a nobody unless this person loves you, then first of all, you will place no boundaries on the relationship. So naturally you will engage in premarital sex because there are no boundaries because the relationship is everything. As a result, most of your relationships will most likely fail because the demands on the partner will be too great, so this means you will have multiple failing relationships, partners, leading to illegitimate children and so on. Idolizing romance and relationships will always be destructive, and will always lead to disaster, hurt and pain.
How do you know if your love relationship is a true love relationship or if it has become an idol? One way to test your relationship is to discover whether you have boundaries. If your idol can do anything it wants to you and you can’t stop it then it’s an idol. If your partner can lie, cheat and steal from you, then the relationship has become an idol. If they can physically or sexually abuse you, then they’re an idol. In such cases, the romance has become and evil taskmaster that has enslaved you and you need Jesus to step in and set you free.
Another common idol in America today is our children. Now, in the evangelical world we don’t think of children as idols, but if you ever observe people with their children at church it becomes very apparent who is running who ragged and what is going on in the home. There are all kinds of parents out there who are essentially looking at their children, and in their hearts they say to themselves, “If my children are happy, if my children are doing well with their education and occupationally, then that means I’m a good parent and I know I’m worth something. In other words, the parent’s identity and self-worth is tied to their children. Let me tell you, if that’s the way you look at your children, as ultimate things, and you live your life that way, the child is either going to stay near you and live a crushed life because it is crushing to live under the weight of that kind of expectation, or they will run as far away from you as possible because you’ve turned that child into an idol and it will wound them in such a way that they may never get over it. And let me tell you, you will be mad and blame God for it, but the depth of the wound is your own making.
Unless you understand personal idols and idolatry, your ministry will only be superficial because you will never get down below the surface problems and touch the heart. Laying theological concepts on people and poignant stories will never touch them in a way that shakes them loose from the bondage of their idols. You have to address the passions—the idols.
A religious idol is something the person is looking to, instead of God, for salvation. Just as money worshipers think they’re just hard working, and child worshipers think they’re just loving their kids, those who worship religious idols think they’re very devoted to God but they’re not.
There are very busy people in the church, some of them are pastors, elders, deacons, children’s ministry workers and worship leaders; and they’re all serving idols rather than the true and living God because they’re trusting in their service rather than the grace received through the saving work of Christ.
It is a fallacy to think that we don’t have cultural idols in the US today. Many people are from cultures with traditions and in these cultures the idol is the family. Individualism is completely gone, and the idol is the family and it runs the life. In these cultures, the family takes precedence over all else and its often a slave master. Conversely, with Western Culture the pendulum swings to the other extreme where rugged individualism drives people to other extremes where they are solely on their own trying to make themselves. With Western individualism it’s all about the individual and their feelings and dreams that become absolute whether they’re wrong or right it doesn’t matter.
One of the greatest, I use the term great because they have the most cultural influence, cultural idols of our time are celebrities; the actors and actresses, the athletes and entertainers. They capture our hearts and bring joy and laughter and we love them for it. However, too many in today’s culture worship these idols and even seek to imitate them and duplicate their influence and this is destructive and can be devastating to the person who idolizes these individuals.
Setting Captives Free from Idolatry
Once the particular idol(s) have been exposed, we must then proceed to discover what the underlying assumptions are that motivated the person toward their particular idolatry. There are several ways of addressing the idols in a person’s life, we will point out the limitations of the first two, and then discuss why the third approach is the proven option for success.
The Moral Approach
The first approach is the moral approach. This is the approach many pastors use when addressing those seeking spiritual care. The moral approach says: “Your problem is that you are sinning because you’re a sinner. Repent, and stop!” The problem with this approach is it doesn’t go far enough to address the root and motivation for the behavior. I will discuss this more in future articles, but for now it must be said that this approach only deals with the behavior and ignores the reason the person has engaged in the behavior. We must discover what inordinate desires are working and the idols and false beliefs behind them. Simply to tell the person to “repent and change their life” isn’t very helpful to the person. The person must see what led them to their current state in order to repent and change the direction of their behavior.
Most of the people I counsel already recognize they have a problem, and many come to me confessing that they are on their way to Hell. Confession isn’t their problem, but self-control is the issue. The idol makes promises to them, “If you have me, then everything will be OK—then you’ll appear smarter, more attractive, more desirable, more successful—then your life will have meaning and significant, etc.” We must address this errant thinking and the basic assumptions of the person in order to help them make progress with changing their course of action and behavior. It is the mentor/discipler/counselor’s job, then, to help the person replace this basic assumption—the one sin under it all which is the particular idolatry.
The Psychology Approach
The second approach is the psychology approach. The psychology approach says: “Your problem is that you don’t see that God loves you as you are.” With this approach the focus is placed on the person’s feelings, and again it doesn’t go far enough to unmask the motivations of the heart. We must discover the reason why the person doesn’t feel loved, or what inordinate desires are working and the false beliefs behind their idolatry. Simply saying to the person, “God loves you” doesn’t help, because the idolatry is coming from the errant basic assumption that says: “You’re not worthy of God’s love.” We must address the basic assumptions that are causing the behavior before we will see a changed heart and changed life.
The Gospel Truth Approach
The final, and best approach, to deal with the idols of one’s heart is the “Gospel Truth Approach.” The Gospel Truth says: “Your problem is that you are looking to, and placing your trust, in something other than God to fulfill your need.” This confronts the idolatrous behavior, as well as the underlying basic assumption and sin that serve as a basis for the behavior. Every idol is at the center of some system of “works-righteousness” where the person is trying to earn their way by sacrificing to the idol in order to fulfill their emotional needs of meaning and significance or simply meet their material needs.
Only when the person begins to realize their identity in Christ will they discover freedom to break free from their bondage to idolatry and the behavior will change. Paul writes, “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. However, at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods” (Galatians 4:7–8). With a new identity, the chains may be broken, and the person can then move forward in freedom toward spiritual maturity to serve the true and living God.
Questions for Reflection
- Is there anything in your life that has become so important to you that the thought of living without it is devastating to you?
- Anything other than God that has become ultimate in your life is sin, because it has taken the place of God in your life. Have you made efforts in the past to repent of your idolatry?
- Idolatry is often an indication of a deeper spiritual problem of failing to recognize your inheritance as a child of God and identity in Christ. God gave His Son to pay the price to secure a rich eternal inheritance for you. Have you given any thought toward this Scriptural truth? If so, what are you doing to move forward in the reality of this truth?
- E. Adams, The Biblical View of Self-Esteem Self-Love, and Self-Image (Eugene: Harvest House, 1986).
- David Clarkson, The Works of David Clarkson, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 300.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 108.
- Lou Going, “Modern Idolatry: Understanding and Overcoming the Attraction of Your Broken Cisterns,” ed. David A. Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Number 3, Spring 2002 20 (2002): 46.
- Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 1351.
- Alex P. Jassen, “Rule of the Community,” in Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture: Commentary, ed. Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2013), 2932.
- Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 227–228.
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 290. Also see, XEN. 1.1.5; Hom. 19.18 Franco Montanari, ed. Madeleine Goh and Chad Schroeder, The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015).
- Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Reading Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians : A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament Series (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys Publishing, 2007), 51–52.
- It should be noted how the temptations of Christ presented three main forms of spiritual idolatry: possessions (Matt. 4:3), prestige and self-esteem (Matt. 4:6; Luke 4:9) and, power (Matt. 4:8-9; Luke 4:6-7; cf. Jas. 4:6, 10). Any one, or all, may become a personal idol to a person. At the same time, it should also be recognized that these, although idols to men, were not idols to Christ, but merely symbols of temptations of man that Christ overcame victorious in his triumph over the flesh and Satan.
- All Scripture cited is from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.