When I think about idols, my mind goes to several random places. The first place it goes is back to the Old Testament. The pagan people of those times were idol collectors. They had community idols and private idols. Idols were like good luck charms that people accumulated to give them a better chance at having a happy, productive life. I read in my devotions this morning about Jacob and his sons. Even though Jacob had several very real, very personal encounters with God, his household still had idols. So in Genesis 35:2, Jacob had to instruct his household to get rid of their foreign gods (idols) that they had accumulated so that they could go before God in worship.
The second place my mind goes, when I think of idols, is to modern, non-Western cultures. There are a number of cultures today that still worship idols. They do not all do this in the same way, but they do it. Some build ornate temples into which they place gold covered statues. Others carve the images of multiple gods on the walls of their temples. Still others are more primitive and set up small, carved wooden idols. These may be masterfully made or crude, but they serve the same purpose. There are many places that you can go to buy idols, and many tourists buy them as souvenirs of an exotic culture. They bring them home and place them in a prominent place in their office or living room.
The third place that my mind goes, when I think of idols, is to the idols themselves. Most idols take on some kind of human form, although they may have unusual features. Some idols take on animal form or supernatural, bazaar forms. Physical idols can be small or large, simple or extravagant, wood or stone, plain or covered with gold. Most idols are portable, although some are enormous and permanently enshrined. The thing about idols is that they are very tangible in a physical sense.
These images of idols all serve to do one thing for me, they blind me to the idols that intrude on my life. As long as I see idols as from ancient cultures that no longer exist, or as from far away cultures that are not my normal experience, or as portable, tangible objects that are easily identifiable, then I am blind to the idols that inhabit my personal world.
Paul David Tripp, in his book, Lost in the Middle, masterfully points out that the idols most of us have to deal with are more subtle and less recognizable to us. Our eyes have become blind to the tangible, temporal things we have allowed to take the place of God. Anything we trust in to give us ultimate happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose will become an idol for us. For example, in America, we have made youth, physical fitness, and pleasure into idols, just to mention a few.
God has given to us many good things, which He wants us to enjoy and find pleasure in. But when we allow these good things to divert our attention from the Giver, then they have become an idol. I am a runner. I enjoy running. Running gives me a certain sense of “aliveness.” I have been unable to run for over a year, due to an injury. I have felt a profound sense of loss and have experienced a longing to get back to running. As I read Paul Tripp’s book, I began to wonder if I have made running an idol.
Jesus addressed the subtle way that the tangible things of this world can blind us to God and become idols in our life. He addressed this in the context of worry. Worry, anxiety, and frustration are often signs that we have made something into an idol. We sense that our idols are failing to deliver what we had hoped that they would. Look at how Jesus unmasked these often hidden idols in our lives.
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:25-34
There are a couple of observations to be made from what Jesus tells us. First, the things that we often strive after, and which can become idols for us, are not bad in themselves. They are a part of God’s loving provision for us. The problem comes when we give too much importance to these things.
Second, God knows exactly what we need and is more than capable of supplying it. God is not stingy, miserly, or reluctant. God created us and the world into which He placed us. He designed a fine tuned system that would both sustain us and would delight us. He is the source of all that we desire and need. He has provided these things for our pleasure.
Third, in order to avoid making these things into idols, we need to keep our focus on God. All the good things of this world are intended to be sign posts that point us to the Author, the Artist, the Creator. If we will intentionally, consciously keep God on the throne of our lives, then we will not be tempted to make other things into idols.
One of Satan’s tactics for tripping us up is to blind us to our own idols. As long as we trivialize idols, or see them as distant from us, we will never recognize them in our own lives. We all need to take a personal inventory and get rid of the idols we discover hidden in our spiritual closets.