How Idolatry Works

Idolatry is a popular concept within the church today. We’re always trying to “expose idols” or “repent of our idols”. This can be good. But if we’re not careful when jumping onto the idol-talk bandwagon we can get confused and become confusing for others. So if we’re going to proceed in an intelligent and helpful way with combatting idolatry, we need to know how idolatry works.

The second commandment says: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

The narrow application of this command is that we are forbidden to make images that we think represent God and to seek to relate to God through these images. The images here are very literal. This has been a prevalent practice throughout history and still exists in some world religions (Hinduism, for example).

But it apparently has broader applications as well. Paul speaks of idolatry when he says that all people have “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). So idolatry isn’t just worshipping a graven image. Idolatry is worshipping any created thing in place of the Creator. The Creator alone deserves our love, allegiance, and service.

Simple enough, but my claim here is that we’ve made a mistake in thinking and talking about idolatry. When meditating on our own lives or counseling others, it’s a mistake to think of an idol as something abstract. Idols are always concrete. And unless you recognize the concreteness of your idolatry, you’ll never be able to turn from it in a meaningful way.

Abstract Idolatry

We accuse ourselves and others of worshipping abstract concepts. Examples abound: power, comfort, success, love, community, glory, honor, pleasure, and the like. We may tell ourselves or others: “You’re worshipping community instead of God” or “You’re worshipping power and glory instead of God.”

This may sound right at first blush, but it’s actually not true.

Think about it this way. God is the eternal, invisible creator of all things. Every good thing comes from him. All of the abstract concepts mentioned above ultimately come from God, yes, but we can go a step further. All of the abstract concepts mentioned above are attributes of God. In other words, these abstract concepts are not things that God has made, but attributes of God himself. God did not make love. God is love. God did not make community. God is community. God did not make power. God is power (isn’t omnipotence an attribute of God himself?). So to worship love rightly is to worship God. To worship power rightly is to worship God.

This means that when we are looking for love, honor, power, glory, acceptance, comfort, peace, or pleasure we’re actually looking for God. All of these things are found in him because these are attributes of God. So where does idolatry come in?

Concrete Idolatry

We commit idolatry when we idolize an attribute of God. This means that we take something that is actually found in God and attribute it to some concrete, created thing. Power is an attribute of God, but we idolize power when we think that we’re ultimately going to get it from money. Love is an attribute of God, but we idolize love when we think that we’re ultimately going to get it from a human relationship. An idol is always concrete.

Turning from idols to serve the living God

So are you looking for love? Are you looking for community? Are you looking for honor? Of course you are. You were made to look for these things. Because when you look for these things, whether you know it or not, you’re actually looking for God. So the question isn’t “what are you looking for?” We’re all looking for God. The question is: “where are you hoping to find what you’re looking for?” Are you trying to find love in a boyfriend or spouse? Are you trying to find security in a steady job or big bank account? Are you trying to find control in a position of authority? That’s how idolatry works. Recognizing it is the first step in turning from it.

Find these things in God, and specifically in his express image – Jesus Christ. Let him be your lover. Let him provide you with eternal security. Let him provide you with honor beyond everything you deserve. Let him bring a sense of control to your life. We’re all seeking God. We just need to find him in Jesus Christ.