Combatting Idolatry in Our Lives

Combatting Idolatry in Our Lives

by | Sep 29, 2020 | Idolatry, Killing Sin

You might have heard the phrase in your life (maybe by your parents) that ‘you are what you eat’. Now, obviously we know that our parents or teacher isn’t telling us that if we eat enough doughnuts or pizza that we will literally turn into that food but our bodies to some extent will resemble the nutritional choices that we make. When we consider the Biblical world, the same principle stands out when considering idolatry. The reason behind this is that you and I are hardwired to reflect what we deeply revere, whether for restoration or for ruin. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, you’ll find God creating everything from oceans, to land, to fruit trees and even animals. Lastly, the design of Genesis 1 and 2 detail God creating humanity. This humanity is said to be made “in the image of God”. Now, that’s an odd way to expound on the creation of humankind, but it’s a type of language that is intentionally drawing you closer to consider something deeper about our dignity, value, purpose, and worth. At its core focus, you and I have been created and enabled to represent, reflect, and rule like God does.

Genesis 3 contours the tragic but highly significant story of Adam and Eve showing the first instance of deciding to place their allegiances and reflections in themselves rather than God. The results of this broken partnership run through the entire Bible pointing to the main issue that God seeks to redeem: humans reflecting things that are not Him. Trace any story in the Old Testament and you’re more than likely to find the conflicted nature of God’s people weighing the options to trust in the God who had delivered them and sought to bless them, or to embrace the idols of the surrounding nations. In general, we will reflect someone, something, an idea, a feature of the world, or God Himself. We will ultimately become what we worship and take on the characteristics of the thing we most revere, whether for restoration or ruin. 

So where does this sit with us in today’s culture? We must guard against the notion that idolatry is an archaic remnant of a bygone era. Instead, to approach the issue of idolatry, we must consider that idolatry takes the form of many nonliteral items such as dead traditions, money, empires, kings, or even prestige (See Ephesians 5, Philippians 3, Colossians 3, 1 John or Romans 1 for some examples). If you’ve ever thought, “Why did I do that?” or, “Why do I struggle to trust God? (or others?)”, or maybe “Why do I have such a strong emotional reaction to ____ person/place/situation?”. Moreover, maybe you’re deeply afraid of something but unsure why. In most of these cases, there’s a possibility that there is an idol at the bottom. Idolatry is alive within all of us and must be confronted in order to live into the image we’ve been created for. So how do we confront idols? I have 5 steps for us to consider. 

1) Identifying Ourselves

One of the most powerful and meaningful ways to engage with our brokenness and idols to understand what is at work beneath the surface is to simply begin to acknowledge who we are. Being able to ground ourselves in our identity is crucial. As we begin to peel back the layers, we must ground ourselves in a few truths; 1) We are made in the image of God and fabricated in love, intention, purpose, dignity, and honor. 2) Genesis 3 has marred our intentions, actions, thoughts, emotions, and fractured our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. 3) If you follow Jesus, you are united with Him. His love has rescued you from darkness to light. You are forgiven, found, home, and now a part of a narrative that exceeds time. God’s purpose in your redemption is to mend this broken world. 4) You are now a part of a story that has a living hope. This hope is the one of future restoration and mending of all things. God is the process of re-Edenizing the entire world. Ephesians 1:10 says it best: “All things in heaven and Earth are being united in Christ.”. We’re on our way to a world without pain, suffering, and brokenness. 

Because we only experience this in part, we strive towards the newness and wait upon Jesus’ return. The kingdom is breaking through, and because of Jesus, we are enabled to participate.

2) Identifying the Surface

Once we understand who we are and why we’re here, we can begin to dive into the fractures and brokenness of Genesis 3 in our own lives. Our first stop is surface issues. The best way to understand this is to simply ask yourself, “What are your current pain points in your life? Where do you feel like you’re misfiring?” It’s intentionally open-ended to allow for a dialogue either with yourself, with God, or someone else to feel out where you might be trying to find identity outside of God. Feel free to use the list below to see if there are any idols you feel or think you might identify with. 

Surface Idols

Power Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I have power and influence over others. 

Approval Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am loved and respected by _____________________. 

Comfort Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” 

Image Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I have a particular kind of look or body image.” 

Control Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____________________. 

Helping Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…people are dependant on me and need me.” 

Dependence Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” 

Independence Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” 

Work Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am highly productive, getting a lot done.” 

Achievement Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am being recognized for my accomplishments, if I am excelling in my career.” 

Materialism Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions. 

Religion Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am adhering to my religious moral codes and accomplished in it activities.” 

Individual Person Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…this one person is in my life and happy there and/or happy with me.” 

Irreligion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and with a self-made morality.” 

Racial/cultural idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” 

Inner Ring Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” 

Family Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…my children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” 

Relationship Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…Mr. or Mrs. ‘Right’ is in love with me.” 

Suffering Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…I am hurting, in a problem—only then do I feel noble or worthy of love or am able to deal with guilt.” 

Ideology Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if…my political or social cause or party is making progress and ascending in influence or power.”

3) Identifying Source

The next step is to dig a bit deeper. The insidious nature of idolatry is that most of us wouldn’t say “My life is only worth living if____”. This tendency means that we’re far more likely to dismiss our idols as passions, truth, points of character, or even as strengths. To some degree, this might be true! But when good things become ultimate things, and when we begin to place our full allegiance, life, and existence upon one or many things of this nature, we’ve been deceived into a silent anesthesia of idolatry. This robs us of the opportunity we have to participate with God through Jesus (remember who you are? You’re with Him! You’re His temple!) To be the temple means to take our lives seriously enough that we’re willing to look into our deep thirst for Jesus in a weary world. Our source idols are the deepest places that we’ve replaced God’s truth about ourselves, about the world, and about His story for a lie (or many lies.). Essentially, these areas are the ones we’ve co-opted the Gospel for a lesser version that seems to fit what makes us happy, secure, and functioning as our own gods. As offensive as this might sound, Romans 1 gently informs us that this actually is how most of humanity has had its way in this world: exchanging the truth of God for a lie. In order for us to savor Jesus as our rock of refuge, for us to participate in the breaking in of the kingdom, we’ve been enabled to savor the Gospel and let it work on us. Not just because we’re trying to become some super-Christians (worst superhero, ever, by the way), but because this is simply the path that leads to the most joy. Moreover than just joy, this is what God has designed us for! To partner and co-rule with Him! To do so means we surrender anything that would seduce us away from this highly complex and beautiful vocation. Take a moment to walk through the big four source idols and see if you identify with any of them. 


Source Idols

If you seek POWER (success, winning, influence)…

Your greatest nightmare: Humiliation 

People around you often feel: Used 

Your problem emotion: Anger

If you seek APPROVAL (affirmation, love, relationships)…

Your greatest nightmare: Rejection 

People around you often feel: Smothered 

Your problem emotion: Cowardice

If you seek COMFORT (privacy, lack of stress, freedom)…

Your greatest nightmare: Stress, demands 

People around you often feel: Neglected 

Your problem emotion: Boredom

If you seek CONTROL (self-discipline, certainty, standards)…

Your greatest nightmare: Uncertainty 

People around you often feel: Condemned 

Your problem emotion: Worry

4) Identifying the Significance

So, what’s the point? Now that we’ve done all this work, where do we go? We go to Christ. We go to the Gospel. On our way, we’ll need to consider one last element to combating idolatry (and in a broader sense, all sin): we must grapple with the significance of the sin or idol we’re combatting. What I mean is that it is one thing to say, “I have an idolatry of approval”, but it’s quite another to say, “My approval idol most plainly come out when I don’t receive the recognition I feel I deserve, so I treat others bitterly, secretly work harder to impress those around me, but all the while, I’m depressed and can’t cope with my perceived failure.” 

See the difference? One part says, “Yes, I have an idol.” But the other takes into account the gravity of the idol. One is able to admit that it exists, but yet it is wholly another space to figure out it’s patterns, instances, and breakdowns. To understand our idols, the diligent work of learning it’s oddities, strengths, and cycles is crucial in our fighting of it. For instance, if someone struggles with the source idol of control, and their surface idol is materialism/wealth, this person might have a perpetual fear of simply never having enough money to survive, even when in their mind they must accumulate millions of dollars to feel safe. This person might take time to think to themselves maybe if their family of origin had anything to do with their fear of poverty? Maybe their family was relatively wealthy and $200 here and $2000 there was nothing. But in college where money is tight and independence is daily activity, maybe there was a moment where they were shamed for not being able to buy lunch or pitch in for pizza? Another consideration could be that they’ve simply never taken the time to understand how money works and thus the only way to truly know that they can be secure is to make and save as much money as possible, just in case the worst happens. As much as we can consider the in’s and out’s in theory, this is the type of work is spirit led. This work is not just a whiteboard activity or idea mapping. This is heart level work that seeks to figure out the ways our hearts tend to slant away from the security and significance of the gospel and move to manipulation of God’s truth to serve our idols. To spend time examining, rotating, and asking God to show you all the angles of an idol is what helps us sit in the gravity of our idolatry. From here, it becomes clear where this idol has taken root. But where it’s rooted, it can be extracted. 

5) Embracing Repentance

Embracing repentance, reconciliation, and hope Extracting will feel like the most odd part of the entire process so far. To what end do we actually do anything about this? Our first step is to repent. Now, before you get upset at a churchy word, let me first just say that repent simply means “to turn”. That’s it. In the Old Testament, the prophets (and God!) would routinely encourage the people to repent of their sins. Our world might caricaturize this to look super strict and angry but the reality is that those who hold this view are simply misinformed of the dynamics of repentance. God’s repentance led to reconciliation and hope. Not anger and abuse. The point of the repenting was that it was an opportunity for those who found themselves out of step with God to turn back around, walk towards the fork in the road, and pick a different path. Once again, that’s all it means. It means you’re willing to actually listen to the person who says to you, “You’ve gone the wrong way! Wrong road! Go back and take a left, then you’ll be where you wanna go!” If we could get that through to our hearts, I think we could redeem the word repent for the next generations so no one thinks it involves anything scary or ugly. Obviously though, it’s not a joke or something to be taken lightly. The words of God were given to Israel to keep the covenant faithful or to keep them from leading themselves to destruction. In the same way, we should view repentance as the same thing. To repent means that in word, deed, and thought, we’re taking our sin seriously to say, “I am sorry, Lord save me and deliver me from this.” The hope of the Gospel is that there is power in Jesus. I know, it sounds crazy. But the point is that if Jesus conquered death and was able to usher the New Kingdom to Earth and begin His reconciliation of all things, then I would probably say that’s powerful. The most I can do is make a cup of coffee and maybe hit a 3-pointer if I warm up for 20 minutes. The power of the Gospel is the forgiveness of sin, it’s the status of “son” and “daughter” that you now have in God’s family. It’s the co-ruling with Jesus that was meant to always be like in Genesis 1-2. It’s the power to unveil sin to us that we might let the spirit remove idols and encourage us to want to combat them. So yes, it is powerfully spiritual but it’s also deeply physical and practical. 

Sometimes, this takes the form of adjusting our lifestyles, gathering community to help, or even seeking a counselor to help root out this idol. For our friend who struggles with money, it could look like them taking a financial course at their church or sitting with a financial planner who can explain money in a way that helps ease their heart and free up more space, time, and energy for other things. It could also look like being able to meditate on truth when the welling anxiety builds around money to simply say, “Jesus is enough and He will provide for me. He always has. He always will”. This may take time, but in word, deed, behavior, community, and with the help of a counselor, pastor, staff member, or even a spouse, these idols begin to loosen their grip. The possibility of these idols being brought to destruction only happens through Jesus and our trust in Him. The reconciling effect of this is tremendous, not just simply because we can qualify it as success, but because once again, we’re re introduced to more and more ways in which we experience the kingdom breaking through in us and in our lives. How might we practice this and reflect on our hope in Jesus? Rejoicing. In the Bible, it is much deeper than simply being happy about something. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), but this cannot mean “always feel happy,” since he also said that every day he was weighted with concern and anxiety over a church (2 Cor. 11:28-29). What you rejoice in is the thing that is what brings you ruin or restoration. To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it. For us, this means that all competing ideas, people, comforts, securities, successes, jobs, and even our church activity, simply do not compare to the sweetness and hope of Jesus. 

Ultimately, I must include a disclaimer and also an encouragement. Jesus, taking your sins to the cross paid for all of our failure, sin, and idols so that now, through faith, we might experience the freedom of forgiveness, restoration, and hope. Yet, I promise that in this life, you will mostly likely uncover one idol 

and then find another. And who knows, you might see one pop back up. Yes, you might find this game of whack-a-mole exhausting, but this also is not evidence that you’re doing something wrong. We will experience both the sweetest joys of rest and love in Jesus, in His community, and also in the hope that we have in Him, but also we’ll wrestle through the craftiness of sin. Let me be clear: keep rejoicing. Keep fighting sin. Keep pushing on. If there was one word to sum up all the New Testament letters sent to the new churches across the ancient world it was “Endure”. To endure means we look at where we are right now, we glance at where we’re going, and we keep moving towards it, even if we’re so far away we feel paralyzed. Beloved, keep moving. Keep striving. I’ll also be clear, you cannot do this alone. You won’t fight any idol successfully if no one else knows what you’re going through. In your friend group, small group, spouse, counselor, pastor, staff member, whoever you would consider trustworthy, these people will need to run alongside you. Without them, you will find this journey to be very lopsided and filled with self-contempt. God’s redemption is not a lone wolf endeavor and I would not recommend you try it. It’s a community story and it’s lived together, not alone. You may even need to repeat the steps again and again. Guess what? That’s okay! This is an opportunity for us to grow in our holiness, our partnering with God. What motivates us to not the accomplishment of being cleaned up, arrived, and transcended. It’s the fact that this leads to greater love, deeper intimacy with God and others, it allows us to take more risks, to view the world in a way that aligns more with how God sees things, we’re able to feel pain and joy more like God does. We’re able to have sympathy and justice in the ways that God does. 

Our motivation is that there’s a greater joy that sits within this process and it’s primarily situated in reflecting the goodness of our God. Our motivation is that there’s a greater story that sits within this process and it’s primarily situated in the redemptive arc of God’s love. Our motivation is that there’s a greater hope that sits within this process and it’s primarily situated in the personhood of Jesus. 


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