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Gods at War

I am part of a small group that is currently discussing Gods at War by Kyle Idleman. The thesis and thrust of the book is that while modern, American Christians may think the second commandment (to not have idols) is the easiest of the 10 Commandments to keep, it is actually one that we often break.  Having other idols leads to other sins, in fact, it actually leads to all sins.  The idols we make and worship are not statues with names like Baal or Asherah like you see in the Old Testament, but are things we worship and serve in the areas of pleasure, power, and love. Some of these idols might be obvious - things like money, romance, sex, entertainment - while other idols such as family, food, and achievement may not quickly come to mind.

Idleman is not the first to focus on idolatry as John Calvin wrote hundreds of years ago that the fallen human heart is an idol factory, making idols out of things and worshipping them instead of the one true God. I have also read David Powlison and Tim Keller on this topic, but Idleman’s book and the study are a fresh and helpful examination of the topic. It has been a good reminder  to spend some time examining our hearts to see what idols we may have in our lives.

What is Idolatry?

The Heidelberg Catechism gives a good definition of idolatry in its discussion of the first commandment (Q and A 95):

  1. What is idolatry?
  2. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word

This definition points out that the root of idolatry is trusting something other than the God who has shown Himself to humans in the words of the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ. It is taking something that is good, a gift from God, and giving it the power of God in your life (as Idleman says, taking “good” things and making them into “god” things). This might involve explicitly putting something in the place of God, but it also notes it is putting something alongside of God. This is actually what we often see in the Old Testament, as the people of Israel would worship others gods alongside of God. I suspect that is the more tempting form of idolatry for modern, American Christians. As one of the stories in Gods At War recounts, we can try to have a little bit of Jesus and a lot of something else and think that we are okay. God is a jealous God (jealous in a good way!) as He will not share us with another; just as a husband or wife will not share their spouse with another, so God desires our undivided hearts.

Identifying Idols in our Heart

Idleman asks a number of questions in the book to help us think about what idols might be in our own heart, and I want to highlight some statements that draw on these questions and others I have heard on the subject. What you put in the blank below can point you to your idols:

  • If I only had __________, then I would be happy.
  • If I lost _________, I would be devastated and might turn away from God.
  • I have been disappointed because I don’t have ________ or __________ isn’t working out.
  • I often find myself complaining or being mad about _________.
  • I am willing to make big sacrifices in terms of money, time, etc. to get ________.
  • When things aren’t going well, I turn to _______ for comfort or hope.
  • When I have free time or the chance to daydream, my mind turns to ________.
  • I want people to know __________ about me.

These are not the only questions you might ask to identify idols in your life, but I find them to be a good starting point (Tim Keller’s excellent book, Counterfeit Gods also has a list of questions we can ask to help identify what might be a god in your life - approval, power, comfort, control, etc. - that you can find here). Something these questions make clear is that possession of something (money, family, prestige, etc.) is not an idol on its own, but rather the pursuit and focus on it is what turns it into an idol. Many years ago I wrote a paper on the sin of gluttony for a class called “Sin, Guilt, Suffering, and Death” (I know, sounds like a fun class!), and recognized that gluttony is not eating too much food but rather thinking too much about food and having too great a focus on it. Skinny people can be gluttons. Poor people can worship money. Single people can worship family. Busy people can worship entertainment.

What Idols Are At War in Your Heart?

It is easy to look at that list and say, “Those are interesting questions,” but it is important for us to ask them. What do you find is functioning as an idol in your heart right now? When you identify an idol, it is helpful to see what God tells the Israelites about their idols --  they are empty and powerless to give life and hope, as only God can do these things. May we find the idols of our heart and tear them down through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

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