How to know if you have any idols

7 min. to read.

Today I find myself uncertain. Circumstances that are painful and beyond my control block my field of vision. It’s painful.

It’s times like this where I find myself reaching for idols. Not little religious statues or a golden calf. Nothing you could see, really. Just something to give me a little hit of certainty.

You may have the same problem. If you do, it’s time to pay attention. Idols are sure obstacle to a vibrant relationship with God.

Not sure if you have any idols? Well, I’ve got a little test for you. Just three questions, and then you’ll know.

It’s not statues that are the problem.

Stress or uncertainty sending you into the arms of your idols?  Photo Credit:  Sam Delong
Stress or uncertainty sending you into the arms of your idols? Photo Credit: Sam Delong

Before I share the test with you, let’s talk a moment about idols.

If you grew up in the church, you know about idols from the Old Testament. People running off and worshipping other gods. Yahweh God getting upset. Prophets telling people to stop worshipping idols or Bad Stuff™ will happen.

But the problem with idols isn’t really the statues.

An idol is a replacement for God. The Greek word translated as idolatry. The Greek word is eidololatres which comes from latreuo which means to worship or serve, and eidolon which refers to a ghost, an illusion or something false. comes from two root words. It’s someone who serves, or sacrifices or worships. The object of their service is a ghost or an illusion. So, literally, an idolater is someone who worships an illusion.

Our culture has long ago given up worshipping old statues, but we devote our time, and heart and resources to a myriad of things hoping they will give us peace, certainty, or some kind of absolution. But these things are an illusion.

With that in mind, do you have any idols?

I Have Idols. Do You?

I suspect you do to. Here’s a little test to help you know. Three questions. Each question has a blank in it. I suspect you’ll know what to put in that blank immediately when you read the question.

1. Have you recently said, “If only I could have _____, Everything would be OK?”

2. Have you felt in your heart a sense of desperation that you’re sure would go away if only you were acknowledged or loved by ________.

3. Have you felt anxiety or fear around the possibility of losing ______?

If you said “yes” to any of those, and you had a clear sense of what to put in that blank, then you know something about your own idols.

Remember, idols are substitute gods. We want them to do for us what only God can do. Most of the time, the idols aren’t bad things. Most of the time they are good things, pleasant things, responsible things. But instead of letting them take their appropriate place in our lives, we fixate on them. We ask them to save us.

  • “If I only had a better job, everything would be OK.”
  • “If only my husband would love me in this way, I’d finally feel accepted.”
  • “If I lose her…  if I lose my job…  if I lose my reputation…  if I lose this opportunity… I’m going to lose everything.”

These are the kinds of statement we make when we’re talking about our idols.

Clearing out the temple of your heart.

You can find them if you're paying attention.  Photo Credit: Debasish Ghosh
You can find them if you’re paying attention. Photo Credit: Debasish Ghosh

Now, don’t feel terrible if an idol-in-the-making surfaced for you today. This is natural. Our hearts are wired to worship. We look for those things that we can depend on and set our hearts on them. This is why the warnings against idolatry come so often and so seriously in the Bible.

But if we’re going to grow, if we’re going to mature in the image of Christ, then we have to set our hearts on Jesus. When an idol starts to surface for you, that’s the best time to take it down.

First, Notice the idol and talk to God about it.

I’ve been dealing with some circumstances in my life the past few weeks that are big, and out of my control. I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety. That’s a warning sign of an idol in the making.

So, I’ve been stopping every time I feel that rush of anxiety, and praying:

“God, I’m feeling out of control. I’m feeling like I need a whole bunch of things to happen for me to feel OK again. Help me to trust You. Help me to want You most in this circumstance. Help me let the outcomes be your responsibility.”

That prayer doesn’t fix it, but it re-focuses me. I’ve been saying words like this so many times every day this week, I can’t even count them.

Second, Replace your idols as often as you can.

Your heart is wired to worship. You are going to worship something It’s unavoidable. The more you put Jesus in that place in your life, the less other things can sneak into that role.  Oh, one thing: Know that this process is less like remodeling the living room, and more like playing wack-a-mole.

Make sure you’re spending time every day seeking Jesus. Get to know His heart in the Gospels, and do it every day. Make sure you’re praying. Sitting in a church service once a week isn’t enough. Your heart needs to worship every day. Actually, your heart WILL worship every day. You get to decide what your heart will worship.

Third, Tear down the high places.

In the Old Testament, whenever God’s people got serious about worshipping God alone, they went and “tore down the high places.” The high places were the groves and alters where they worshipped other gods. Sometimes, if an idol has really taken over your life, the only way to deal with it is to tear it down.

This is what happens for an addict in recovery. They have to take dramatic steps.  They step away from the people and places and triggers that are associated with their substance use. They have to find a community of people to help them find a new way to live. They find a sponsor to walk with them. This is an extreme step, but if an idol is causing you to lose what matters most, don’t wait.

Noticing and dealing with our idols is hard work. Once an idol has gotten ahold on your heart, it will be painful to let it go. But idols are empty substitutes. Even the good ones. They can’t forgive us. They can’t give us a real identity. They can’t save us. All they do is undermine our growth.

  • Is there something in our life that we’re desperate for other than Jesus?
  • Is there something in our life that we’re anxious about losing other than Jesus?
  • Are we desperate to be affirmed by someone other than Jesus?

Sure.  Those things are true for me.  I’m guessing they are true for you too.   All those things are true, because we are wounded, we’ve lived through darkness, we’re human. But those very longings show us how badly our hearts need Jesus. It is Jesus alone who can set our hearts free.

22 thoughts on “How to know if you have any idols

  1. Great post Mark. The three questions really hit home and the idea that we are created to worship along with the focus of worshiping what we were created to worship rather than these other things really helped.

  2. This article is very true. It is hard to remove our idols and trust in
    God. Definitely we should work towards giving God the first priority but
    Only God can help us do that. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us,
    above all.

    1. It seems like there is a collaboration. God shines the light on an idol. I decide whether I want to let go or not. God helps that process unfold. I hurt. God heals. We begin again. Definitely not something we do without God’s presence!

  3. This is an interesting one. For me the third option – I fear and have anxiety for losing my Mother. However i disagree that she is an idol in my life or someone I put above God. The way I see it is – it is natural for a child to feel that way about their nuturer. The one who has shown complete security and to me my whole life. Now watching her grow older, the reality of death comes closer and thus the grieving process has begun. Therefore I think it is a normal reaction – and one I am blessed to have been able to have considering not everyone has wonderful parents. Therefore yes I am afraid and anxious to lose. my Mum, but that doesnt rule over my life, therefore I don’t believe is an idol in my life. Kim

    1. I think that’s a good thought process. The issue at the core of question 3 is this. Does your fear or anxiety cause you to shift your focus in a way that takes you away from trusting in God? So, for me at one point I had a great deal of anxiety about losing a particular ministry job and what that would mean for my value. I didn’t realize how much pressure I felt because of this fear, and how much it was influencing me to act in people-pleasing ways. It was only after I identified this trend that I could see it for what it was. My fear was standing in the way of trusting God.

      Fear and anxiety is a normal part of life and doesn’t always mean a lack of trust in God. It’s just a helpful diagnostic. When I feel anxiety, I’m always asking myself these days where the anxiety is coming from. Being afraid of a future without my mom is natural.

  4. Kinda scary how quickly I was able to fill in the blanks. Reflecting more on it, idols are a very real part of my everyday life. Looking forward to tacking the journal recommendation and begin reorganizing priorities.

    Thanks Marc!

    1. Man, Klyph… It’s been a rough week. I can’t tell you how cool and encouraging this comment is for me. I’ve had years and years of people greeting me after service saying “Nice sermon,” when what I hope to hear is what they are going to do with it. Here’s to life change and intentionality! Blessings, friend.

  5. I just found your article and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. My exhusband left me with four kids for another woman about a year and a half ago and I’ve had such a hard time moving forward and I realize that I truly made an idol out of him. Your three questions were challenging, yet so helpful. Truly though, the whole article made me slow down and think about what I was doing. Thank you for redirecting me!

    1. It means an awful lot to me that you’d share this. I’ve done exactly what you’re talking about. It’s so easy to decide that our lives, our sanity, our security depend on another person. But that’s an unreasonable burden for them to bear, and it’s a misplacement of them in our hearts. Idolatry, as you say. Blessings and rest to you as you sort out the pain and the progress. Grieving and letting go takes time. Be graceful to yourself.

  6. So like i still need help understanding what an idol is. For an example, say Tv was your idol and you don’t want it to be or maybe sports is your idol. Does that mean that we can never watch Tv or play sports ever again? Please respond. God Bless

    1. Hey Javier, Great question. In the Old Testament idols were false gods. We can apply the concept of idol more broadly when we consider what those false gods offered. Did they demand attention? Did they demand sacrifice? Did they promise security, forgiveness, protection? Worship is when we focus on something and give it value in such a way that it occupies our attention and begins to shape our lives.

      In our modern life we might not be worshipping false gods like Molech and Baal, but we definitely give our focus and attention to things in such a way that they shape our lives. This can be just a habit. Really loving football, for example, can be a hobby or a habit. That’s not a problem. Where idolatry comes in is when we begin to treat something as a source of security, meaning, and value that isn’t really God. So, as a writer, if I make the response of people into something that my sense of worth is based on, then I’m allowing my writing and people’s attention to become an idol to me. If I make my financial life into the ultimate source of my security and sense of peace, then I’m making it into an idol. Any time something in this world occupies my worship, my heart’s focus, and I look to it for security, I’m running the rise of making it an idol.

      Now, does that mean that we never do that thing again? Not necessarily. These things need to come into their proper place in our lives. I don’t think God minds that we watch TV. I think God begins to mind when watching TV gets in the way of our relationships. I think we need to be concerned that TV has become an idol when our sense of being on top of all the current shows, and knowing all the pop facts becomes so important to us that it becomes a part of our identity. Our identity is in Christ, and anything that challenges that could very well be an idol. Can you return that part of life to its healthy position? Then do it. If you can’t do it, and it’s so compelling to you that it’s more like an addiction, then it’s definitely an idol, and needs to be dealt with more seriously.

      Those are a few brief thoughts of mine on the subject, anyway. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. Hey Javier, Great question. In the Old Testament idols were false gods. We can apply the concept of idol more broadly when we consider what those false gods offered. Did they demand attention? Did they demand sacrifice? Did they promise security, forgiveness, protection? Worship is when we focus on something and give it value in such a way that it occupies our attention and begins to shape our lives.

      In our modern life we might not be worshipping false gods like Molech and Baal, but we definitely give our focus and attention to things in such a way that they shape our lives. This can be just a habit. Really loving football, for example, can be a hobby or a habit. That’s not a problem. Where idolatry comes in is when we begin to treat something as a source of security, meaning, and value that isn’t really God. So, as a writer, if I make the response of people into something that my sense of worth is based on, then I’m allowing my writing and people’s attention to become an idol to me. If I make my financial life into the ultimate source of my security and sense of peace, then I’m making it into an idol. Any time something in this world occupies my worship, my heart’s focus, and I look to it for security, I’m running the rise of making it an idol.

      Now, does that mean that we never do that thing again? Not necessarily. These things need to come into their proper place in our lives. I don’t think God minds that we watch TV. I think God begins to mind when watching TV gets in the way of our relationships. I think we need to be concerned that TV has become an idol when our sense of being on top of all the current shows, and knowing all the pop facts becomes so important to us that it becomes a part of our identity. Our identity is in Christ, and anything that challenges that could very well be an idol. Can you return that part of life to its healthy position? Then do it. If you can’t do it, and it’s so compelling to you that it’s more like an addiction, then it’s definitely an idol, and needs to be dealt with more seriously.

      Those are a few brief thoughts of mine on the subject, anyway. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. Ive been engaged for 6 months and I feel as though my thoughts of losing her and of her hurting me sometimes take over and give me anxiety and I know its the enemy trying to get into my head but i feel as though giving it this much thought has it become my idol? Any advice? Ive suffered from low self esteem and insecurities but with Gods help ive managed to really started a journey to renew my mind and heart.

    1. Oh wow. That sounds scary and painful. I’m sorry that your engagement is getting cluttered up with all of that.  Is your partner an idol to you? Maybe. Have you given your partner the role in your life of providing security, value and purpose? Something to consider.  

      But I’d also encourage you to push deeper.  Forgive me if this is presumptuous, since I don’t know you at all.  It sounds like you have a lot of loss and pain in your personal story, perhaps some experiences of being excluded or rejected. When we have unresolved pain in our story, it comes up in high intensity moments, like an engagement. Then we feel outsized and exaggerated emotional reactions to the people in front of us, that are really rooted in these experiences from our past. If what I’m suggesting connects with you, you may need to see a counselor who will help you untangle the pain in your story. If you do this work, you’ll find it releasing you from much of that insecurity and fear.

      Maybe God is using the discomfort you’re feeling around these ideas of being hurt or losing your fiancé as a way to encourage you to see deeper healing?

  8. Great article. I’m a wife and young mom of three small children, 5yrs, 3yrs, and 3mo. I don’t believe I’ve ever fully trusted God, even though I came to know The Lord 12 years ago at the age of 16. I have a lot of fear and anxiety in my life, mostly centered around my health and the fear of getting cancer, dying and leaving my 3 small children behind. I want to grow old with my husband. I want to raise my children in the ways of The Lord. I want to homeschool. (No coincidence that idol begins with “I”, right?). None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but when you spend hours a day researching medical conditions you fear you have in an effort to “catch it early” in order to HOLD ONTO these things, its incredibly unhealthy and dangerous in terms of your relationship with God. I’m working on this, but I gotta tell ya’…its not easy. Its a daily exercise of dying to self…or hourly for me. Thank you for your article. Praying God’s mercy over all of us struggling with letting go.

  9. I was trying to find out what is considered an idol today, when I found your article. I live on the West coast, but I am from the east coast. I have always hated it where I am and I am constantly trying to find something I can afford , so I can move “home”. While I do spend a LOT of time looking for houses in New England, the truth be told when asked, or should I say told, by friends, “if you REALLY wanted to go there, you would have ALREADY done it”. My answer is ALWAYS the same, no, unless God puts it together, I will NEVER do that, because if I am NOT in his will, I will be miserable. I am always afraid I am going to make the wrong choice. So my question is this, I am afraid to move unless I know for sure that it is God, which would mean finding something in my price range. So far, that has not happened. Does this still describe idolatry, because I spend a lot of time looking? I do not do everyday, but when I do do it I spend many hours looking.

    1. Hey there, MJ. What an interesting question. A couple of things occur to me.

      First, you say this: “So my question is this, I am afraid to move unless I know for sure that it is God, which would mean finding something in my price range. So far, that has not happened.” This is an interesting assumption. I don’t know why finding a house in your price range would mean that God was in it. I’ve been able to afford lots of things that weren’t God’s will for me. Maybe God wants you to move, and it’s still out of your price range, and you have to move on faith. Or maybe God wants you to stay, but you find something in your price range and move. Not sure if your assumption is a helpful one.

      Second, you ask if it’s an “idol” to spend lots of time looking for a house back east. In my view, an idol is something you are placing your trust in, finding your security in, rather than God. I don’t know if you’re doing this with your dream of moving home or not. It sounds more like a distraction than an idol. But distractions can be bad too, since they keep your eyes off the things that are right in front of you.

      If I were in your shoes, here’s what I’d do. I’d pray and present my heart to God. God, I really want to move home, but it seems like that’s out of my reach. I also really want to be in your will, so I’m bringing this to you and asking you to guide me. And then, having prayed that prayer, I’d focus on living my life where I am. The problem of longing for home is that it can keep you from seeing what’s right in front of you. You may be missing relationships, opportunities, and things God has for you because so much of your heart’s attention is focused on being somewhere else. God is always to be found in the NOW. That means, the present moment where we actually are.

      Is it God’s will for you to move home? I can’t say. But I can say with confidence that you may be missing important opportunities and blessings by not paying attention to where you are actually at. And, in the end, God may not really care one way or the other. Ephesians 4 says that God’s project in your life is maturing you in the image of Christ. That can happen on the east coast or the west coast. Focus on growing up in Christ, developing trust which allows you to be present, and then see what happens.

      Blessings!

  10. Hi i found your article helpful in clarifying an idol in my life i thought i’d dealt with. I believe it’s food. What do you do if you draw life from it even if it’s not binging or eating badly but you know you desire it more than you want God. I’ve struggled all my life with this and never had much of a relationship with God to speak of, a scary place to be in because i know you can definitely lose the holy spirit from this. I have tried fasting before but i always gave up from the side effects (not being able to sleep, inability to keep warm no matter how much i wear) i’m not very well and i’ve become extremely food dependant. I’m not sure if you’re still active on here but would love to hear your thoughts if you are. thanks

    1. Hey Stephanie, thanks for leaving a comment! I can hear the struggle in your words. Wanting God, and thinking that food is in the way! I can’t answer this question well for you, not knowing your specific situation. Here are a few things to think about:

      1. God gave us food and intends food to nourish our bodies. So, hunger is not an anti-spiritual motivation. God plans on you being hungry. I wonder if it’s possible to associate your hunger for food with a hunger for God, and when you feel hungry let that be a prompt to remind you of God, and perhaps even a cue to spend some time seeking God in prayer, scripture or some other way.

      2. God doesn’t operate through shame or guilt. If you are feeling guilt or shame around eating, that is not from God. Are you feeling guilt or shame around your need to eat? Know you can be free from that. God is not piling guilt on you for this natural need.

      3. You say you desire food more than you want God. I don’t know what you mean by that. Are you desiring unhealthy food? Or too much food? Perhaps you can talk with God about this desire, and the kinds and amounts of food you desire. I believe God can help you bring a good desire into your life for good things.

      4. Fasting is not a miraculous spiritual activity. In fact, it can be a terrible choice for some people. Spiritual disciplines, like fasting, have a purpose. If that purpose serves your journey and where God is leading you, then good. But the discipline itself is not a relationship with God. Don’t fast unless God is leading you to fast.

      Your situation is much larger than a simple comment can convey. I don’t know the details, but the Holy Spirit does, and the Holy Spirit is with you. Read John 14:20. This is true for you right now. You are not alone. You are loved.

  11. Wow!!! This was written over four years ago and God knew I needed this article at this very moment. I was in a relationship for a year and I did not realize it was an idol until now. I was seeking my value, security, and purpose from this relationship. It ended abruptly and left me confused and seeking closure. I recently read an entry from my journal. I wrote the entry about a week prior to the break up. The entry included a prayer asking God to take me deeper in Him. A week after writing that entry, my boyfriend and I went from discussing marriage and looking at houses to our relationship falling apart during a conversation that lasted less than 10 minutes. I didn’t really understand but it’s all crystal clear now. Thank you for this article.

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