People are incurably religious. When they exclude God from their lives, they will make a substitute god out of something. They find something within creation which they inflate so it functions as their god. It can be a person, an object, a property, an activity, an institution, an idea, an image, a hope, a pleasure, change, status, fitness, etc. Idols are not just in pagan temples. They control the hearts and lives of people today.
Three authors have recently warned us of the present danger of idolatry. Selections will be quoted from their works.
Timothy Keller, in Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, defines an idol as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. . . . Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life”
“God was saying that the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.”
“A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving ‘face’ and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry. . . . An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, than I’ll feel significant and secure.’ There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.”
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009).
Richard Keyes, in his chapter, “The Idol Factory,” writes, “Anyone or anything that lays claim to our hearts’ confidence, attention, and loyalty may grow into a point of reliance apart from God and eventually may become a full-blown substitute for God.”
“To summarize, idols will inevitably involve self-centeredness, self-inflation, and self-deception. Idolatry begins with the counterfeiting of God, because only with a counterfeit of God can people remain the center of their lives and loyalties, autonomous architects of their futures. Something within creation will then be idolatrously inflated to fill the God-shaped hole in the individual’s world. But a counterfeit is a lie, not the real thing. It must present itself through self-deception, often with images suggesting that the idol will fulfill promises for the good life.”
Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” in No God But God, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992).
G. K. Beale, in We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, says that we take on the characteristics of what we worship. Children grow up imitating the adults they watch. “God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation.”
A number of Bible passages “express the idea that instead of worshiping and resembling the true God, idolaters resemble the idols they worship.”
The psalmist states, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-8). “The principle is this: if we worship idols, we will become like the idols, and that likeness will ruin us.”
G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008).
God says those who worship idols will become as spiritually lifeless and insensitive as the dumb idols they worship—whether it be money, power, or sex.
When we worship God we become like him, when we worship substitute-gods we become as spiritually lifeless as they. We either worship the living God or we choose a substitute god who will let us worship ourselves. Self-worship is the worst worship in all the world.
The apostle John instructs, “Keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).