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5 Things Christians Need to Know about Idolatry

5 Things Christians Need to Know about Idolatry

What does the Bible mean when it talks about idols? The word “idol” can be confusing. We’re familiar with the show American Idol and we talk about idolizing our heroes when we mean that we admire them, but a biblical understanding of the word points toward the idea of worship. One day recently, I was reading the story about God giving Moses the Ten Commandments with my five-year-old son, and I read the second commandment that we should not make or worship idols. My son stopped me and asked thoughtfully, “But we don’t make idols, do we, Mama?” I paused. If only the answer were that simple.

Here are five things Christians need to know about idolatry:

1. Nearly Anything—Even Good Things—Can Become Idols

God clearly does forbid the making of statues to worship, and it is true that our family had never done that. But I tried to explain to my son that day that idols don’t have to be made of wood and stone. They can just as easily be more intangible things like power, fame, wealth, or popularity. In fact, John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories, constantly making what Tim Keller calls counterfeit gods.

The things we idolize are not always sinful in and of themselves. In fact, they are often good things which have been given as gifts from God. The problem comes when we forget the Giver and instead worship the gift. When we expect a gift to function as our god rather than enjoying it with gratitude toward God, we twist its purpose and the good gift turns rotten. For example, power can be a good thing if used for the right purposes, but it becomes a terrible thing when it is pursued at all costs. Fame can be a platform to share hope and help, but it becomes a dangerous thing when the pursuit of it becomes our master. Wealth can be wonderful if it is shared generously, but it becomes a toxic thing when it becomes our single-minded focus. Popularity can be a fine thing if we’re using it to build community, but it can become a destructive thing when we crave it and feel empty when we can’t get more and more.

It’s a normal and human thing to desire the gifts that God gives. But it is important to rightly order our desires, keeping God Himself and knowing Him as our greatest desire, saying with the Psalmist:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul
thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

Unfortunately, when our desires get disordered, we begin greedily panting after God’s gifts while trying to ignore Him as the Giver.

2. At Its Root, Idolatry Is Greed

Colossians 3:5 says that “greed...is idolatry.” The dictionary definition of “greed” is an “intense selfish desire” for something. The Bible is full of warnings about the consequences of greed: it is part of a constellation of negative characteristics describing the unrighteous (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), it brings ruin (Proverbs 15:27), it stirs up conflict (Proverbs 28:25), it eats away gratitude and contentment (Ecclesiastes 5:10), and it is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). When we crave something more than we desire God or want to serve God, it becomes an idol and it gains the power to enslave us (Galatians 4:8) while never providing the fulfillment we had hoped for. Paul warns Christians to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). God is rightly angered when his creation wants other created things more than they want to know Him as their Creator (Isaiah 44:9-23).

3. Turning Toward Idols Means Turning Away from God and Vice Versa

The Bible says that “no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” In this specific verse, Jesus was talking about the idol of wealth, saying “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). But the concept conveyed in this teaching is open-ended. You cannot serve both God and ______ (fill in the blank).

We cannot have it both ways. Choosing idols means rejecting God, and choosing God means rejecting idols. We can’t walk in two directions at one time. When the Bible speaks of idols, it often talks about “turning away” and “turning to.” Jonah 2:8 says that “those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” Conversely, Paul rejoices that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The Bible also refers to turning away from God as an exchange: “My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (Jeremiah 2:11). And what an unwise exchange it is! In the same passage, God goes on to say: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Turning from God and trying to satisfy ourselves with idols is an exchange that will lead only to futility and continued thirst.

4. The Only Antidote to Idols Is a Superior Affection

We all worship something. If we are not worshipping God, idols will naturally slip in to fill the void. 1 John 5:21 urges, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols,” but doing so can seem impossible in a world filled with the siren songs of gifts masquerading as gods. The only way to overcome love for idols is to be overcome with a greater love. Thomas Chalmers writes that it is impossible to merely get rid of idols, because “the heart must have something to cling to...Therefore the superior affection for God through the free Gospel of Christ is necessary to displace worldly affections.” God is not embarrassed by our strong affections or desires. In fact, C.S. Lewis explains: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

5. Idols Take, God Gives

God is called a “jealous God” many times in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 4:24, Joshua 24:19, Psalm 78:58, Ezekiel 39:25) and humans are called to worship Him alone. At first, this description of God might seem like a negative trait, as if He is being demanding or selfish. But He is also omniscient, meaning He knows everything, including the fact that we will never find true fulfillment apart from worshipping Him. That is why he is continually calling out—through the law and the prophets and the gospels and the epistles alike—that He is better than any idol we could possibly devise. We will find salvation and true satisfaction in no one else.

He says to his idolatrous people: “You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Daniel 5:23). Idols cannot see, while God sees everything. Idols cannot do anything for themselves, while God is all-powerful. There are several passages that show the impotence of idols by describing in detail how people created them with their own hands—cutting wood and carving it and using the leftovers to stoke their cook fires, for example (Isaiah 44:15). God, on the other hand, is not made by human hands. Rather, he created us.

Idols, whether physical (statues) or intangible (power, fame, wealth, etc.), will passively receive love and worship, but they will never give back nor do they have any power to save their worshippers. They are an addiction, not a relationship. But God is dynamic and relational, showing steadfast love and giving Himself for those who seek Him and powerfully helping them in their times of need when they cry out to Him (Hebrews 4:14-16).

My son and I ended up having a good conversation about idolatry that day reading the children’s Bible. I pray that he—and I—would keep ourselves from idols and instead delight our souls in the worship of the creating, giving God whose love for us is the only thing that will satisfy our souls.

For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens (Psalm 96:4-5).

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Tuned_In

Jessica Udall author photoJessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.

This article is part of our larger resource library of theology terms and questions important to the Christian faith. From heaven and hell, to communion and baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about theological terms and their meaning. 

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