When we value something more than we value God, we do two things. One is we suppress the truth of God, and two is that we question the character of God. This is what idolatry is, and why it’s such a big deal.
The thing about idols is that they are usually not bad things, but they become bad when we value them more than God. Most Christians wouldn’t say they value anything more than God, but our idols aren’t revealed until they are threatened. The Lord is a big threat to our idols. The Lord says,
“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” Isaiah 42:8
One of the common ways to spot idols is looking at the points of pain in our lives. Sometimes our pain is because the world is broken. Other times pain is because we want something, but can’t and shouldn’t have it. One of the questions we can ask ourselves is, “where do you feel like God is unfair in your life?” I wrote this article to help us identify idols.
Tim Keller in his book, Counterfeit Gods, groups idols into two categories: Surface and Source Idols. Surface idols are easier to spot. Source idols are the heart of our idolatry. Surface idols are a lot easier to treat, but like a weed, cutting the problem at the surface just leads it to sprout out somewhere else. There are 4 source idols. Remember:
IT’S NOT BAD TO DESIRE THESE THINGS. THEY BECOME IDOLS WHEN THEY BECOME MORE IMPORTANT THAN GOD.
Comfort Idolatry: The person with a comfort idol seeks comfort. They want privacy. They want a lack of stress. They want freedom. What they’re willing to pay for that is productivity. They do not care about productivity. Their greatest nightmare is stress and demands. Others often feel hurt by those who worship comfort, because laziness always has collateral damage. The problem emotion of those who worship comfort is boredom. They’re people who are constantly bored. Boredom haunts them, because they have not been designed by God to sit around and do nothing. Worshipers of comfort see other people, even those closest to them, as potential obstacles to their comfort. Not surprisingly, then, authentic relationships do not come easily and, as a result, the person is only invested if the relationship provides an adequate layer of insulation. The funny thing about the promise of the comfort god is it never delivers what it promises. Though comfort is not a bad thing, comfort makes a terrible god.
Approval idolatry: Worshipers of approval ultimately seek the love and respect of [fill in the blank]. They want affirmation. They want love. They want relationships. The price they’re willing to pay for that is independence. They don’t want to be independent. They need somebody in their life. They don’t want space at all. Their greatest nightmare is rejection.
Their problem emotion is cowardice. What they feel and have to work with all the time is the fact that they’re a coward: they lack a spine. What that means is with this group they’re like, “I know; I hate him. I don’t know why he’s like that.” Then over here they’re like, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite guys ever.”
Approval worshipers often overcommit, overpromise, and overstate in order to gain affirmation from others. They are radically insecure in their identity in Christ and fear rejection of people above a biblical fear of God or a hatred of sin. This leads to worry about what others think of them. Often those closest to someone with an approval idol feel smothered by the neediness of the idolater, whose desire to be loved cannot realistically be met by a mere human being.
Control Idolatry: What a control worshiper seeks is control. They want self-discipline, certainty, standards. The price they’re willing to pay is loneliness and loss of spontaneity. The greatest nightmare is uncertainty. Others often feel condemned. One of the sentences out of a control worshiper’s mouth is often, “Why can’t you just…?” The problem emotion for those who worship control is worry.
The mantra of a true control worshiper is, “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself.” We see this in how they handle their money. We see this in how they handle the people around them. We see this in how they micromanage every area of their life. There is no peace. There is no rest. There is always something to be afraid of.
A control worshiper seeks to control their environment and discover they can’t, so they worry, which then forces them to try to control it all the more, which only helps them see they can’t control it, which leads to greater worry, which then makes them want to control it even more. They get stuck in this cycle where anxiety and worry dominates their lives.
Power idolatry: What you seek when you worship power is power. We would define that as success, winning, influence. The price you’re willing to pay is to be burdened or to bear the responsibility. This is power. “I’ll bear it. I’ll do it. I’ll handle it. I’ve got it. If it can make more of me, if it can build me up, give me more influence, more power, I’ll do it.”
The greatest nightmare of somebody who worships power is humiliation. It’s not just about winning; it’s about not losing. Others around those who worship power most often feel used. Why? Because the person who worships power doesn’t love you or even like you. They use you to increase their influence, to increase their power. Their relationship with you is built on what you can bring to them to exalt and elevate their power and influence.
The problem emotion for those who worship power is always anger. Another way to describe the power worshiper is to say that their primary motivation in life is not so much to win as it is to avoid losing. Their heart is most often exposed when they lose or they feel humiliated. Those who struggle with power not only tend to be violent people but they will oftentimes struggle with things like gambling and addiction to games where they can win.
Some of us may find that we have one, two, three, or even all four of these things as idols. It can be disheartening, but it’s the same situation for the person with one or all four. They both need to rely on God to fix them. No one can do it on our own.
The revelation of idols in our lives should always humble us and lead us to praise. We are humbled because we realize we need God. We’re not as good at being righteous than we thought we were. It also leads us to praise because God fully accepts us and forgives us for our sins. We can’t fix ourselves or get rid of our idols on our own. It’s a difficult process, but it makes our relationship with God deeper.