What do you think of when you think of an idol? Some think of statues of stone. Perhaps you think of metal and wooden figures that ignorant, primitive tribal people construct and bow down to. When we think of idols and idol worshipers, we do not tend to think of ourselves as bowing down before false gods. That’s what “those” people do. “Idol worship? You’re kidding right? I may struggle with my temper sometimes, or perhaps I succumb to anxiety occasionally and I know that’s not good. But whatever my sins and temptations are, at least idol worship isn’t one of them!”
Biblical counselor David Powlison believes idol worship is a bigger problem than many of us might realize. In his article, “Idols of the heart and Vanity Fair” he writes that “Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures. The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry.”
This is what Brad Bigney argues in a book that just rocked my world. In his book, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with hidden idols, Bigney puts his finger on idolatry as being at the core of our struggles with sin. Bigney draws our attention to Scriptures all over the Bible that help to expose us as idol worshipers. Consider the following:
“Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. (Ezekiel 14:3 ESV)
Here we see that the root of idol worship is in our hearts. A Scripture that really brings things into further focus is Col 3:5 which says,
Put to death therefore…covetousness, which is idolatry.
Now, what is coveting? John Piper gives us a helpful definition. Coveting is a desire for things (good or bad) that is stronger than it should be—a kind of desire that reflects a lack of satisfaction in God. I would add to that by saying that your world begins to revolve around this desire more than it revolves around God. The thing that you are coveting is something that is taking the place of God in the sense that you are banking on this thing for ultimate peace, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, meaning, security, etc. In other words you are expecting from this thing what you should be expecting from God. Instead of turning to God you are turning to this thing. Now, with that background in mind, let me give you Brad Bigney’s definition of an idol.
An idol is anything or anyone that captures our hearts, minds, and affections more than God.
Ever struggle with this? Welcome to the club. You are surrounded by idol worshipers. How are everyday sins grounded in idolatry? Bigney explains,
Idolatry is a big deal because it infiltrates and takes over the heart-the nerve center-determining the way we sin, when we sin, with whom we sin. Think of a bicycle wheel. The hub is the heart where the idols are. Each spoke is a specific sin, and you can trace each sin back to the hub-the heart.
In this war against sin, you must not be satisfied to simply stop sinning. As you work with your kids, with yourself, and with your spouse, identifying your heart’s idols can help you understand why you become so irritable, why you raise your voice…Anger, irritability, and verbal outbursts are indicative of heart issues gone awry. When you react to someone else, what is it that you are protecting? What is it that you must have? Husbands, doesn’t the Bible say that our wives should respect us? Yes. But if you go around with the old “respect me” chip on your shoulder, constantly telling yourself, “My wife must respect me,” you will inevitably be hypervigilant and hypersensitive; you will be perpetually angry, doggedly policing your wife’s behavior, because for you, respect is not just something that God commands your wife to do, but something that you think you must have in order to be happy.
Warning: Do not read Gospel Treason unless you are serious about change in your life. Once you read it, you’ll find it very difficult to worry about the speck in other people’s eyes as Bigney helps us see the massive 2×4 in our own eyes! This happened with me just the other day as I realized that some of my recent ugly responses to people in my family were rooted in certain idols buried deep in my heart. It wasn’t pleasant to face or admit, but it was oh so necessary.
Bigney explains that the conflicts we have with others can often be traced back to our own sinful desires. The Bible puts it this way:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3 ESV)
You think, I must be respected,” or “I must be…whatever,” and it causes war between you and anyone who gets in the way of that desire. Then you cry out to God in prayer, and still don’t receive because you ask amiss: “God, change her. God, you know I need respect. God, you know how important that is. Get her, God. You go.” But God won’t answer a prayer like that. He’s more likely standing there with a two-by-four, wanting to smack you in the head and say, “Shut up and love her-stop worshiping yourself and thinking you are so important.”
It’s that kind of straight forward talk that makes this book so good and helpful to someone as thick-headed as myself. Bigney shared many examples from his own life or other lives where idolatry paved the way to all kinds of sins and conflicts. A number of these examples reminded me of similar issues and struggles I’ve had in my own past. But because Bigney is a pastor, he has a way of being both straight forward and candid, while being loving and gentle at the same time. I never felt beat up or preached at by some self-righteous snob. Bigney comes across as very humble and as someone who is in this struggle as well. In fact, the idols of his heart and his wife’s heart nearly destroyed their marriage. Bigney writes,
As a pastor, I found that one of the idols of my heart early in marriage was: “I must be well thought of by the church.” In other words, never say no. Always say, “Yes, I’ll be there. I can do that. I’m your man.” But with my family-my wife and kids-I was always saying, “We can do what we’d planned later. We have to change our plans. I know we had a date night scheduled, but we’ll do it another time. It will happen.” But it never did. It kept not happening because the demands and expectations of ministry continued to snowball as the church grew. I meant well- I really did intend to have a date night and a family night. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with my wife and family, but there was an idol on the throne of my heart that I was completely unaware of. And that idol of “I must be well thought of by the church” was driving me, though unconsciously, while I was convinced that what I was doing was right, and for the glory of God. But I was deceived, and I was well on my way to destroying a wonderful marriage and home-not with alcohol or drug addition, not with pornography, not with golfing, fishing, or watching sports all the time. Not at all-I was focused on the kingdom, baby. So you can imagine the arguments ad nauseam, that we had with my saying to my wife, “Aren’t you committed to the church and what God is doing?” But I was ignorant of my idols, and I didn’t realize the ugliness of my own heart.
The insidious thing about idols is that they can appear as things that are so good. Obviously pornography use and drug abuse and wall street greed are signals of idolatry. But idolatry can also be found in the desire for a good marriage, healthy kids, a strong ministry, and thriving friendships. None of those things are bad in and of themselves. Those are wonderful things. But as we reflect on Bigney’s helpful definition of an idol, and as we think about what the Bible tells us about covetousness (which is idolatry), these can be dangerous traps for our idolatrous hearts. Bigney shares an example.
God gave us marriage. It is his gift, his design, his institution. But if you put all your eggs in that basket, thinking, “Marriage will provide all my peace, all my hope, all my love, all my joy,” then you’ve doomed yourself to unending disappointment and heartache. Marriage can’t bear such a burden. It wasn’t designed to hold all that.
We constantly battle the temptation to bank all of our hopes on something outside of God. For several months I have been captivated by Jeremiah 2:13. I have reflected on it for my own personal growth and have leaned on it often when counseling others, because it seems to be at the root of most of our personal problems and is a vivid illustration of idolatry in action.
…for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.(Jeremiah 2:13 ESV)
The essence of sin is seeking to quench our soul thirst in anything other than God. Whether our ultimate hope for satisfaction is found in drugs or in marriage or in ministry, the Bible compares it to constructing broken, nasty, leaking cisterns and counting on them for life. All the while shunning an exploding fountain of life-giving, thirst-quenching, soul-satisfying water that represents everything that God can be for us.
Paul in Romans 1:25 calls idolatry the exchanging of the truth for a lie. And the big lie is that we need other things more than God. And we believe the lie and therefore we completely orient our lives to serve that lie.
In Gospel Treason, Bigney gives us several questions that we can ask ourselves to help us identify our personal idols. These are just a few of his suggestions:
1) Am I willing to sin to get this? 2) Am I willing to sin if I think I’m going to lose this? 3) Do I turn to this as a refuge and comfort instead of going to God?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Get the book for more penetrating questions that I think you’ll find very helpful.
In closing, it is important for me to point out that Bigney does not lose sight of the gospel in all of this. He says “Don’t obsess over your heart while ignoring the savior” and he reminds us to preach the gospel to ourselves regularly. This is important, because as we begin to uncover the idols in our hearts we can get very discouraged. We may realize that we were worse off than we thought! Such a realization is good and necessary, but discouragement and despair are unnecessary. Where sin abounds grace all the more abounds! The exposure of sin should lead us to celebrate the savior and should make us all the more amazed at what He did for us on the cross. It is Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and our faith in Him that saves us, not our efforts to destroy idols. Nevertheless, God loves us so much that He just doesn’t want to save us, but to change us! He has delivered us from sin not so that we can wander aimlessly and be autonomous, but rather so that we can now experience a full and new life in Christ. And the only way to do that is, through the power of Christ, to cast down your idols.
If you need help identifying and destroying the idols that are messing up your life, your relationships, and preventing you from more fully enjoying God, I highly recommend that you read Gospel Treason. I’ve always known that I have a long way to go in my personal spiritual growth. I struggle with sin regularly. But I’m not sure if I fully realized that I struggle with idolatry regularly. I had some awareness of this, but it was fuzzier before I read the book. Now I think I see things a little more clearly. I am now starting to trace recurring sins to the idolatry that is underneath them. That’s good. Because it will help me to better kill those sins because I better understand what must be uprooted in my heart. I hope you will join me in some serious idol smashing. I’m sure it will be a lifelong process.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:20-21 ESV)
Grace and Peace,