Naming Our Idols

May 13th, 2013

Chances are when you hear the word idol, the first thing that comes to mind is Ryan Seacrest, or possibly a shiny gold statue of a calf. Idolatry isn’t a new problem, but it is at the core of the “shiny god” distractions in our lives—distractions that keep us from experiencing the financial freedom and grace-giving generosity for which God designed us. Let me give you my definition of an idol: anything, or anyone, that receives the primary focus of my energy or resources, which should first belong to God. The Bible calls this having a divided heart.

Instead of making it our primary life passion to worship the Lord our God and to serve only him, we begin to separate our spiritual life from the practical aspects of life. We use our idols, instead of God, to provide identity or meaning in our lives. This is especially easy to do when those idols are positive things, or even people we love. The danger is that even our virtues can become vices—or idols—if they are not directed toward God.

Look back at the Israelites in the desert. God expected the Israelites to invest their means into their relationship with him. However, it didn’t take long after God’s promise for the idol worship to become a big problem. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God’s own hand, his brother Aaron, who served as the associate pastor to Moses, was intimidated by the people’s grumbling and their desire to return to Egypt. So, he gave them what they wanted.

Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:2-4)

When Moses returned, carrying God’s law written on two tablets, he found the people actively celebrating the golden calf. Furious, Moses dashed the precious tablets to the ground, shattering them. Ironically, the people possessed the gold used to create the idol only because God had arranged for them to plunder the Egyptians before their desert exodus. The people were now worshiping the gift instead of the giver.

Our idols

Are you having trouble relating? Can’t you see yourself as having a problem with idol worship? I am lead pastor at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, the southwestern part of the state. Can you guess what happens to our attendance at Saturday night worship when the Ohio State Buckeyes play a televised football game? Our attendance goes down by about 300 people. Do you know what can happen on a Sunday morning when the Cincinnati Bengals are playing early that afternoon? You guessed it. Clearly in the case of football, our demonstrated passions are out of alignment with our stated beliefs. Pick any NFL stadium that you want, and during game time there will be far more people in the stands than in the pews of any church in America. Ohio State hosts about 105,000 people in its football stadium, the Horseshoe, for a single game. Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, the largest in America, doesn’t have a third as many people at worship. Do you see what I mean? I love a video that illustrates the “idol worship” of football in the United States. Check out the preview of this video at YouTube: “Idol Worship,” by the Skit Guys. Clearly, though, the issue of sports worship isn’t confined to America. Just follow the World Soccer Cup the next time it rolls around. As the video narrator concludes: “Idol worship—it’s not just about golden calves any more.”

Recently I asked my Facebook friends, “What idols do you wrestle with in your life?” What I discovered was that almost all our idols are really good gifts from God to which we assign a wrong priority. One person said the idol she struggles with most is her husband and children—constantly placing their interests above God’s interests. Isn’t that easy to do? Relationships are a gift from God. But what happens when we begin to worship the gift instead of the giver? Another friend named food as an idol. What an incredible gift from God! I mean, if all we needed were nutrition, then God could have come up with some kind of powder to mix with water, like what the astronauts used in the 1960s. I always note the diversity of God’s provision when I walk through the produce department of the grocery store. Talk about God’s candy! Bananas, apples, grapes, strawberries—God came up with all this good stuff. But what happens when we begin to worship the gift instead of the giver? Food can become an addiction.

Think about sex, another great gift from God! If all God wanted was procreation, he could have come up with something like mixing earwax on a cotton swab, right? Instead he made this incredible, bonding, mystical experience between a husband and wife. Once again, when we begin to worship the gift over the giver, it can become an addiction.

I wrestle with the idol of material possessions. I spend too much money on clothes. And every time I pass a new Camaro convertible, I want one! I don’t like the hard top; I want a convertible. It takes me back to 1968. Technology is another idol I wrestle with. I love anything with an “i” in it: my iPhone, my iPad... I love the Internet and Facebook—all the technology gadgets. I confess that I struggle with materialism, but I am not alone. Many of us create a god in the image of possessions, values, and traditions we have brought with us from the slavery of the past. We easily hook back into materialism, creating a god who serves our materialistic interests. It’s called “prosperity theology.” Have you heard of it? Name it and claim it. Blab it and grab it.

We also attempt to serve a god based on our political traditions. How many of us, if we are Democrat or Republican, make God a member of our party? We create a god in the image of our values. Another Facebook friend said her idol is planning out her own life. I constantly hear from recent college graduates about their future plans. They say things like, “Pastor Mike, I am graduating from college this year in engineering and already have a job with a contractor at the Air Force base. I am getting married next June. How can I know God’s will for my life?” I respond, “It doesn’t sound like you want to know God’s will; you want to know how God can bless your will.”

Even our family can become an idol, and Jesus gives many examples of people prioritizing family over God’s call. Now, family is a good thing. But in Matthew 8:21-22 we read about a disciple asking if he can first go and bury his father before following Jesus. Jesus’ response? No. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Many of us would say that a dad’s burial is a pretty good excuse to stay home. But Jesus reminds us that we can’t place even family above our love for God.

God wants our exclusive devotion. We are not to place any other gods—any other priorities that get primetime usage of our time, energy, or resources— before him. We read in 2 Kings 17:38-41:

Don’t forget the covenant that I made with you. Don’t worship other gods. Instead, worship only the Lord your God. He will rescue you from your enemies’ power. But they wouldn’t listen. Instead, they continued doing their former religious practices. So these nations worship the Lord, but they also serve their idols. The children and the grandchildren are doing the very same thing their parents did. And that’s how things still are today.

Giving God our exclusive devotion is not only great spiritual wisdom; it also has wide-ranging practical application. When God has the right priority in my life, I am not tempted to become enslaved to debt again.

Excerpted from chapter 1 of Shiny Gods: Finding Freedom from Things that Distract Us. See also the accompanying stewardship program, First: Putting God First in Living and Giving.

comments powered by Disqus