Spiritual Growth

What Is Idolatry?


The word “idolatry” can feel foreign. And the practice of idolatry seems far removed from the Western, modern world. 

In the ancient Middle East, idolatry included worshiping a maternity god for reproduction or a fertility god for the production of crops. But idolatry is deeper than these expressions.

What Is Idolatry?

At its core, idolatry creates a god to manage and control. Let me give an example to help clarify. In the ancient Middle East, the Canaanites created the god Baal. Baal was their weather god. Through sacrifices and offerings, they believed that they could obligate him to produce fair weather so that their crops would yield a good harvest. So, at its core, idolatry says to its god, “If I sacrifice enough for you, you owe me.” 

Of course, most people are not offering sacrifices to fertility gods for a good harvest. But many trust false gods to benefit from what that god can give. 

A definition of idolatry is “anything we serve, love, desire, trust, fear, and worship…apart from God to give us love, joy, peace, freedom, status, identity, control, happiness, security, fulfillment, health, pleasure, significance, acceptance, and respect” (Gospel Transformation, pg. 59). 

Notice in this definition the “give” and “get” transactional nature of idolatry. In idolatry a person serves a god to gain what only the one true God can ultimately give. To say it another way, idols are functional saviors that people turn to for what only God can provide.



Idolatry in the Bible

While idolatry exists throughout the Bible, a prominent example happened when Israel worshiped the golden calf. You may be familiar with the story. But let me summarize. Israel was a nation God began when God provided a son to Abraham and his wife Sarah. Years later, this family grew and was enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Despite their slavery and harsh oppression in Egypt, they grew into a nation of over a million, and God decided it was time to deliver them from Egypt and move them back into the land He had promised Abraham, present-day Israel. 

Through His chosen leader, Moses, God freed His people and set them on a journey to the land He promised them. 

During their journey, the people grew impatient with Moses' leadership, and in Exodus 32:1-6, the people approached Aaron (Moses’ brother) and suggested that he make them gods who would lead them. At this Aaron had all the people give their gold earrings, which he fashioned into a golden calf. 

The people then declared, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” It then turned into a huge celebration as the people made offerings to their new god and feasted with eating and drinking. 

On the surface, it almost feels impossible to imagine that they would worship a cow they built with their jewelry. But a sermon preached many years later in the New Testament gives a glimpse into the heart of idolatry. Notice what it says in Acts 7:39-42:

Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven.

These few lines from this sermon present five key facts about idolatry.

1. Idolatry is an affair of the heart.

The sermon in Acts 7 says, “and in their hearts they turned to Egypt.”

Notice what Ezekiel 14:3 says about idolatry:

Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces.

So, idolatry never starts with a statue, a false god or a functional savior. It always starts with matters of the heart: desire, love or hope.

2. Idolatry is a transfer of trust.

Notice also in the sermon in Acts 7 that it says that the Israelites “thrust him aside” and asked Aaron to make gods “who will go before us.” In other words, idolatry always casts aside the one true God and instead of trusting only him, we trust in something or someone else.

Isaiah 42:17 says: 

They are turned back and utterly put to shame,
who trust in carved idols,
who say to metal images,
“You are our gods.”

And Habakkuk 2:18 says something very similar: 

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!

3. Idolatry is misplaced worship.

The sermon in Acts 7 also describes idolatry as “rejoicing” and “worship.” Idolatry is not just a passive indifference to a false god. Idolatry worships a lesser god. 

Isaiah 44:15 also says, “Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.”

Isaiah 44:17 even takes it one step further as the people seek to find deliverance in their idols: “And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

4. Idolatry is giving ourselves to that idol.

And a subset of worship is sacrifice (as is mentioned in the sermon in Acts: “and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing”). Idols never freely give. They always demand sacrifices, and ultimately they demand everything.

Hosea 11:2 says: 

The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols.

And Jeremiah 7:30–31 even says: 

For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Idols always ask for more, even to the point where people sacrificed their children for their idols.

5. Idols never satisfy.

Idols always demand more than they give.

Jeremiah 2:13 says: 

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.

In other words, after the people of Israel had forsaken God, they searched for life elsewhere. And, as they tried to drink from other sources for life, they never had enough water. They were continually left thirsty. 

Ultimately, idols never give love. 

Jonah 2:8 says, 

Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.

God is the only lasting and sustaining source of steadfast love. To forsake Him for functional saviors is to forsake the only place where people can find unconditional and steadfast love. 

Remember, idolatry serves a false god to gain what only God can give. Jeremiah and Jonah couldn’t say that more clearly. When human beings sacrifice, offer themselves, worship, and trust an idol, they hope for that god to satisfy and fulfill their desires. Instead, idols leave their worshipers empty and thirsty.



What Does Idolatry Look Like Today?

While there are places in the world with forms and practices of idolatry similar to the Old Testament’s descriptions, for many, idolatry looks different.

The foundation of idolatry

Romans 1:24-25 helps clarify: 

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

The worship of creation could be anything from bowing down to an idol made in a back alley to worshiping the image in the mirror. In fact, the root of all idolatry makes one’s self central. It says, “I am most important. Everyone, including God, exists to accomplish my will, meet my needs and fulfill my desires.”  

Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” 

Because our idols never satisfy, idolatry is a continual attempt to grab for more. They only give a fleeting taste for love or success or popularity or security. But that feeling quickly goes away, and we seek to grab for more: more likes, more popularity, more income, more sex.  

A heart that has dethroned God and tries to satisfy itself with other lovers fuels worship and greed.

What Are Modern-Day Idols, and Why Do They Come About?

The human heart creates countless idols that distract from the king of the universe. Cars, grades, promotions, self-image, people, relationships, houses, marriage, athletics, politics, achievement, sex and bank accounts can function as idols. None of these things are idols in and of themselves. But human hearts can turn them into idols. Here’s how.

Remember, idolatry serves whatever it can apart from God to gain that which only God can give. Ultimately, grades, cars and sex are only tools to gain love, joy, peace, freedom, status, identity, control, happiness, security, fulfillment, significance, acceptance and respect. People will serve, sacrifice and worship these idols as long as they believe that the idol will fulfill their desires. 

So a person gives themselves to the perfect body image, hoping that it will deliver love and respect. A person gives themselves to building their bank account, hoping that it will deliver security. A person watches pornography, hoping that it will deliver control and happiness.



Ways to Avoid Idolatry


Embrace God’s unconditional love.

God freely gives what you need and long for. He gives love, joy, peace, freedom, identity, happiness, security, fulfillment, significance, acceptance and respect. 

Unlike an idol, there is nothing anyone can do to put God in their debt. Many may approach God like an idol, seeking to manipulate Him through performance, self-sacrifice, service or church attendance. But there is good news. God’s love can’t be earned; it’s free.

Christ died for people who were at odds with Him, people who did nothing to earn His love (Romans 5:8). He didn’t die for people when they sacrificed enough or when he was finally pleased with them. 

So as we think about turning from our relentless pursuit of our idols, the very first thing we need to do is to see God as a God who loves without conditions and without limits.

Dethrone yourself.

Once you begin to understand the gospel of grace, you begin to approach God not for what He can give but for who He is. Of course, God’s very nature is giving. So anyone who comes to Him will richly receive love, acceptance, peace and even happiness. And anyone who understands the gospel of grace will come to God for who He is.

Recognize the idol below the behavior.

Start by asking the “why” question. Why does a person turn to pornography? Possibly for control, escape or happiness. There is an idol fueling that behavior. 

Why might a person go into debt, endlessly purchasing clothes? Because they may be addicted to an image or long for love and respect. 

So if you see yourself becoming enslaved to behaviors, patterns and habits, ask God to reveal to you the motivations driving your behavior.

Renew your mind through God’s word.

People become attached to what they adore. What we love controls us. The apostle Paul says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). 

A vision of the love of Christ propelled Paul’s life forward. He had come to adore Christ as the one who died for his sins. And he became convinced to live for a greater purpose than himself, to live for the God who died for him.

Renew your mind through regular Bible reading that adores the God who is better than any idol. His love is better than what any idol could offer. God made you to live for Christ and not the image in the mirror. 

And as you continue to consider the idols in your life and how to live free and worship the one true God, this message could be a great help.



As we conclude, a line from the Gospel Transformation workbook says it best:

The difference between trusting in idols and trusting Jesus is like the difference between drinking seawater and drinking fresh water. Salt water never quenches your thirst while fresh water satisfies. Idols will always be salt water to a person's soul. Only Jesus is the living water that quenches our thirst.  

*All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted. Emphases in Scripture quotations added.

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