You’ve likely heard the fable of the frog slowly boiled alive. The idea is that if you put a frog in a vat of boiling water, he’s going to feel the heat and jump out. But if you put the little guy in lukewarm water, he’ll just think it’s a nice cozy bath. If you slowly crank up the heat, Kermit won’t even know what hit him. You’ll be eating frog legs in no time.
It’s likely not scientifically plausible, but this apologue (that’s a fancy word for a moral tale involving an animal) remains as a metaphor for those who are unable to perceive danger. Or in the words of Barney Fife, “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Don’t be like the foolish frog who ends up being served for supper because he thought he found a jacuzzi.
I think of this story when talking about idolatry. Very seldom is idolatry something that we willingly sign up for. Idolatry can start out rather innocently, and good things can be morphed into idols. Anything can draw our heart away from Christ. And as fallen creatures we can have the propensity to be drawn away by the gifts of God, and before we know it we’re worshipping the gifts instead of the Giver.
Idolatry is subtle. As such, it’s helpful to make ourselves aware of a few of the warning signs that something is becoming an idol.
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What Is an Idol?
If you went for a walk in the neighborhood and I told you to watch out for the mean dog, you might think you know what I’m talking about. You’d take your walk with a bit of trepidation and each barking dog would draw your attention. When you come upon the house with a pit bull aggressively barking, you’d probably assume that you’ve found the culprit. You lower your guard and after a few moments you see a cute little Shih Tzu prancing along. You reach down to pet the little guy and end up losing a finger. This is the mean dog to which I was referring.
If you think that idolatry is the worship of sticks or Asherah poles, or something unique to those folks living in the Old Testament, then you’ll be susceptible to the idols of our day. Likewise, if you think idolatry is reserved for things like sex, drugs, and rock and roll, you’ll be blinded to the hidden idols within your own heart.
What is idolatry?
Tim Keller, in Counterfeit Gods, has given one of the better definitions of idolatry. Here is how Keller defines it:
“What is an idol? It is 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 … 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, then 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.”
Using Keller’s definition helps us to see that really anything can become an idol. If a piece of buttered toast draws my heart away from God and somehow makes me think it will give my life meaning (hey, it’s a really good piece of toast!), then that seemingly innocuous thing has become an idol. When we define idolatry this way, it helps us to see that we might have far more to watch out for.
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3 Signs That Something Is Becoming an Idol
I will confess, I think we have a propensity to go overboard in some of these diagnostic questions. As an example, consider a newlywed couple. And now ask a few of the typical diagnostic questions.
- What am I daydreaming about most?
- What am I the most passionate about?
- What am I bragging about?
- Where is most of my time going?
- What is making me happy?
If you have a healthy relationship with you new spouse, you are probably going to be thinking about them a ton. There will be much joy, passion, and daydreaming about the future. Is this idolatry? Is this what we see as the struggle of the people of God in the Old Testament?
Not exactly. Yes, it is possible that a spouse can be an idol. And it’s also possible to truly be enamored with your God-given spouse, and it not be idolatry. It’s okay to deeply love. You don’t have to be afraid that God is going to kill your spouse because you love them a little too much. That’s not the picture we see painted in Scripture.
But we do see that hearts can be drawn away from the Lord. Idolatry is real. And the warning of 1 John 5:21 ought to be heeded, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” How do I know if something is slowly becoming an idol?
Idols rival the living God in areas of trust, obedience, and love.
1. Where Do I Turn When I’m in Need?
The heart of idolatry has to do with where our hearts find their security. If my crops are failing and I need rain, where do I turn? That was a primary concern with the agrarian society in the Old Testament. The people were turning to other gods (that aren’t gods) for protection and care. When a warring nation is threatening to invade — where does that nation turn? Will it turn to worldly powers? That is really the heart of idolatry. Ray Ortlund says it well,
“Spiritual adultery entails more than religious offences; whenever God is not trusted fully and obeyed exactly, including in the realm of politics, his people deny the adequacy of his care and protection, so that they fend for themselves, on their own terms.”
If I have ____ I will be safe, secure, and fulfilled. Whatever fills in that blank could be a contender for an idol in the heart.
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2. Am I Willing to Sin in order to Acquire or Keep This Thing?
Here I think of the rich young ruler. It is clear that wealth was the functional idol of his heart. When Christ called him into discipleship, the young man walked away from Jesus instead of his money. He couldn’t part with his idol.
If I’m willing to compromise on biblical truth or biblical principles or diminish my relationship with Christ, then it is an indicator that this relationship or this thing has a hold on my heart. Idols require our obedience. When we obey our idols, we expect to receive something in exchange. Idols are gods which must be pleased and they are never satisfied.
If I _____, then I will receive what I am wanting. Whatever fills that blank — whatever thing I am hoping to obey, is likely an indicator of a potential idol in my heart. Where are you expecting the gods to come through for you?
3. Are My Emotions in Relationship to This Thing Heightened?
Our emotions are a bit like the dashboard lights on our car. If they start blinking, we do well to check under the hood to see what’s going on. If I find myself getting angry, sad, afraid, or worried, it might be time to check under the hood to see if my attachment to this thing is inordinate. It does not always indicate idolatry — but we tend to “cling” to idols. When they are threatened, we respond with negative emotions.
The same is true of the more positive emotions. If I find myself inordinately happy or joyful with something or someone, it might be an indication that this thing is an idol. It could also mean I’m simply enjoying a good gift of God. It might be helpful to ask, what happens when it’s taken away or gone? Is my identity getting wrapped up in this thing?
I get angry, sad, worried when I don’t have ________.
I am happy and joyful when I have _______.
Whatever fills in those blanks could be an idol. Again, it might simply be a healthy enjoyment of a gift from God. But these emotions can help us diagnose potential or actual idols within our hearts.
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What if I Find an Idol?
What do you do if you discover an idol? It’s interesting to study how God roots out idols in the Scriptures. He seems to have a two-fold strategy. He exposes the emptiness of idols and then exalts His fullness at their expense.
Psalm 115 is a great place where we see God doing this. He exposes the nothingness which our idols are. And then he reminds the Israelites of His provision for them. I would argue that our path to idol destruction is similar. We should put our idols to the test. Bring them out into the open and realize that they are crushing under the weight of our identities.
Then, we proclaim the fullness of God over them. We come to realize that it is in Christ where we find what our hearts truly desire. You destroy idols by preaching the fullness of the gospel to yourself. Jesus is better!
Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, xvii and xviii
Ray Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful Wife, 52
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Originally published Thursday, 27 April 2023.