4 good things we can turn into idols

April 26, 2017

There’s something about marriage that can reveal the good, the bad and the ugly of the heart. Before marriage, I remember thinking I was a decent human being. I didn’t realize that I had many passions and desires that would wage war within me (James 2) and pour out when I wasn’t getting what I desired. What the Lord kindly revealed early on in my marriage was that these things weren’t merely desires, they were actually deadly idols.

In the time before Christ, people didn’t hide their idols. They were visible and plain to see. The prophet Isaiah illustrated this as he poked fun at what an idol is compared to the real God: “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move” (Isa. 40:18-20).

Can you imagine what our idols might look like today? It might be something as small as a dinner preference. We can turn anything, no matter how trivial, into an idol, and we are skilled at masking our idols. We can even excuse them away as something like preference. But the heart of idolatry is forgetting who God is and, instead, worshipping self.

So, we must be diligent about examining our hearts and guarding against idolatry. Here are four sneaky idols—good things turned into gods—that can turn our hearts away from the One who is worthy of our full worship and praise:

1. Marriage: Singles are frequently instructed and corrected about making marriage an idol. But for those who are married, our church cultures can often turn this good and wonderful gift into the pinnacle of existence. One problem with making marriage an idol is that it isolates singles, the widow and anyone who may have a different call on their life.

If we worship marriage, we’ll be doing a disservice to marriages—especially our own.

It also damages marriages. If marriage is the best thing that life has to offer, what happens when a marriage is difficult or experiences trials? The married couple can be left feeling as if their world has crumbled. A spouse who has unrealistic and ungodly expectations from marriage will never be satisfied. While marriage is an institution that beautifully points us to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32), it was never meant to replace that union. If we worship marriage, we’ll be doing a disservice to marriages—especially our own.

2. Children: Like marriage, we can regularly encourage and challenge the person who’s unable to have children to guard against idolatry. And like marriage as well, our church cultures can communicate to those watching that bearing children is the only means for human flourishing.

I love my kids. I love them something fierce. But the moment I begin to find my identity and worth in my kids, specifically in their behavior, is the moment that this good gift from the Lord turns into an idol. Children become idols as we seek to find our joy, satisfaction or identity in them. They were never made to bear the weight of being a god.

Ironically, and tragically, if our children become idols, we will resent, neglect and eventually dislike them. We’ll place undue burden on them to perform in a certain way. We must resist making children the center of our identities; only Jesus can bear that weight perfectly.

3. Church: The church is important for flourishing and growth in godliness. And the church is also an institution exclusively made up of sinners.  Christ died for the church, but if you worship the church rather than the Lord, you’ll be disappointed, discouraged and disenchanted. I heard my pastor say once that if at some point you aren’t annoyed with your church, you aren’t close enough to her (my paraphrase).

On the flipside, church can be an idol if you feel like your local body couldn’t exist, function or survive without you. If you feel like you must do everything, say yes to everything, be at every function and organize all the details, perhaps there’s something else going on in your heart beside just a love for service. You may be experiencing a self-focused desire for fulfillment and identity in something other than Jesus. If you think that your work and service is earning you favor before the Lord (legalism), then you aren’t operating out of true service and love for others. Ask the Lord to give your heart rest if you’re weary from these labors. Even a good thing, like church, can become a bad thing if we don’t fight our temptation toward idolatry.

4. The Bible: God’s command to love him with all our heart, mind and soul would be difficult to do without Bible reading. It’s essential in the Christian life. Time spent reading, reflecting on and living out the Word of God is of utmost importance. But if we become puffed up because of our knowledge and forsake all other things (i.e. evangelism, etc.) because of our study or if our Bible reading is what allows us to approach the throne of grace rather than Jesus, then we’ve taken this incredible gift and made it into an idol. Bible reading and internalizing the very words of God is a great privilege, yet let’s not, in our pride, make it an idol.

After revealing idols for what they truly are, Isaiah goes on to tell us about something so much better:

Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. . . . Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing (Isa. 40: 21-26).

Don’t these verses make you want to worship our one true God? Who can compare to him? No one. Nothing. In our idolatry, we worship at the altar of our desires, but there’s Someone so much greater and better. So, during those times when our idols rear their ugly heads, let’s pray and ask God to reveal himself even more mightily. He’s already changed our heart of stone into a heart of flesh, so we can rest sure that he’ll finish the work he began, including helping us put away our idolatry.

Trillia Newbell

Trillia Newbell serves as the Director of Community Outreach for the ERLC. She is the author of numerous books, including Sacred Endurance: Finding Grace and Strength for a Lasting Faith (2019). Her writings on issues of faith, family, and diversity have been published in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Desiring God, True Woman, Christianity Today, The … Read More