There is a very disturbing verse tucked away in the Bible.
2 Kings 17:41
Even WHILE these people were WORSHIPING THE LORD, they were SERVING THEIR IDOLS. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did.
We all know that there are people, ancient and modern, who worship idols. There are people who are given over to a lifestyle of greed, sex, or power. And as Christians we immediately recognise the evil of such idolatry.
But as John Calvin said, “Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” The human heart is a factory for idols. Idolatry is not as easily displaced as we would like to think. As this verse points out, while people worshipped God they simultaneously worshiped their idols. And this is why this kind of idolatry is so hard to detect. On the face of it, it looks like real Jesus worship. But it’s not. It’s the heart clinging to other gods while appearing to worship Jesus.
Turning a good thing into an absolute thing
Idolatry is turning a good thing into an absolute thing that overturns every other allegiance or value. Origen said, “What each one honours before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.” Idolatry is putting anything in the place of God. It is what our heart loves, trusts and obeys. It is what we draw our identity, security and comfort from. Ultimately it is what we worship. It redefines reality in terms of itself. Tim Keller says,
“Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life…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 centre of our lives, because we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfilment, if we attain them.”
The “Idolatry-Detector” Test
J.D. Greer in his book ‘Gospel’ lists a couple of helpful questions to help detect what our idols are. Answer these and see what they point to:
- What one thing do you most hope is in your future?
- What is the one thing you most worry about losing?
- If you could change one thing about yourself right now, what would it be?
- What thing have you sacrificed most for?
- Who is there in your life that you feel like you can’t forgive and why?
- When do you feel the most significant?
- What triggers depression in you?
- Where do you turn for comfort when things are not going well?
If you have ever had the unpleasant task of challenging someone’s idol you’ll know when you’ve hit it. Either stony, offended denial or a volcano of anger!
Sacrificing to feed idols
And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and SACRIFICED them as FOOD TO THE IDOLS. Was your prostitution not enough?
God was angry at the Israelites for prostituting themselves to idols. And then He was incensed because they even sacrificed their sons and daughters to feed their idols. Sadly, some people are still doing the same thing today. You know an idol is in someone’s life when they will sacrifice everything else for it. No price is too high to pay to make it happy. No relationship is beyond abusing. Every other ball can be dropped but not that one. Every other person can be disappointed but not that person.
Two common Christian idols
My guess is that if someone is a committed Christian, the most likely idol they have is either their ministry or their marriage. Because committed Christians know that the typical idols of the world are blatantly wrong they refocus their hearts away from those idols to more acceptable idols. They turn ministry or marriage into the central point of their life. They turn the good thing of ministry or marriage into an absolute thing that overturns every other allegiance or value. You know ministry and marriage are idols when they become the centrepiece of someone’s life. Every other priority – including God – is re-ordered around satisfying this idol. Instead of Jesus having the place of supremacy (Col 1:18) and seeking first the Kingdom (Matt 6:33) and doing the will of God (Matt 7:21) – ministry or marriage have the place of supremacy, are sought first, and whose will is done.
Ministry or marriage look so spiritual and noble that no-one would think of challenging our allegiance to them. Even though ministry and marriage can both be counterfeit gods that steal our devotion from God, they get under the radar of scrutiny and accountability. And because of that they thrive in Christian churches.
The Mistress of Ministry
Because of the idolatry of ministry and the damage it has done to marriages many Christians have called it the mistress of ministry. It is very easy for the work of God to eclipse the God of the work. For the temple of God to eclipse the God of the temple. For ministry to become our mistress. Out of a need for recognition, security, assurance, or even salvation, it is possible to make our ministry an idol. Our identity is wrapped up in our role. Our worth is defined by our performance. If we were to stop doing ministry we would have an internal collapse. “It’s my destiny, my calling, my anointing, and my ministry and don’t you dare touch it!” This is especially true of the more appealing ministries like apostle, prophet, church planter and worship leader. Some people are so defined by these functions that to stop them would be to die.
Like the elder brother when we make our ministry our god we will sacrifice every other relationship for that god – including our Father and our brother (Luke 15:29-30).
The False God of Family
We are right to eschew ministry that neglects family. It truly is tragic to see people who have put ministry first and then lost their families. I recently heard Benny Hinn publicly confess that the reason he nearly lost his marriage (they divorced and then remarried) is because he adamantly and repeatedly put ministry before family.
However it is possible for the opposite extreme to happen. Because people have seen the devastation of neglecting family there are some who idolise family and put it not only before ministry – but before God. “Family first” is their motto. Their God is not Jesus – it is their wife! Their God is not Jesus – it is Mr. Right.
There are some single women who have never been cured of their “bentness” to men (Gen 3:16b) and are so desperate to get married that their entire life is defined by this “crisis”. They will do anything, marry anyone, receive any prophecy, and so obsess over the issue that they become consumed by it. This is idolatry.
There are also some married men that are so hen-pecked they barely have a feather left! In an effort to be a good husband they become driven to go to any lengths to please their wife. They hide from God behind their marriage, doing the will of their wife and not God. Afraid of their wife’s wrath they never lead her or guide her into healthy behaviour. And sadly these men are often married to women who are only too happy to have a husband-come-butler who leaps to attention at their every beck and call. In the name of servant leadership and not marrying the mistress of ministry these men become puppets, manipulated and cajoled into ever-increasing demands. It’s almost as though these needy wives receive some sort of sick enjoyment out of making their man jump through hoops, bow, scrape and apologise. These men get reduced to a circus dog responding to commands with a spank for disobedience and a “good boy” for obedience. How sad to see needy, broken women become domestic dictators. How sad that men who are called to be “the glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7) turn into ragged, haggard, empty shells afraid to lead their wives. This is not love; this is co-dependence and idolatry.
I pledge my wife to heaven, for the gospel
I once heard Keith Green sing Pledge My Head to Heaven, a song that went:
Well I pledge my wife to heaven, for the gospel,
Though our love each passing day just seems to grow.
As I told her when we wed, I’d surely rather be found dead,
Than to love her more than the one who saved my soul.
Well I pledge my son to heaven for the gospel.
Though he’s kicked and beaten, ridiculed and scorn.
I will teach him to rejoice, and life a thankful praising voice,
And to be like him who bore the nails and crown of thorns.
Well I pledge my son, I pledge my wife, I pledge my head to heaven,
I pledge my son, I pledge my wife, I pledge my head to heaven, for the gospel.
It seemed extreme when I heard it, but when I found out that he died in a plane-crash with two of their children it made sense (and must have been a relief to him) that he entrusted his family to God first.
May we do the same.
Do you think it is true that ministry and marriage are the common two idols of committed Christians? How have you seen it play-out? Please leave a comment below.