I. What Is Idolatry?
The word idolatry often brings a mind picture of heathen people bowing down to images of wood and stone. We think of Asia or Africa with their strange gods, of stone, of fire, of weird creatures, and as a result can think that civilized Western society is free from idolatry. But let us look closer at what idolatry really is and what God’s Word teaches us about it.
The dictionary defines idolatry as the worship of idols. It is a blind or excessive devotion to something or someone. It is anything that takes our devotion and attention from God. Idolatry involves looking to some earthly thing for security and satisfaction. It involves worship in the sense that we look up to this idol with admiration, affection, and high regard. Yes, it is setting our affection on things of the earth and not on things above (Col 3:1-2).
We have the clear new Testament call to flee from idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10:14, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.” This comes after the opening verses of the chapter outline the story of the children of Israel. They were delivered from Egypt by God but fell into idolatry and faced God’s wrath for it. This account is found in the beginning of Exodus 32. What did this idolatry involve? Are there any similarities we can find around us today?
Exodus 32 Idolatry
1. It was a result of an unfulfilled longing.
As Moses was on the Mount receiving the law, it seemed to take longer than the people thought it should. They lacked a sense of direction, and Moses’ leadership. They quickly looked for something to fill this void. Empty hearts long for something to fill the vacuum and bring joy and meaning in life. Idols stand ready, promising just what we need to fill this empty space. But in the end they cannot produce the lasting security and satisfaction that God provides for us when we love and trust Him.
2. It cost them their gold.
The first thing Aaron asked them to do was to bring their golden earrings and jewelry. It appears that they did not hesitate to sacrifice their valuables for this promise of satisfaction and purpose. Idols today require much of our “gold.”
3. It claimed their time.
Aaron called the people together to worship this idol and enjoy festivity. They gladly took the opportunity to come together and spend time with this new feature in their midst. This was a social event and the influences spread rapidly among the people. Aaron even tried to give this event a spiritual twist when he said it is a feast to the Lord. Idolatry often involves social ties. People with similar affections gather around the idols they love.
Modern idols also take a great deal of our time. We find ways to spend time doing and enjoying the things we love. The more time we spend with our idol, the greater our affection for it becomes. As our affection for this thing increases, so does our desire for more. It becomes a vicious cycle, feeding on itself.
4. It also involved play.
The Scriptures tell us in 1 Corinthians 10:7 “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” It appears that during this time of waiting for Moses’ return they had leisure time and were happy to fill it up with festivity and play.
Today, as well, idolatry can often be found where people spend leisure time playing and enjoying life. For many Americans today, one of the goals for their job is to provide the income needed to support their leisure time activities.
This account of idolatry in Exodus 32 is only one of the many accounts of idolatry in the history of the children of Israel. Similar points are often present in other recorded events of idolatry. They are common factors in idol worship.
In summary, idolatry is often a result of empty hearts searching for greater satisfaction in life. Idolatry offers something for our hearts to love. This affection produces a sense of belonging in our hearts. It often costs us money and time. It can center on leisure time activities. So we ask, “Does Western civilization have things that cost time and money, things that center around leisure time, and things that promise to bring satisfaction to empty hearts?” The answer is a resounding, yes. Suddenly idolatry is no longer limited to far-away places, but is very close to every one of us!
II. How much may I enjoy my possessions?
To be fair with Scripture we must consider 1 Timothy 6:17-19. “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.”
This directive is for people with financial means to stay humble and keep our faith in God, the God who gave us these things to enjoy. But we notice that the teaching here is about using these things to share with others, to help the poor, etc. It is not in the context of us keeping things for ourselves and for our own enjoyment.
We remember the words in Acts 20:35, “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The principle established here is that sharing brings greater pleasure to Godly hearts than heaping things to ourselves.
Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Here we are taught the principle of profitable labor so that we are able to help others. Western society focuses more on having to enjoy than on having to help. It tries to teach us that it is more blessed to receive than to give. It influences us to think that it is our privilege to spend our money and time for things we enjoy. As Americans, we find ourselves among the top of the world in possessions and provisions for life. As such, our society is full of idols that we must flee if we want God’s blessing on our lives and our churches.
American people bow down to the idols of possessions, sports, entertainment, music, and electronics, to identify a number of things. These same things tempt us to spend too much time and money on them and neglect kingdom interests. We too can be looking to these temporal things for security and satisfaction and be caught in idolatry.
III. How Can We Avoid Idolatry?
How do we know when things are becoming idols to us? How can we test our hearts to see if we are free from idolatry? Several key questions may help us identify potential idols.
Is this a tool or a toy?
Children need a certain amount of toys to occupy their time and encourage motor skill development. As adults we need tools to accomplish our occupations and provide for ourselves. Families play some games together and youth enjoy some social time together in games or recreation.
But we do well to be suspicious of toys for youth and adults. They are usually expensive and after we buy them they beckon for us to spend time with them. They often become idols that rob God of our affection, our time, and our resources.
Titus 3:14 tells us, “And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful.” While this speaks directly concerning our occupations, it can apply to our possessions. Do the things I spend money on help me to be constructive in life and helpful to others? Is there a beneficial outcome as a result of the time I have invested in this activity? Is this good stewardship?
Everything we have is given us from God. nothing we own is truly ours and ours only. We are simply stewards of the things God has entrusted to us. 1 Corinthians 4:2 says, “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” We will one day give account to our Heavenly Father for how we used our time, talents, and resources.
So we ask ourselves, “How much of God’s money may we spend on ourselves for fun and leisure?”
Does this further the purpose of man?
God has created man for a purpose. It is to glorify Him and to serve our fellow man. God receives glory when we worship and obey Him in sincerity and truth. He wants us to reach out in love to our fellow man and help them to find God and worship Him too. The two great commandments reflect this truth. Matthew 22:37-40 “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We should be careful to consider how the things that consume our time and money fit in with God’s purpose for man. Is what I am doing bringing glory to God? Is it serving my fellow man?
How much time and money may we spend on things and activities that do not accomplish the purposes our Maker placed us here to accomplish? Will I really be able to give account before Him someday with joy if I only casually pursued His divine purpose for my life?
What social connections does this bring?
Do my pursuits take me among God’s people and connect me with others who love the Lord? How much time can I spend with fellow enthusiasts in my hobby and not be influenced by them?
How much time can I spend at shows and fairs displaying my accomplishments or dreaming of taking my hobby or interest to the next level?
How much time can I spend playing with others who are lovers of pleasure and their attitudes not prompt me to more pleasure-seeking and play activities?
1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” We will become like the people we spend time with. We must guard our social connections with care.
IV. What Are Some Modern Idols?
Honest consideration of this subject can become painful for us to think about. It is not pleasant to be specific with these kinds of idols. Many of the things we must talk about have some rightful uses, yet they can become obsessions and idols. We each must carefully consider these potential idols and answer for ourselves before God, our Creator and our Judge.
The world of entertainment and pleasure seeking offers many idols. The moving picture is fascinating and consumes millions of hours of time each year, not to mention the money spent!
Vacations consume money and time. We do need some restful diversion at times. There is a place for enjoying nature and God’s Creation, but we must be careful how much time and resources we spend to do this. For the Christian, we should consider ways to bless others as we travel.
Is it possible for camping trips and trips to the cabin to become an idol for us? Why is it that people find time for several week-ends at the cabin in a year, but have little time for special week-end meetings, revivals, and Bible schools? Is God pleased when these social activities take us away from church?
Sports also offer fun to fill our leisure time. Many people are addicted to their golf, baseball, football, volleyball, basketball, or hockey games. Much money is spent on special gear to play these games. Soon we spend money to build special buildings to house these events when the weather is bad outside. Public stadiums can be filled to capacity with people eager to watch the competition. Many of these people scarcely have the time and energy to go to the house of God for worship, but they have time for a good game!
But at the same time, families and youth can find good social exchange and sharing in various games. They can build relationships and contribute to social skills, especially for children. Family reunions often feature some games to occupy children and youth. Activities such as these make many pleasant memories. We return to the question of how much time, money, and affection we may have wrapped up in these things. Can we enjoy them in a small way and not become obsessed with the pursuit of pleasure?
Hunting and fishing can easily become idols if we are not careful. Big game hunts can cost thousands of dollars, simply to shoot an animal that may not even be edible.
On the other hand, a father may enjoy a Saturday afternoon with his family at a lake fishing. A simple fishing pole and some earthworms can often land as many fish as expensive equipment and lures. Some fathers enjoy hunting with their sons. A simple, inexpensive firearm can bring home some meat and provide some father-son ties and memories that last a lifetime. If we honor the principle of stewardship and build family togetherness, we believe God smiles from Heaven.
Snowmobiles and four-wheelers promise satisfaction and pleasure for some. Are they to be tools or toys? Some of these items can be useful tools to accomplish work, while others are used simply to race over trails and dirt banks, wasting time and money. We must carefully weigh the questions, “For what reason do I have this? Would Jesus own one of these and use it the way I use it?”
How much of God’s money may a Christian spend on boats and jet skis? Certainly a luxury yacht is out for God’s people. How much time and money may a Christian spend on playing in the water? If a man’s occupation is in the fishing industry, then a boat takes on a “tool” label and becomes acceptable. One can easily see how these things first cost us money, and then after we have them they beckon for more and more of our time and wrap our heart’s affection around them, thus becoming modern day idols.
Electronics have a way of capturing the fascination of many of us. Computers, cell phones, Ipods, GPS units, and other devices seem so needed and useful. After we buy them, they beckon for more of our time. Some of these have regular monthly costs involved. They may include games that are fascinating to play. Texting connects friends from all over the country. The internet allows people to find information and to buy and sell. Do we ever stop and consider what we are doing with technology? How much do I really need the things I have? Can I be satisfied using an old computer that is long outdated but still does what I need it to do? Are these things my tools or my toys? Do they serve me or do I serve them?
What about our houses and the furnishings in our houses? Luxury comes with a price tag, too. How much money may we spend on extras and nice things when many people in the world sleep on dirt floors and have very little to eat? How does God look on the expensive china cupboard filled with fancy dishes,; displayed but seldom used? How much affection may I have in these things and still love God the way He wants me too?
How much may we spend on extras for our automobiles like chrome, extra lights, fancy mud flaps, and special sounding exhaust systems? How much time and money may a Christian man spend on his tractor trailer making it shine, and polishing the chrome? What about restoring old cars, trucks and tractors? What part of the purpose of man does this fill? What level of usefulness does it have? Are some of these tools becoming idols that cost a lot of money, require too much of our time, and steal our affection from God? How about the idol of fashion?
How much affection do we have for the latest designs and the “in” colors and prints in clothing? How many pairs of shoes do we need? What about costly name-brand clothing when more simple clothes would do the same job, sometimes even a better job?
This list could possibly go on much longer. This list of potential idols is constantly changing and new things are constantly appearing that promise greater joys and more security.
If all north American Christians would rid ourselves of these kinds of idols and focus our energies and resources on expanding God’s kingdom, what great things could God accomplish! While many groups and missions are doing great works around the world, there is still so much more that could and should be done.
May we be challenged to honestly look at the “things” we enjoy and possess and consider if they are taking too much time, money, and affection from us. God help us to accomplish the directive in 1 John 2:15, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” May we be experiencing the fullness of joy and fulfillment today that comes only when the love of the Father is in us!
~ Fredricksburg, PA