We might wonder why idolatry is so bad. Certainly, giving the worship or devotion that only God deserves to something other than God is unquestionably wrong, but the Lord is equally concerned with how idolatry affects us. It estranges us from Him (Ezek. 14:5). In other words, when we worship idols, God becomes a stranger to us. We struggle to know Him, glorify Him, and enjoy Him. God truly wants us to know Him; in fact, eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). I think God hates idolatry for the same reason I hate dementia; it makes people I love forget who I am. After all, as Christians we believe that there is no greater privilege than knowing God. The more we know Him, the more we love and trust Him, and the more we love and trust Him, the more He transforms our lives. It is not only for God’s glory that we should turn from our idols; it is for the joy of knowing Him as well. The first step is to identify our idols.
Identifying idols requires hard, humble heart-work. It may require the assistance of a mature Christian friend or a pastor. The goal is to recognize things that have become, or are becoming, more important to you than God. Such things might be sinful, but they also might be good things. Our idol-factory hearts often turn a good thing into a god-thing.
In the Scriptures, people offer sacrifices to their idols. Are there things in your life for which you seem to be making a lot of sad sacrifices? For example, an employee who makes an idol out of work may sacrifice much-needed family time. A student who makes an idol out of grades may sacrifice his integrity by cheating. A manager who makes an idol out of having control may sacrifice the freedom and happiness of his employees. If you humbly look at the way that you are neglecting or negatively affecting others, you may discover that it is because your heart has made an idol.
The biblical way to deal with an idol is not to simply reject it; we must replace it. An idol is something that has taken God’s rightful place of primacy in your heart. Repenting of idolatry, then, involves placing God back where He belongs. As the hymn goes, “Thou, and Thou only, first in my heart.” But how do we do that? We need what the nineteenth-century Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” New or increased love for God is the only thing that expels idols from our hearts and enables us to make God primary again. This is why the gospel is the ultimate antidote to idols.
The gospel floods our hearts with affection for God because it reminds us of God’s immeasurable affection for us. As Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Idols don’t care about us. They can’t even give us what we foolishly hope to get from them. Meanwhile, God, in Christ, has proved how much He loves us and how devoted He is to us. He has proved that He is devoted to giving us “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Idols may be the greatest threat to our devotion to God, but nothing is a greater threat to our idols than God’s devotion to us.
When you find that something has become, or is becoming, more important to you than God, look to the cross. Remember that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We are guilty of making selfish sacrifices for worthless idols. But through faith, we are forgiven because Christ loved us enough “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). May we let the gospel renew our love for God and expel the idols from our hearts.