One of the most prevalent teachings in the New Testament is the teaching against idolatry. Idolatry is condemned as a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:20), an activity that elicits the wrath of God (Colossians 3:5-6), an activity that will prevent one from inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9), and an activity that results in one being sent to “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Revelation 21:8). As a result, we are expected to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14), to “[turn] to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9), and to “keep [our]selves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Based on such passages, one can quickly and easily conclude that the New Testament is fiercely opposed to idolatry. But is idolatry actually something with which modern-day Christians struggle?
For many people, idolatry is considered an ancient sin that doesn’t occur today. That’s because when many people hear idolatry, they picture the worship of a physical image like the golden calf at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32). Or they envision those extravagant temples erected in ancient cities to serve as a physical location where individuals could worship one of the Greco-Roman deities (Acts 14:13; Acts 19:27). This association of idolatry with physical objects like figurines and temples is so pervasive that one online dictionary defines idolatry simply as “the worship of a physical object as a god.”1 If your concept of idolatry is limited to physical objects, then it would be easy for you to conclude that idolatry is not a sin with which you struggle as long as you don’t possess any golden calves or worship at any pagan temples.
The truth is that idolatry doesn’t just occur when people bow down to physical objects. Idolatry occurs whenever a person gives their heart to someone or something other than God. In other words, idolatry is not the external worship of something other than God; it is an internal devotion to something other than God. That’s why God told Ezekiel that the people had “taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3). He was indicating that their idolatry was an internal problem, not an external problem. And that’s why God told Isaiah that the people “honor me with their lips while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). He was saying that even though their actions gave the appearance of devotion to Him, their affections were actually set on someone or something else. The point is that idolatry was, is, and always will be a disease of the heart.
Since idolatry is an internal rather than an external issue, anything can become our idol. It can be an object, a person, a relationship, an achievement, an attribute, an ideology, a substance, a feeling, an opportunity, or an experience. Anything that can consume our hearts can become an idol. That’s why there is so much emphasis placed on the heart in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus warned that our hearts are attached to our treasures when He said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Jesus indicated that the source of “all…evil things” is that which comes “from within, out of the heart of man” (Mark 7:21). Jesus also taught that you cannot “serve two masters” because you will either “hate the one and love the other, or…be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13), and, as a result, He instructed us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30).
So, consider for a moment whether or not there is an idol in your life. One of the best ways to determine whether or not you have an idol is by taking a close look at your bank account and your calendar. That on which you have set your affection is likely to receive prioritization among your two most valuable resources: money and time. When it comes to determining how your money is spent, what receives first consideration? When it comes to how your time is spent, what receives first reservation? If the answer to either of those questions is something other than God, then you may need to consider the possibility that you have taken an idol into your heart.
1 “Idolatry.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idolatry. Accessed 4 Aug. 2021.