A fellow Christian sent the following to a Christian distribution list I’m on:
“Dear all, This is probably the best definition of idolatry, I have heard, made by Tim Keller – ‘Idolatry is making good things the ultimate thing'”
Here’s my reply to him:
Ultimately, idolatry is that you worship yourself rather than God. Let’ start with James:
James 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God “; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin ; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
This passage is the basic theology of sin – sins starts with our desires and when we let our desires control us (by focusing and feeding), they become lusts (the Greek word for lust has a intensifying preposition on it literally meaning “over-desire” and carries this meaning in all passages of Scripture). In other words, we put our desires first, focus on them and then choose to please ourselves – we put ourselves first. But what does the Bible teach about who should be first?
Deut 6:5 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Matt 22:35 One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law ?” 37 And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.
Notice the “all” frequency! That means 100%! Why? When you do less than 100%, you are loving yourself and seeking to please yourself instead of God. I do not love God at ALL times with ALL of me – I’m loving myself part of that time! God is a jealous God and will have no other gods before him (Ex 20:1-6)! Ultimately, the “god” you replace him with is yourself. Many will teach that pride is the bottom-line sin behind all sins. But, you can go one step further and see that pride is really self-worship because you seek to please yourself.
Another way to get at this and to see one other piece of the puzzle is to think about specific idols (“idols of the heart” as Ezekiel calls them). You mentioned “career, money, sex…”. The key is that all of those are a means to an end. You make an idol of money BECAUSE it will bring you pleasure, happiness, or whatever. In other words, it will satisfy a desire you have! The purpose of all specific idols is to please the ultimate idol – our self! Every specific idol satisfies a desire that has become a lust and we’re back to James 1:14-15 again! The reason people get confused and stop at the specific idols is because the Bible does teach that you become enslaved to specific idols – they become your Master. That’s the ugly secret of idols. Your “lust” from self-idolatry drives you to disobey God to be satisfied and you end up being controlled by it. 2 Peter 2:19 says “by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved”! But the root is still your lust! James speaks directly to this in James 4:1-3. In a book written to Christians, he writes:
James 4:1 What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members ? 2 You lust and do not have ; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain ; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
Now there’s a passage that shows the ugliness of our self-idolatry! Christians will murder, fight and quarrel for their lusts! Those words describing our motives are very strong! “Pleasures” in V.1 is the root for our word “hedonism.” It is the selfish, uncontrolled, personal need to fulfill every passion that promises sensual satisfaction and enjoyment. 2 Timothy 3:2-4 shows how it is part of self-idolatry…”lovers of pleasure rather than lover of God.” “Lust” (v.2) is the same word as James 1 – “over-desire’ (epithumeo) and is a controlling, ruling desire. “Envious” in v.2 is the root for our word “zealous” and is the STRONGER brother to “lust”! – it is a stronger, more compelling desire than lust! This passage is a vivid example of how we self-worship and that leads to pleasures, lusts and envies that become controlling idols – to the point that we CHRISTIANS will murder, fight and quarrel!
I could also show you this by contrast of Col 3:-4 with Col 3:5. 3:5 is actually a grammatical downward process with idolatry at the root of the others!
I’ll finish with this thought – self-worship, self-idolatry, whatever you want to call it – is a gradual, slow descent into controlling sin that becomes your idol. First, you start by NOT loving God with all your heart, mind and soul – you are not 100% focused on him. You take a small, but critical step away from Him – toward yourself! You leave Matthew 22:35-38 and stray over into James 1:14-15 when you focus too long on a desire and you let it grow into a lust. Remember – this is how ALL sin occurs – don’t put “lust” in some super-sin category! It is simply ANY desire that you let control you because you CHOOSE to worship yourself and, hence, please yourself rather than God in that area. Finally, you become a slave to that lust (2 Peter 2:19) and the Bible will call it an idol in addition to a lust! But the ROOT of all this is self-idolatry / self-worship. Even in being controlled by an idol, it is the satisfaction that it gives you that you stay controlled for!
And, finally, application. Do you want to know the specific idols/lusts that you have? There’s lots of ways to get at this, but I’ll leave just two questions: (1) How you live in private? Both in action and thought – what do you when there’s no one to see? (remember Hebrews 4:14 – everything you think and do is a performance for God before His throne!), and (2) Where do you spend your time? Eliminate the things God commands us to do where your attitude is properly for the glory of God. What’s left is what you do to glorify yourself (which would be OK if you were glorifying God!) AND what you do that is sin! And, what are things God commands you to do that you are NOT doing? Look at how Job examined his life and do the same (Job 31-32:1)!
What then do you confront? The idol of money, career, etc. OR idol of self? Answer: both. But the real key to stopping all future idolatry is to deal with the self-worship you have allowed in your life.
If you want to continue this some time, we can turn to the other side of the coin. Instead of self-worship, God has given us His Son, Jesus Christ, to be our 100% focus. We focus on a Person NOT on the commands of the Bible, etc. We live to please Christ (2 Cor 5:9) and become like him (2 Cor 3:18) and minister to all other Christians to become like Him (Col 1:28)! Christian is a Person. Period!