What is there about the worship of idols that was so consistently and powerfully tempting for the people of God? They were scarcely out of Egypt before they were bowing down before the golden calf in a drunken orgy. These were the holy chosen people of God, and they were committing spiritual adultery on their honeymoon!
We moderns quite rightly think it absurd to bow to a statue, but we are in no position to judge. The temptation to worship idols is deeply ingrained in all of us, not just the ancient Hebrews. We are all tempted to worship idols because of two facts about our nature:
We are worshiping creatures. God designed us to be in fellowship with him. When we mere mortals are in fellowship with the Almighty, worship is the language we must use. So worship is instinctive with us. God designed us to look to Him for our protection and provision, and He designed us to worship and serve Him by aligning our lives and habits with His purposes. Worship is a normal human instinct by design.
We are fallen creatures. From the moment our father and mother rebelled against God, we have been tempted to spiritual perversion. In our fallen state we are tempted to divert our natural worshiping attention away from the Creator toward His creation, just as those ancient Israelites did with the statue of a calf fashioned from their gold jewelry. Our fallen nature prompts us to look to some created thing for protection and provision, and we are tempted to serve and worship our idol by aligning our lives and habits to accommodate the demands imposed on us by our idols.
Our problem is that our idolatry, unlike the idolatry of the ancient Israelites, is almost always interior, in the values and priorities that govern our lives. In the way we think and act, in our habits and assumptions and priorities, we adopt the mindset of the idolater just as surely as our spiritual forebears did.
This is easy enough to see with money, which the Bible actually identifies as the false god of Mammon (Matt 6:24). We are tempted to look to money for protection and provision, and we are tempted to align our lives and habits to satisfy Mammon’s demands.
But money is the low-hanging fruit here. Everyone knows that money can easily have a corrupting influence, an influence we can see in everything from politics to martial conflict. The real problem is that we fallen humans are capable of turning anything into an idol. Not just neutral things like money or technology, but even positive things like a passion for excellence or love of country. We can take a healthy, normal desire and inflate it into a false god. We are such adept idolaters that we can make an idol out of anything.
How can I tell if I am making an idol out of something? I think there are three questions that come into play here:
What am I trusting to protect me and provide for me? Just as the Israelites were tempted to put their confidence in the deities of their pagan neighbors, so we are tempted to put our confidence in something besides God. Without intending to create an idol, we begin to form the mental habit of looking toward something besides God to finally, ultimately satisfy our longings. Once we achieve that elusive goal (getting married, achieving a retirement savings goal, successfully launching our kids into college and life, moving into that perfect house)… once we’re there, all will be well. We don’t say it that way, of course, because if we said it out loud it would sound as silly as it is. But the mental habit is formed, and all our attention and expectations are bent toward looking to that idol to protect and provide.
What ideals inform my fantasies? What anxieties haunt me? Our dreams and anxieties – two sides of the same coin – reveal our heart more surely than any other indicator. When we dream about the future, what hopes ultimately shape our desires? When we worry about the future, what fears create the greatest anxiety? These mental habits – our dreams and our fears – reveal our posture toward our God. In other words, how would I fill in this blank: “So long as I have ______________, I will be all right.” We fill in that blank with the name of our Deity.
What is forming my habits? Whatever we worship will begin to shape not just our thoughts but our daily and weekly habits. Like Scrooge, who bent his whole life toward making money, we begin to arrange our habits to accommodate the demands of our idol. This may be the kind of thing that our friends can see more clearly than we can, provided they are not also being warped by the same idols. (It's especially difficult to detect our idolatry if our friends are all worshiping the same idol. There are whole enclaves of sub-cultures dedicated to the worship of specific idols – greed, for instance, or the well-being of their family – and everyone involved thinks it’s normal.
This is why idolatry has such a lasting appeal. And this is why Proverbs warns, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23) and why the Apostle John warns, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
The well known hymn gets it right:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love
Take my heart, O take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above. (Robert Robinson)
Guarding our hearts against idolatry, ensuring that we don’t violate the first of the Ten Commandments – “You shall have no other gods before me” – is a constant and ongoing effort for us. I know it is for me. So long as we live in these bodies, we will need to keep an eye on our wayward hearts.