Archives For Idolatry

No matter how many times I read the Bible, no matter how many times I teach a class on it, I see things that I have never seen before. For instance, until recently, I had missed a fascinating (and convicting) connection between Jacob and Joshua.

Towards the end of his life, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) gathers the people at Shechem. There, he commands them all to bury their idols (Genesis 35). In response, the people offered Jacob all their foreign gods for him to bury under the oak at Shechem (v. 4). As a result, the fear of God fell on all the foreigners around them so that no one pursued them (v. 5). Now fast forward to Joshua 24—to the familiar “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house…” passage. Before Joshua issues that powerful charge, he calls Israel before him—at Shechem of all places. And what perchance does Joshua command the people to do at Shechem? To get rid of their gods.

Although Joshua nails the role of Jacob, it is unclear how well Joshua’s people play the part of Jacob’s household. Even though Joshua implores them twice to cast aside their gods, there is no mention of anyone burying their idols—not even of a shallow grave.[1] Perhaps this is also why—in contrast to the first congregation at Shechem—there is no mention of Israel’s enemies shaking in their sandals. It also sheds some light on the summary of the rampant idolatry in Judges 2. As the story of Israel unfolds it becomes clear, as with Joshua’s generation, it’s one thing for her to promise to serve the Lord, but quite another for her to bury her gods.

And then the personal conviction hits. How often have I publically ‘committed’ my life and my family to the Lord while hiding false idols behind my back? And of course, it’s one thing to express grief over our sins, but quite another thing to bury them once and for all.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, consider a trip to Shechem.


[1] For more on this see Rick Hess, Joshua (Grand Rapids, IVP, 1996).

BuddhaThroughout the Bible, God’s people are accused of turning away from God and toward idols. Idolatry is the epitome of godlessness because it denies God his due worship and enthrones some other person or thing in his place.

But biblically speaking, the greatest mass-producer of idols is God himself.

Romans 1:18–25 explains that all people know God, yet they suppress that knowledge and instead pursue unrighteousness. Idolatry is at the heart of this exchange. Verse 25 reads:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

What are they worshiping here? The creature. Who made the creature? The Creator! If the creation itself is the place we shop for our idols, then there is a sense in which God is our friendly neighborhood idol dealer.

Of course, the things that God makes are not idolatrous in themselves. It’s just that every good gift that God gives is susceptible to corruption. God creates a good world in Genesis 1 and 2, and Satan perverts it in Genesis 3. And so the cycle has gone throughout history.

The trick is to keep everything in its right place. The moment we fail to see God’s gifts as God’s gifts, we have dislodged them from their proper relation to God and lifted them to an idolatrous level. In the Old Testament, they did this with stone representations of false gods. In our modern world, we do this with finely crafted automobiles. But it doesn’t stop there. We also do it with flesh and blood human beings for whom we care deeply. We do it with ideologies like success and safety.

Literally every thing is only one step away from being transformed into an idol. We are more powerful than we think.

So take a good look at the incredible gifts that God has handed to you. Your phone. Your car. Your family. Your life. Each of these things has immense value because it has been crafted by the Creator. But be sure to love those gifts for God’s sake. A subtle shift in perspective is all it takes to turn a gift into an idol.

WilcoI recently saw Wilco play at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s fascinating to hear the way other people respond to music that has become meaningful to me over the years. I typically listen to Wilco through headphones, so my experience with their music has been fairly individualized.

I’m not sure what type of response I was expecting, but when the band played “Sunken Treasure” and front man Jeff Tweedy sang the line “music is my savior,” I was surprised when crowd went nuts. A lyric that I had always taken with a grain of salt apparently meant a lot to this crowd of 15,000.

For years now Wilco has been my second favorite band. I love Jeff Tweedy’s approach to songwriting. He strikes me as a deep thinker, someone who is in touch with his emotions, but not in an angry, unsettled type of way (or not typically anyway). I often find a metaphor or turn of phrase in a Wilco song that expresses something profound about the human experience. This makes them quietly compelling.

Jeff TweedyAnd I am constantly impressed with their musical creativity. Wilco has a solid grounding in classic rock and straightforward folk music, but this has never suppressed their creativity. The band has said that they first write basic songs, then they dismantle them and explore creative ways to reassemble them. This gives their songs a feeling of stability, yet there is always an intriguing sense of depth even in the music itself.

Add to this the reality that Wilco has been making great music for nearly two decades. Not many bands can claim that type of prolonged creativity.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear cheers when Tweedy sang “music is my savior.” I’ve always taken that line to mean that music was an important outlet during some rough times in his life. But I have made two significant realizations on the basis of the lyric itself and the response it received at that concert.

First, I think this shows the power of music. Wilco knows well the effect that music can have, and their expression of this truth resonates with a lot of people. Something about music reaches deeper within us than words or logic can go.

Jonathan EdwardsThe puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards recognized this when he said:

“The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”[1]

That music has a unique power is something we recognize intuitively when we are moved by a song. Thousands of people cheering to Wilco’s lyric affirms that this is something we all know to be true.

But this experience also confirms that music can easily become an idol. This is something we must constantly be guarding ourselves against. God’s good gifts are easily distorted and misused. We gladly accept these gifts and then use them as replacements for the God who gave them to us.

Music is indeed powerful, but when we are willing to go so far as to say that music is our savior, then we are allowing God’s good gift to take on an idolatrous role in our lives. And the fact that thousands of people were ready to scream their affirmation of this lyric shows that we are asking our music to do more than it is capable of doing. Music is good, but it is not God. It is helpful, and it may well be a part of the healing process, but it is not the Healer.

Ultimately, music’s power comes from the God who gifted it to us. At its best, music will point us toward the Savior. But when music itself becomes our savior, then our idolatry is exposed, and we must turn from a god that cannot save to the only true Savior.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005) 242.

I’m guessing this has never happened to you. But it happened to a friend of mine. The church he pastors rents its sanctuary and offices from another church. When that church put the property up for sale, a wealthy Hindu couple purchased it. They assured my friend that nothing would need to change with the way the church functioned or used the property.

Then they set up an altar in the “cry room” (a room at the back of the sanctuary where parents can watch the service with their infants).

What do you do about that?

I mean really. Imagine arriving at your church prepared to worship, and then noticing a new fixture in the back of the room. Hmmm. Maybe one of our missionaries set up a table to show us what it’s like to minister in India. Then you look a little closer. Nope. That’s an altar. Incense. An idol. People have been worshipping an idol here. Here. In the same building where we worship God.

How would you handle that?

I’m not just trying to be provocative by raising a crazy scenario. But I do think that it’s healthy for us to wrestle with some of the dilemmas that our brothers and sisters face as they seek to live as the church in unique settings. So take a minute to think about how you would respond. (Don’t cheat by reading ahead. Seriously think about it for a minute.)

Here’s what my friend did. He preached on two things. First, he preached on the reality of the church. The church is not a building. In the Old Testament, the Temple could be defiled by bringing uncleanness (and idols) into the physical structure. In the New Testament, however, worship is no longer centered on a building. The life of the church spills out into all of life. A dentist’s office is no less sacred than a so-called sanctuary. So an altar in the biggest room that this particular church happens to meet in does not defile the church. Idolatry in their lives would bring defilement, not idols in their meeting hall.

Second, my friend preached on 1 Corinthians 8:4–6, where Paul says, “as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’” People in Corinth were understandably concerned about eating meat that had been used to worship an idol. But Paul told them not to worry about steaks or blocks of wood. God is real, focus on him.

Obviously idolatry is a huge issue. But the presence of an object that has been falsely worshiped does not overpower God’s church. If that were the case, we would have to leave our wallets, our spouses, and our children at the church door, because those things often function as idols in all of our lives.

The thing that impressed me the most about the way my friend handled this situation is that they used the presence of the altar as a reminder to pray for their new landlords. In reality, there are people all around us who desperately need Jesus; we just don’t always recognize their lostness and idolatry. But when my friend’s new landlords set up a Hindu altar in the back of the sanctuary, all of the cards were on the table. Our calling is to be ministering to the people that God has placed in our lives, even when their idolatry is not literally on display.


While we need to give the anxiety we feel over our busy schedules to God, and while we should enjoy a certain fellowship with God in the midst of the activities that keep us busy, very often our schedules are busy because we are idolatrous.

It’s very likely that you are not experiencing God right now because your life is devoted to pursuing an idol.

What is your definition of success? Finish this sentence: I will know that my life has been a success when _________________ . Be honest here. You might be tempted to say “when I have spent lots of time with my family” or “when God has been glorified,” but are those realities reflected in your schedule? I would say that most Western Christians are as driven by material success as the non-Christians around them. You’re busy because you have a corporate ladder to climb, because you have a name to make for yourself, because you find significance in productivity, because you are defined by your accomplishments.

Office Deity by John Feodorov

John Feodorov created a painting entitled Office Deity that exposes this mentality for what it really is. The painting is intentionally modeled after a medieval icon. Seated on the throne, where the Christ figure would typically be seated, is the CEO. His fingers are held in a blessing pose, but instead of offering a blessing the CEO is holding a cigar. Surrounding the throne are the rank and file employees that serve the CEO. They clearly parallel angels, and they hold all of the means and the symbols of the CEO’s success.

Feodorov is not a Christian, but he has cut to the heart of our workaholic idolatry. Amazingly, he made this painting so that it could be hung in an actual corporate office! Can you imagine having to walk past such a reminder as you work on building your corporate empire? This would probably be healthy for all of us.

Whether we are worshipping the material goods that a busy schedule can bring us or the prestige that comes from great accomplishments, the idolatry inherent in our busy schedules is pulling us away from God.

But what about those who are busy in ministry? Surely this is not an idolatrous pursuit. Is it? Every contemplative minister will tell you that ministry can easily become an idol. For a few (think health/wealth gospel preachers), ministry is about striking it rich. For many, ministry is about the prestige of speaking for God or fixing broken people or the illusion of hyper-spirituality. For all of us, if we don’t already have a messiah complex, such a delusion could develop at any moment.

The messiah complex comes when you believe that you must save the people around you through your own efforts. No doubt there are huge needs all around you, and God does want to use you to spread His kingdom. But believe it or not, you are not the only person that God is using to reach the world. He hasn’t placed the weight of the world on your shoulders alone. He has a role for you to play, but yours is not the only role.

Maybe your busyness comes from a fear of being a nominal Christian—if you aren’t working like crazy for the kingdom, can you really consider yourself a genuine follower of Jesus? Laziness is bad, but so is an anxious, insecure, wrongly motivated flurry of activity.

Don’t get me wrong, following Jesus isn’t about living a leisurely life. We need to make sacrifices for the kingdom, and this will include our schedules. But we also need to realize that God’s plans for us are bigger than our to-do lists.

Before I end this series of posts, I want to reiterate that we shouldn’t necessarily run from our busy schedules—we can and should find ways to draw closer to God in the midst of every circumstance. But if an honest look at our schedules reveals even a hint of idolatry or self-messianism, then we have some significant changes to make. At the end of the day, anything—whether on our calendars or not—that we are not willing to give up for the sake of God’s kingdom is an idol.