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 is the author of several books including A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Sacred Endurance, If God Is For Us, Fear and Faith,and the children’s books, Creative God, Colorful Us and  God’s Very Good Idea. When she isn’t writing, she’s encouraging and supporting other writers as an Acquisitions Editor at Moody … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24