Why should we talk about idolatry? Wasn’t that a problem in ancient Bible days? Wasn’t that problem solved long ago? Don’t we know better now—now that we understand science and the way things work? People don’t bow down to stone idols or pray to tiny statues! That’s ridiculous!

But idol worship is not just something that happened in ancient times among Egyptians or Romans or Greeks. No! Idol worship still occurs today!

And it’s not limited to primitive tribes deep in the African jungle or with the Aborigines on the isolated Australian outback. The thing is, idol worship occurs all around us—in our society. Even modern, advanced, scientifically trained, secular minded, technologically savvy people worship idols.

We have a mistaken idea that idol worship is limited to carved images made of wood or stone or praying to small gold or silver statues or putting a bowl of rice on the mantel in front of a picture of a deceased grandparent or ancester.

But worship goes much deeper than religious objects or rituals. Worship must come from the heart. Jesus said, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” John 4:23

The OT prophet, Isaiah, said that outward, religious form was not the real substance of worship. “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.’” Isa 29:13

So if true worship is a matter of the heart—a spiritual matter—then we would suspect idolatry would also begin in the heart. Another OT prophet, Ezekiel even talked about idols in the hearts of people.

“…4 ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet [i.e. to seek help from God through the prophet], I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. 5 I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’” Ezek 14:4-5

When our hearts become “divided” (part loyal to God but another part chasing other things)…when our hearts become devoted to things other than God, we are flirting with idol worship.

So here’s what it come down to! An idol—by definition—is any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion.

It can be any object or affection that competes with wholehearted worship of the one, true God. Anything—even a good thing—that comes between us and God—anything that shifts our devotion away God.

Idol worshipers may still love God and worship him. It’s not that they completely abandon God. It’s just that they dillute their worship by also serving other things.

Ancient Israel often tried to “ride the fence,” so to speak. They served the Lord, Jehovah, Yahweh—but they also were influenced by the gods of the nations around them.

They wanted to “hedge their bets,” just in case God didn’t come through for them. So honored God but also sacrificed to other gods—hoping to get favorable weather from the rain god, or a successful harvest from the barley god, or protection from bad luck from the safety god, or to get children from the fertility god. They kept Yahweh as their own national god, but they also served other gods.

Ps 106:35-36 (NET) 35 They mixed in with the nations and learned their ways. 36 They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them.

So how does this relate to us? What does this say to 21st century Christian believers? The temptation of being influenced by the “nations” (the society around us) has not disappeared.

If anything, culture has more leverage and influence today than ever before. In ancient times people encountered the culture when they went to the marketplace or when the camel caravans of merchants came through town—and that was about it. We still have traffic on 33 and we still go to Walmart, but culture is much more pervasive!

We are bombarded incessantly by the forces and the voices of the world around us. It is unavoidable. You cannot build a wall to keep it out. Some people try. They find a remote cabin at the end of a logging trail in the Montana mountains. They unplug the TV and the radio. They shut off their phone. They cancel their subscription to Readers Digest, But no matter what they do, the IRS will still find them.

And if we choose to stay in society working a job and earning a paycheck—using cars and phones and computers, reading magazines and billboards, listening to radio and TV—then we are influenced by the “nations” around us.

It’s no wonder Paul in his letter to the Romans warns us to reject those strong influences of our culture. If we want to know God’s ways—his perfect will—we need to stand firm against the ways of the world.

Rom 12:2 (NET) Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God…

Earlier in Romans Paul spoke of the strong pull of material things that tempt people toward idolatry.

Rom 1:24-25 (NET) 24 …God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator…

Because we are human—physical beings—material things will be a constant temptation for us.

  • As physical beings, it’s difficult to see spiritual, invisible reality.
  • The natural default is to believe what we see—exchanging the truth about God for a lie.
  • Ancient idol worshipers wanted to worship something they could see—representing spiritual beings they could not see.
  • The same temptation continues today, to “serve created things rather than the Creator” (NIV).

Over the last couple of years I’ve read several books that have reminded me how easy it is for people to “exchange the truth about God for a lie”—and fall into idolatry.

These books emphatically show that the worship of idols is not at all limited to ancient cultures or primitive people. Idol worship is all around us!

Bad Religion: How we became a nation of heretics by Ross Douthat

Gods at War: Defeating the idols that battle for your heart by Kyle Idleman

Culture Shift: Engaging current issues with timeless truths by R. Albert Mohler

Worshipping the State: How liberalism became our state religion by Benjamin Wiker

Counterfeit Gods: The empty promises of money, sex and power, and the only hope that matters by Timothy Keller

In his book Keller reminds us of an important biblical principle: those who trust in idols will inevitably become disappointed and disillusioned. Ultimately, they will end up frustrated—without any hope.

Why? Because when your bottom-line, ultimate trust is in anything other than God, you are looking to false gods. And when you rely on a false god, it will ultimately let you down, leaving you in despair.

You often see this in regular news reports—people with no hope or little faith, people who rely on earthly things, who trust in material objects (can we say “worship material things”?), only to crash emotionally and spiritually.

This week it was L’Wren Scott, Mick Jagger’s girlfriend—successful, respected by the fashion world, adulated by movie stars and the elite of society. Her designs were worn by celebrities, including Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and even Michelle Obama. She had it all, by worldly standards: success, fame, a rich boyfriend. But for reasons not yet known, she apparently fell into overwhelming despair and took her own life at the age of 49!

It’s a common story. We’ve seen it all too often, where people give themselves over to the gods of our culture, only to be disappointed and disillusioned.

Keller in his book recalls a number of people who trusted in wealth or the economy who were left without hope after the economic downturn just six years ago in 2008:

  • The acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, hanged himself in his baement.
  • The chief executive of Sheldon Good, a leading U.S. real estate auction firm, shot himself in the head behind the wheel of his red Jaguar.
  • A French money manager who invested the wealth of many of Europe’s royal and leading families, and who had lost $1.4 billion of his clients’ money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, slit his wrists and died in his Madison Avenue office.
  • A Danish senior executive with HSBC Bank hanged himself in the wardrobe of his £500-a-night suite in Knightsbridge London.
  • When a Bear Stearns executive learned that he would not be hired by JPMorgan Chase, which had bought his collapsed firm, he took a drug overdose and leapt from the twenty-ninth floor of his office building. A friend said, “This Bear Stearns thing…broke his spirit.” [Keller, ix-x]

What happened in 2008 and following sounds a lot like what the OT prophets warned about!

  • Isa 44:9 – Those who fashion a graven image are all of them futile, and their precious things are of no profit (NASB) …the things they treasure are worthless. (NIV)
  • Jer 2:5 – …They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. (NIV) …they went far from Me And walked after emptiness and became empty. (NASB)
  • Isa 45:16 – They will be put to shame and even humiliated, all of them; The manufacturers of idols will go away together in humiliation. (NASB)

So what are some of the gods of our culture to guard against?

We’ve already seen the god of fame and the god of economic success. But let me just say that you don’t have to be a fashion designer or Wall Street executive to get caught by those idols!

Some average people commit themselves to the god of economic success and pay a huge price to that god. They may “sacrifice” relationships to be successful. Others “sacrifice” their integrity or ethics.

Or take it a step further. We find it incredible that people in Bible days would pray to inanimate objects—things carved out of wood or stone. But we find it unthinkable that they would sacrifice children—a human sacrifice to insure the blessings of the gods.

Why anyone would sacrifice a child? And yet it’s still happening! And it happens in our culture—by respectable, honorable, influential members of society.

“How?” you ask.

Some who serve the god of success “sacrifice” their children in their quest to get ahead. They put their kids on the altar of success whenever they neglect or ignore them. Or they “buy them off”—they over-
indulge their children, spoiling them—so they don’t have to spend time on them. They sacrifice children so they can continue unimpeded in their quest for success.

Still others, who don’t want children to interfere with their lifestyle, literally sacrifice their children on the abortion clinic tables—approximately 1.2 million per year in the U.S. (or about 200 babies in the time we spend in the worship service today).

Our society is not much different from ancient cultures.

There are many other examples, many other gods in our culture. Take the god of athletic prowess, for example. How many serve that god—and sacrifice their health to take “performance enhancing” drugs or steroids.

You’ve heard their names (Barry Bond, A-Rod, Lance Armstrong). But they’re just some of the more famous who have been caught. Many others have surrendered themselves to the athletic god. They’re willing to do anything to win—cheat, abandon relationships, neglect responsibilities, and so on.

Others may not be tempted at all by the gods of fame, success, accomplishment, or athletic prowess. But there are other things in our culture that appeal to them—and if they take them to extreme, they become idols as well.

Take this, for instance. [Barbie doll.]

If it’s just a toy, fine. But when glamor and beauty and a size 0 become one’s obsession—more important than anything else, something that controls your life—then it becomes an idol.

You see, anything can become an idol. So if I haven’t named your temptation or if you’re not squirming yet, listen to this list of modern idols provided by Timothy Keller:

A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry. When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, we may call it “co-dependency” but it is really idolatry. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” (Counterfeit Gods, xviii)

Next week, we’re going to talk about “Battling the Gods of Self.” But in the meantime…

How should we respond to all this? What should we do about this? How should we defeat the idols that battle for our hearts?

Some of you have been praying for revival in your hearts. Are you willing to give up the idols in your heart?

Some of you have been asking God to heal your marriage or your family. But if your spouse walks away, can you find your fulfillment in God alone?

Some of you have asked God to make your dreams come true. But are you willing to put your dreams on the altar, surrendering them to God so he can make his dreams come true in you?

Confronting the Gods of Culture