Am I overstating this? Maybe. But I would argue that idolatry is a constant threat to every part of our lives. Paul used the word “flee” four times in his epistles, all in regard to addictive sins of the mind and body. Idolatry is one of those sins (1 Cor. 10:14). Paul used the word “flee” because of the powerful but subtle way idolatry creeps into our lives.
Consider Joshua’s words to Israel prior to his death when he challenged them to, “choose this day whom you will serve…” Israel was emphatic that they would serve the Lord and not their idols. However, they had not only carried their little idols with them throughout the wilderness and into Canaan, they kept the idols even after promising they would serve only the Lord (Cf. Ezekiel 20). Oh yes, they “served the Lord,” but it was easy to hide their idols from public view. Just as with our idols today, there was a certain comfort, security, and pleasure provided by their secret gods. The idea is, we will serve the Lord, but we need a little more just in case God doesn’t provide all our needs. As with Eve, wasn’t every tree in the Garden enough? That is idolatry, and we easily cross line.
Paul defined idolatry as an exchange of passions (Romans 1:21-27). Paul used the word “exchanged” three times to indicate what a person “worships” and “serves.” When Eve sinned in the Garden, idolatry was the root sin. She was deceived into believing that God’s provisions were incomplete, that God had been selfish, and therefore she needed to pursue fulfillment outside of God. We do the same when we sin. We convince ourselves that if we make God our one and only passion, he will disappoint us, and we will be left unfulfilled and empty. When we decide to take matters into our own hands, Satan uses these doubts to offer us a “better” and more immediate remedy to our emptiness. Paul described this as “not honoring him as God or giving thanks.” We are not content with the blessings God has given and are unwilling to trust and wait on the Lord.
However, the challenge goes beyond an immoral act or pleasure. Those sins are easily recognized. Isaiah used Hezekiah as an example of this more subtle idolatry (Isaiah 36-39). Sennacherib, king of Assyria, came to invade the land. God had repeatedly urged Hezekiah’s wicked father, Ahaz, and later Hezekiah, to trust that God would save the nation and that they must not put their trust either in Egypt, their own wisdom, or their wealth. But Hezekiah did not trust God. He sent all the gold and silver to Sennacherib in exchange for his promise that he would spare Jerusalem. Where was the idolatry? Hezekiah trusted Sennacherib’s word over God’s! Sennacherib took the money and invaded anyway. During the threat, God even struck Hezekiah with an illness by which he would die. When Hezekiah prayed, God granted him 15 more years, and even moved the rotation of the earth back 10 degrees as a sign. Hezekiah should have used this to trust that God would rescue the city, but he did not trust until the city was surrounded and all hope was lost. Only then did Hezekiah turn to God. Sound familiar? Idolatry is evident when we trust the Lord only after we have no hope of any other deliverance.
Who Is Number One?
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes helps us defeat idolatry by giving a detailed prescription for balanced living:
“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl. 9:7–10 ESV).
- In this text, God is the first priority. When God is first, man is able to eat and drink with a merry heart. He keeps his life pure (white garments) and is optimistic and joyful (oil not lacking).
- The next priority is marriage. The godly person does not attempt to enjoy life apart from his or her spouse. Marriage is a special gift from God, and being able to love one’s spouse deeply results from a passionate love for God.
- Though children are not specifically mentioned, children are part of marriage and would certainly be the next priority. Raising godly children glorifies God.
- Finally, there is “what your hand finds to do,” which would include one’s career as well as one’s service to his fellow man. Career and ministry can be done “with one’s might” because God is our center and we desire to glorify Him in work and service.
Therefore, we can summarize our priorities by a pie chart in which God generates all aspects of life; marriage, children, career, and ministry radiate from him. Idolatry takes place when God is moved from the center and one of the other relationships exchanges places with him. For example, when enjoyment is placed at the center, God becomes a piece of the pie. God is still “served,” but enjoyment is the passion from which all else radiates.
If children are placed at the center, both God and marriage become subservient to the pursuit of children. This is common today because parents are often living through the successes of their children whether in sports, education, music, or other hobbies. Children can become our idols when they and their interests dominate the home.
Career often becomes the priority when our goal is a nicer car and bigger house with all the furnishings. As one mom said, “I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t have as a child.” That’s idolatry, and it teaches children to be idolators. What about the love of a nurturing mom and dad who have the hours per week it takes to direct their children to know God and passionately pursue him instead of secular desires?
Even ministry and service to others can be placed in the center when an individual finds greater fulfillment in what he does than in knowing and understanding God (Cf. Hosea 6:6). This can be a major problem with preachers and leaders who place service above their wife, children, and most importantly, their true inner relationship with God. We make ministry our idol when our pride in works of service replace knowing God.
Summed up, it takes time to develop and maintain love and passion for God so that he alone is number one. “Time” is what is compromised when idolatry takes place. Spiritual pursuits are gradually exchanged for secular desires. Therefore, do not do anything that creates desires that dwarf or diminish passion for God. Instead, follow Paul when he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).