“Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” writes the aged Apostle John at the end of his first epistle (1 John 5:21). Years earlier, Paul exhorted the Colossians to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry(Col. 3:5, emphasis added). If the Old Testament prophets warned the people of God against idols of silver and gold forged in the kiln (Isa. 37:19), the New Testament writers alert us to idols of another kind: the idols of ideas and obsessions forged in the heart.

In recent years, the church has come to speak of this second kind of idols as “idols of the heart.” Is God the object of our hearts’ deepest affections and longings, or is something else captivating us? That “something else” need not be evil in itself. When Jesus says we must choose whether we will serve God or money, it is not because money is bad in itself; rather, as Paul says, it is “the love of money” that is the root of all kinds of evil (Matt. 6:21–24; 1 Tim. 6:10, emphasis added). Accordingly, our fallen hearts can take all kinds of good things—money, achievement, romance, patriotism, family, even a noble cause—and turn them into dangerous idols that lead us away from a pure devotion to the Lord and into spiritual adultery (with all the danger and misery that includes).

If you have an idol in your heart, you should not delay in dealing with it. But you must first know if it’s there, and that requires spiritual diagnosis. In this short piece, I want to suggest there are three symptoms that indicate the presence of an idol of the heart. If you find these three symptoms of idolatry present in your life, you need to take urgent action.

The first symptom of an idol is you continually find yourself thinking about it when you have nothing else to think about. It operates like an obsession in the back of your mind, calling for constant attention. You think obsessively about winning the next game, or getting married, or that pressing issue at work, or the state of your portfolio, or the details of your kids’ lives, or what other people may be thinking or saying about you.

It would be entirely appropriate to give some of your attention to these things, and sometimes even significant attention to them. You would want to be prepared for tomorrow’s presentation at work, attentive to your child’s well-being, involved in the affairs of your nation, or committed to a good cause. But if you find that all of your thoughts have a way of funneling toward this central obsession, and have for some time, it signals the presence of something that has become an idol.

The second symptom of an idol is you find yourself taking unwise measures to attain it. You might date someone you know you shouldn’t date or let a relationship cross boundaries you know it shouldn’t cross. You might make an unwise investment with your money or choose not to tithe to fund your 401(k). You might lie on your résumé or skew “just a smidge” your quarterly report. You might pull away from otherwise precious and proven friendships because they won’t get as exercised about your cause as you are. You might take too much time from your family to train for an endurance event or allow your child’s sports schedule to take precedence over worship on the Lord’s Day.

Realize that the Lord’s goal is not to slay your heart but to sanctify and satisfy it (and in that order).

In one of many ways, that idol of the heart has led you not only to do something you would not have done in your wiser moments, but also to rationalize and excuse it. “This is the only way I’ll have a chance to get married.” “If this investment succeeds, I’ll be able be give more money to the church later.” “If I get these three hours to myself, I’ll be a better parent the rest of this weekend.” “If my child doesn’t travel for all these tournaments, she’ll let her teammates down, and wouldn’t that hurt her witness?” When you find that your pursuit of a good thing has brought you to the point that you’re taking unwise measures to attain it, that signals the presence of an idol of the heart.

The third symptom of an idol is you feel entitled to your bitterness about not having it. When someone lovingly suggests that you could have contentment and peace without this thing you most want, you’re not hopeful that they might be right. You’re irritated. You resent them for suggesting it. In your mind, you dismiss them as “having no idea what it’s like to be where I am.”

When the single person has made an idol of marriage, she pours quiet contempt on those who speak the consolations of the gospel. When the couple in a financial tight spot has made an idol of money, they feel entitled to complain about their situation while disregarding opportunities presented to them to learn how to budget or make additional side income. When an athlete or worker who has made an idol of achievement feels the sting of a loss or setback, he shuns the opportunity to learn, with Paul, “in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11), preferring to let the pain drive him to intensify his efforts on the one hand or throw in the towel on the other. If you find yourself strangely preferring the bitterness of not having what you desire to the prospect of joy and contentment in Christ alone, that’s a strong symptom of an idol of the heart.

So how is it with you? Is there something you find yourself thinking about when you have nothing else to think about? Have you contemplated taking, or have you already taken, unwise measures to attain it? And do you feel entitled to your bitterness about not having it? If so, dear friend, I would strongly encourage you to do three things.

First, be honest with the Lord about it. Trust that if you confess this idol to the Lord, He will forgive you and open His arms to you. Second, ask Him to show you how this idol is deceiving you and stealing the contentment the Lord offers His children right where you are. Third, ask Him to show you what this desire—for marriage, for achievement, for your family’s well-being, for your country’s well-being, for the advancement of your cause —would look like if it existed in a proper place beneath a supreme desire for Him and for His glory. Realize that His goal is not to slay your heart but to sanctify and satisfy it (and in that order).

Idols of the heart make us like “the man with the muck-rake” in the second book of Pilgrim’s Progress. In this vision, a man “could look no ways but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand.” While fixing his full attention on the worthless things below him, there stood above the man one holding forth a crown. The muck-rake for the crown, that was the ongoing offer—“but the man did neither look up nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor.” What a tragedy! And what a picture of someone beholden to idols of the heart: obsessing, slaving away, refusing something far better.

“Little children,” warns the Apostle John to us all, “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20).

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 6, 2021.

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