“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” – Jonah 2:8
“Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.” – Isaiah 2:8
“They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is but wood!” – Jeremiah 10:8
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him.” – Habakkuk 2:18-20
Just like the cultures and religions that have created golden monkey idols or something else finite that they themselves made, and they put their trust in it, they worship it, they sing to it, chant to it, and have priests who give prophesy on behalf of it… We in our American culture are guilty for much of the same thing. We will create for ourselves an idol that we make, that we create, that we build, and in that we put our trust. If you think that is nonsense and there is no such silliness in our culture, let me point out some of the most popular. The number one by in large is the idol of self. We are uppermost in our own affections. Even if you’ll think about how some people choose a church or religion or group they devote their time and resources to, most of us choose a church, religion, club, group, society, etc. on what it can do for us.
And the reason why so many of us don’t belong to a community of faith, but rather go to or attend several, is because we feel like the church exists to meet our needs, not to be that community of faith that you belong to and give to as well as receive from. So for you, it becomes all about a particular preacher, how long their service is, what time their service is, a style of music, what programs they offer, how extensive is their child-care, etc.
Let us pause and think for a moment how this idol of self works itself out just where I live, here in the DFW area. In the DFW area, there are no mountains, there are no oceans, no great scenery in which to play in. (On a positive note, it makes us appreciate vacations anywhere so much more though.) So what we have done, since there’s not a lot of outdoor culture here, is we have taken physical beauty and we’ve made that a sport. So many of us have taken physical beauty and have said, “We’re going to be attractive and desirable.” So Dallas is a very, very pretty place in that aspect. We are all about external beauty. “I’m going to make myself look lovely. Because if I am better looking than others, if I am stronger than others, if I am more chiseled than others, then I validate myself above, and beyond others.”
Now idolatry is a funny animal because it rarely dwells in morally dark things. It almost always dwells in positive things that are made ultimate. Taking care of yourself is a good thing. Eating well is a good thing. The Bible would call both of those things wise. Even the apostle Paul said physical training is of some value. The Bible is going to talk about how we eat, what is smart, how to avoid eating in excess, and how not to eat for comfort. The Bible has a lot to say. The problem is not those things in and of themselves. The problem is when you take those things, make them ultimate, and they become the thing by which you identify yourself. “I am the strong, buff guy… I am the in shape, toned girl… I am the athletic beast person.” You begin to identify yourself by those things. You see it often and it works itself out a bit differently in males and females. What I’ve seen in males is this real desire to look this specific way and to be stronger than others. Now there is a great competition thing that can play into that that can push you into being all that you can be, but it’s this, “Just let me look good with my shirt off.” It’s almost purely physical, and it’s a primal, “Let me show that I’m the baddest guy on the planet” kind of thing. And it builds, it consumes, and their whole life is built around this external physical beauty.
In women, it plays itself out like that also, but what I haven’t seen among men as much as I’ve seen among women is this ferocious comparison that ends up causing a great deal of drama. Like I married a very beautiful woman. I have walked with my wife at the grocery store or mall, and seen other women checking out my wife. So part of me goes, “What’s wrong with me?” And then another part of it is I’m getting a glimpse of this dark side of the female soul where they’re going, “Do I look like that? Do I need to look like that? Should I look like that? I wish I looked like that…” Or even at times, there’s this horrific judgment that occurs where we’ll be out and about and see women dressed to the hilt in really tight things, and there’s this thing even among modest, kind-hearted women where they’re just like, “Can you believe how she’s dressed?” “Look at her, she must be such a floozy.” “Where is that girl’s mother?” “Hey, it’s the Real Housewives of such and such right there.” But really, what in the heck is happening there? How in the world can you judge soul and character by dress. Even if there is something broken in their soul that has them dressing in such a way that they want external attention? That should grieve our heart. It shouldn’t make you angry, or jealous, or have contempt. It should make you sad that they have not found value in who they are but rather in their ability to catch the eye of the opposite sex, and maybe make other women jealous. So you’ve got this external piece to our idolatry.
And then some of us just don’t have that going for us. That’s just not a temptation for us because it’s just not going to happen. So a lot of us go to the mind, and our mental strength. With linear information at our disposal, we just become smart and we pride ourselves on our brilliance. We don’t buy into anything at the surface level. We’re going to drill down. We’re going to know the truth. We’re going to know how things work. We’re not just buying into anything. And let me be clear about this, we should all be thinkers, we should be seekers, and want to get to the bottom of things. But there is a level of idolatry to that where you’re not going to believe anything that you can’t taste, touch, or see. Only what can be empirically known by the five senses, understood, and controlled by you will receive your time and attention. So then our mind becomes our idol.
And then you’ve got this whole third thing that is still about you, but it works itself out in every domain of your life where you want to throw out a certain vibe, you want to have this certain persona about you. So from the car you drive, to the clothes you wear, to where you live, all of that is carefully thought through and constructed to produce what you want people to see, despite the fact that you don’t even like most of those people. So really, your debt isn’t a money issue. It’s an image issue. Debt is not about money. It’s about image. You spend more than you have, to look a part that you want to look because you believe that, by looking that part, you somehow project to the world that you are worth something, that you are viable, that you are legitimate, that you have it going on and people should like you, and want to be around you. And that is idolatry. So the primary idol here in DFW is basically just “self.”
A secondary idol that we see all over the place is other people, other created beings, and it plays out primarily in two relationships. Relationship number one is a significant other. There is this idea built upon the philosophy of every Romantic Comedy, every sappy love song on the radio, that there is some mythical one out there who is going to complete you. Like if you just find this one right man, if you just find this one right woman, then all that has plagued you, all that has bothered you, all the loneliness that you have walked in, and all the rejection you have experienced will finally vanish. Just so you know… all of us married people make fun of you who buy into that silly lie. Because it’s simply not true. Seriously girls, no man will ever be able to do that for you. When you put that expectation on him, it is a smothering, exhausting expectation. He can’t do it. It doesn’t matter how romantic he is, it doesn’t matter how creative he is, and it doesn’t matter how careful and thoughtful he is, he cannot be that for you. He wasn’t meant to be that for you.
That “hole in your heart,” the book of Ecclesiastes says, that hole is eternal. Only what is eternal can fill the gap of eternity. Your man, as great as he is, isn’t eternal or infinite. He can’t fill that for you. He cannot complete you, Jerry MaGuire. When you have that expectation, when you place that expectation on him, your man will develop more and more hobbies to get out from under the weight of that expectation, because he can’t do it.
And for the guys, that thought of this beautiful, physically flawless being who is going to take care of every one of your physical and emotional needs, and make up for all hugs that your daddy didn’t give you, is going to lead to an unreal amount of conflict in your relationships. Please just stop and think about a couple things: You need to forgive your dad. He did the best he could with where he was, even if he was a schmuck. He did the same that you’re doing now if you’re a father now. And if you’re any better than your old man, then that’s the grace of God, not your awesomeness. And then, if you’re married, you need to learn to love your wife’s soul well beyond her body. She’s not your servant, she’s not your slave, she is not your sex toy and meal-maker. She’s not your, “Where’s my dinner, woman?” She’s not your work horse. She has a soul! So what happens for so many of us is a man comes into a marriage and says, “My woman is supposed to be all of this,” while a woman comes into the marriage and says, “My man is supposed to be all this,” … or singles go, “If I could just find this kind of woman/man,” and all our hope is wrapped up in these people who are going to fail us and let us down because they cannot possibly complete us or fulfill the deep longing in our hearts.
So then, when they do let us down, well it’s definitely not our fault. Of course it’s them! It’s not our expectations that are unreasonable. It’s their multitude of failures and personality flaws. Married people are acutely aware of their partner’s weakness vs. their own strengths. The husband can easily sit there and say, “She doesn’t do this, she doesn’t do that, and she doesn’t do this… but I do this, that, this, AND that…” It’s just strengths vs. weaknesses. You should always win that comparison. But this is what leads to the unraveling of so many different relationships. It’s an expectation that’s unrealistic. And all frustration is birthed out of unmet expectations. So maybe the bar needs to be lowered a little, or be a little more realistic. Maybe we need to find the fullness of life in Jesus Christ, and not in a broken human who is going to betray us, because that’s unfortunately going to happen.
Now, the other relationship we see this stuff playing out massively (and specifically the northern areas where I live here in the DFW area) are the relationships between parents and their children. So many of the parents around here need to accept the reality that their kid is not going to be a professional athlete. Their kid might be a beast at sports, and they may really be excellent. But still, statistically, their boy is more likely to be struck by lightning, while holding a winning lottery ticket, whilst being eaten by a shark than he is to become a stud pro athlete.
Don’t get me wrong, I love sports. I follow sports closely. I think sports are awesome, as long as they’re a game. It’s when it’s no longer a game, but you’re entire life that you’ve gone off the deep end. Do you know how we all know this? Because I used to play t-ball, little league, basketball, track, etc… And even now I can remember fellow five-years-old getting yelled at by their parents. It still happens today. Just go to the nearest ballpark and you can watch dads yell at their five-year olds, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds in t-ball. “What are you doing?! We practiced this! Get your head in the game!” Their kid is five, he just learned how to consistently not wet himself…
It sounds like a complete joke, but so many of these dads are dead serious. I mean they don’t do that with other games, do they? Like when their boy or girl is with their cousins playing freeze tag, they’re not running outside, freaking out, and screaming at them about how to tag properly. They’re not playing hide-and-go-seek upstairs with the parents shouting from downstairs, “Are you serious?! Focus! Hide like I taught you!!!” It’s just a game, guys. It doesn’t matter. But all of a sudden, now that it’s organized, some of us lose our minds. Some parents may have even been legit athletes back in the day, but we shouldn’t put that on our kids. Our children’s extracurricular activities should not govern our home. I mean, some parents spend more for their kid’s traveling select soccer team than my wife and my car are worth… combined. It is a foolish error for several reasons.
One, making your kids your god, turns them into little turds that you then release upon society to have to deal with. So then we’ve got coworkers and neighbors who are unbelievably obnoxious because their parents treated them like little gods. And then second, they’re going to leave the house someday. And as a parent, you should want them to move out someday. Shouldn’t you? I know parents with five, six, seven-years-old might find that harder to comprehend at the moment, but there is going to come a day as a parent where you love them with all the love you have in your heart, but they’re going to have to get out of your house. I don’t live with my parents anymore, that would be weird. (There are some exceptions to this, but it should definitely be a rare exception, not the rule.)
And then do you know what you’re left with as parents? Your spouse. So if the focal point of your existence is your children and then they’re gone, that puts you in this really weird spot with the spouse who you should have been doing life with this entire time. You’re like, “Man it’s so quiet around here now, who are you again?” Biblically a home is to revolve around a husband and wife under the banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What we should be imparting to our children is the wonders and glory of a Creator God who loves them, longs to save them, and rescues them from the fallen hurt of this world. And then let’s play some ball, let’s try to play ball well, let’s cheer them on, and let’s root for them, whether they really are excellent or horrible.
As parents, we should want our kids to not think that our affection for them is predicated upon their performance in a game. And don’t lie to yourself, you can have all the conversations you want with your kid about that isn’t what’s happening, but when you explode at their failures and beam at their successes in this arena, how in the world are they not supposed to believe that’s how they win your affection? If you even think that you can simply have a conversation with them, but continue to act that way towards them, I don’t think you have kids. Heck, I don’t even have kids, but just having grown up as a kid and helped serve in children’s ministry, I have observed that. I mean, do parents really think that their kids can’t read their bull? I could definitely pick up on where my parents or any adults said one thing and did another when I was growing up. I think we called it, “Does as I say, not as I do.”
So that’s the other place it plays out in relationships, with kids. Both make crummy, crummy gods. You make a crummy god, a spouse makes a crummy god, and your children make crummy gods. They don’t work as deity. None of them can hold that weight. Because there comes a time in all of our lives where we will desperately need divine intervention. Everyone eventually has that dark night of the soul. And if your god is you, your spouse, your children, your health, your wealth, or your vibe, you will be godless on a day when you need the divine. We need to press hard on a couple of things as we think about what idolatry really is. Idols are normally built around control and fear. So you have this fear, and you don’t want this fear to happen, so you begin to try to control scenarios that you believe will keep your fear from happening. And that’s how idols are built.
In fact, in the Old Testament, God will charge Israel with idolatry twice for signing treaties with Egypt and the Assyrians for their protection. They were afraid, so they made this deal with the neighboring country that if they got in trouble, this other army would bail them out, and God goes, “They have become your idol. You’re not trusting in Me for deliverance. You’re trusting in your own abilities and politics for your deliverance.” So what happens on the day of trouble is your control of things is revealed to be what it really is, an illusion. You simply don’t control what you think you can control. You don’t control your finances like you think you do. Anyone can go bankrupt. You don’t control your health like you think you do. Anyone can get cancer.
As always, there are things that we can do that are wise and smart, there are good and right ways we should steward our time, resources, and our bodies, but ultimately you can’t control it all. Now we can see even in our own U.S. history, it just takes the bottom to fall out if our economy for all of that money you have to become worthless. It just takes an instant. It just takes something that is not even directly related to us, not related to this country. There has been some uprising in the Middle East (there’s always some kind of turmoil going on there). How’s that gasoline bill going for you? Does it slam your wallet and remind you how little control you really have every time you go to the pump like it does for me?
We all work hard at protecting our children, but ultimately you can’t protect them from everything. We weren’t able to stop the recent tragedy in Connecticut. No matter how many guns laws are put in place, men with wicked intent will still find a way to carry out deplorable things. You do what you can, but you have to trust them with God. That’s all you’ve really got. If you do more than that, I think you will hard press them and they are likely to rebel. The other place I think you can see this fear and control thing happening in idolatry is with spouses. You just know they’re going to betray you, you know they’re going to do this certain thing, they’re going to let you down somehow eventually, and so to keep that from happening, you badger, you pester, you question, you dig, and you search where they’ve been. You see, all of that is fear. So instead you move to try to control and then unwittingly actually push your spouse away from you, and then there’s no trust, no grace, no intimacy, but you still have that false sense of control to keep you warm, right?
It’s an idol, and the Bible says there will come a day when you need the divine. And if you have an idol, it won’t be able to speak to you, it won’t be able to fix anything. Just look at the passages listed above, and if you’ll remember the text, God keeps saying, “You’ve made an idol that was speechless… You created an idol that was speechless… If it says anything, it says lies. You have created an idol that is speechless and helpless to heal, fix, mend, or correct anything.” And the last verse of the Habakkuk passage says, “God is in His holy temple; let the earth keep silent.” Habakkuk is not saying, “Don’t talk to God. Leave God alone. He is in His holy temple, so hush your mouth and don’t bother Him.” But rather he is saying, “Since the Creator God of all things is speaking, let us listen to Him, submit to Him and not walk in conjecture of what God must be like or what He would be like.”
So you hear people talk like that all the time. “Well I just don’t believe God would do that. I just don’t believe God works like that.” We, out of ignorance and idolatry, exclude some aspects of God’s character; we’re selfishly buying in on specific aspects, but want to forget any that may contradict what we want. “God is love, so He can’t have any wrath… God is gracious, so He can’t hold anybody accountable… God is merciful, so surely He won’t judge the nations or anyone for doing wrong…” Now, those are things people say all the time that are in stark opposition to God’s revealed character in the Scriptures. So more than anything, that verse in Habakkuk is saying that God is speaking, so maybe we should shut up for a minute and just listen to Him.
So God speaks to us, not like a silent idol. He speaks to us in His Son Jesus, He speaks to us through His Word in the Scriptures, He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. What is He saying? He’s saying that you and I are broken from birth. Sin isn’t just an external action, it isn’t just a minor character defect. It’s a state of our heart that leads to those external actions. There are things that are sinful, but you do sinful things because you are sinful yourself. You aren’t a sinner because you sin, you sin because you’re a sinner. The problem isn’t just the action. The problem is you. There is nothing you and I can do to fix this issue. God is going to have to fix it for us. And He did, He is. He’s fixed it by sending Jesus, God in the flesh, to live a righteous life under the law, breaking no commands. He will then impute that righteousness to those who believe by faith. And on the cross of Jesus Christ, all the wrath meant for you and me in our rebellion will be absorbed by Christ so that we are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, set free to pursue God regardless of where we currently are.
So this is why we must constantly come back to this idea of moralistic deism, and expose it for the lie that it is. So many of us are like, “Let me clean up my life, and then God and I will be cool.” However, the realty is, you and God will never be cool because of your cleaning. You and God will only be okay because of Jesus Christ or you won’t be okay. Our hope is steadfastly rooted in Jesus Christ. It’s also why none of us have anything to boast in. It’s also why there should be no swagger in you, in me, in anyone. There should be a lowliness, a humility, and a gentleness concerning all peoples. Why? Because you were shown mercy and grace. You didn’t earn it. You weren’t saved because you were awesome. Nobody is saved because they had some things that God needed for His kingdom. You were saved because He’s merciful. And that’s where we put our hope.
So how do you identify idols? Here are ten questions to ask yourself: What consumes most of your thoughts and feelings? What motivates the things that you do? What are you most afraid of? What brings the highest amount of frustration or anger into your life? What is one thing that can change your mood in a second? What would your friends say is your favorite topic of conversation? What are some things that you feel you can’t live without? What brings you solace? What do you yearn for? What is one thing that you wish God would do for you? If you begin to answer those questions, you’ll be able to find your idols. Because what you think about, what you yearn for, what you talk about, what you want God to do for you, what drives you, what makes you angry, what satisfies you, what sits on the other side of your “if only,” and what brings you comfort is what you worship.
Now you and I, everyone reading this has idols. Nobody is clean. The good news is that God knows and has made provision in Christ. So may we repent and trust in Him for that. Because again, our only hope is steadfastly rooted in Jesus Christ. God Himself is the gospel.