When we care about pleasing God, Satan will try to use our sincere desire to drive us to legalistic extremes. Idolatry is a prime example of this. At what point does something become an idol in your life? If we don’t have a proper understanding of idolatry, Satan can get us so paranoid that we feel guilty the moment we form any emotional attachments. This is not how God wants us to live. Humans are created as sensual, emotional beings. We naturally form emotional and psychological attachments to things which play important roles in our lives. God has no problems with this as long as we don’t get carried away.
If I show you a piece of blue material and I say “Is this darker or lighter?”, you are going to say, “Compared to what?” You can’t answer my question until I give you some standard to compare it to. It’s the same with the concept of idolatry. To simply ask, “Is this person or thing becoming too important to me?” is an incomplete question. We must first establish some standard that we are going to compare things by—some baseline measure by which we can say “If it’s more than this, it’s too much.”
Now idolatry is a soul attitude, not a set of behaviors. Your soul has the capacity to love, desire, revere, submit, depend on, adore, and a host of other things. In life, there are many objects and beings which your soul expresses these attitudes towards. When you stay back from an electric fence, it’s because you revere its power to harm you. When you take good care of your car, it’s because you feel dependent on it to get you around in life. When you applaud a skilled musician, it’s because you admire his talent. When you do what a law enforcement officer tells you to do, it’s because you are choosing to submit to his authority. Does God have problems with these things? Not as long as the levels of your admiration, reverence, submission, etc., stay within acceptable limits. How do we know what God defines as acceptable limits? This is where we need to start comparing.
At any given moment, God wants the level of love, desire, reverence, submission, dependency, adoration and trust you have for Him to far exceed that which you have for other things. Does this mean you can’t form deep heart bonds with other humans? Not necessarily. Let’s use a rating system. On a scale of intensity from 1 to 100, let’s say your love for God comes in at 10. Your love for your kid comes in at 20. You are committing idolatry and God is going to be jealous. You see, if you love your kid twice as much as you love God, then you are going to consider pleasing your child to be far more important than pleasing God. Should God ever take your child away from you, you will probably respond with bitter hate and attempt to cut Him out of your life. When we put other things above God in life, our priorities get reversed, we make very bad decisions, and we end up feeling justified in disrespecting God. All of this makes Him very angry and He will discipline us in order to motivate us to want to fix the base problem, which is our languishing love for Him.
Now let’s say that on our scale of 1 to 100, you love God with an intensity of 60 and you love your child with an intensity of 30. In this second scenario, you love your child even more than in the first scenario, yet because your love for God is so much greater, things don’t get out of hand. Because God is far more important to you than your child is, you aren’t going to throw Him aside the minute something happens to your child. If God takes your child away from you, you will be very upset, but you will not feel like your entire life has been shattered and stripped of all meaning because you still have God and He is your anchor.
What we’re learning in these examples is that the more you love God, the more you can love other things without a conflict arising. But the less you love God, the more likely it is that your love for other things will turn into idolatry. Idolatry is when you love, cherish, worship, admire, depend on, revere, or trust in anything or anyone with equal or greater intensity than you do God. Idolatry breeds dependence on whatever our idol is and we find ourselves refusing to be separated from it under any circumstances. When God starts leading us in a direction that threatens to severe our connection with our idol, we stubbornly resist.
“I can’t quit my job to be a pastor because my job is what defines me. Obeying God isn’t worth losing my sense of identity.”
“I can’t accept that God is keeping me barren because without a child of my own I am incomplete.”
“I can’t step down from this ministry post because my ego depends on the glory I get for serving here. Even though God is telling me to quit, I am ignoring Him because this ministry is meeting important needs.”
Idolatry erodes our faith and confidence in God. We lose interest in deepening our personal bond with God because we have found satisfaction in our idol. We no longer want to grow or mature—we just want to worship our higher god.
“I won’t leave the house without my St. Christopher medallion. I trust Christopher to protect me more than I trust God. I don’t need God as long as I have this object.”
“I don’t need to seek God as long as I can read my Bible. This book satisfies my need for a Divine connection.”
“I will not accept that my mother is dead and gone. I have decided that she is my guardian angel. As long as I have her to talk to, I don’t need to talk to God.”
“I can’t be without a dog, because dogs satisfy my need to feel loved and wanted. I don’t need God when I have my pets.”
So how do we steer clear of idolatry? Not by hyper-monitoring our desire for other things but by pursuing a deeper love for God. When asked what God’s greatest commandment to people was, Jesus said it was to love God with all that we are. We often forget that Jesus was asked for a SINGLE great command. We try to say that He said there were TWO commands of equal value: to love God and to love other people. But no, that isn’t what He said. He said the FIRST and GREATEST command was to love God with all that we are. God is to be our ONLY First Love, not one of many first loves. If we embrace the priorities that Jesus laid out for us and focus on fulfilling that greatest of all commands, everything else will fall into place. If you’re focused on loving God with all that you are, you will never have to worry about trying to love other people—He’ll take care of that issue for you. But if you focus on loving people first, then you’ll end up in a royal mess. Today the Church talks about that second command a whole lot more than she talks about the first. She also tries to present these two commands like they are of equal importance. But no, it is ALL about loving God.
So how do we develop a deeper love for God? It’s simple: we ask God to make Himself our all-consuming Love in life. You can’t make yourself care more about God than you do about people. You are born caring nothing about God and caring immensely about many other things. He is the only One who can fix this crisis and make your priorities what they should be. You see, it’s not about straining and striving and feeling guilty all the time. We don’t mature in the faith by focusing on our failures and grasping at things which are impossibly out of reach.
Suppose God were to say that you must touch a star to please Him in life. Well, here you are a dot of a human who is stuck on the surface of planet earth. The stars are tiny points in your night sky which are light years away from you. Your arm is not even three feet long, so how are you ever going to succeed at pleasing God? You have two choices: you can either spend your life standing on your tiptoes, reaching up at the sky and crying in frustration, or you can say to God, “Pleasing You is what I want more than anything, but You are the only One who can reach a star. Please bring one down to me and I will gladly embrace it.” That second option is far more productive, and we take this same approach to fulfilling that first great command that Jesus gave us. Loving God with ALL that we are? That is impossibly out of reach for human beings, but nothing is impossible for God. If we ask Him, He will flood our souls with love for Him which is beyond our wildest dreams. The more we love Him, the more important our relationship with Him will become to us and the less we’ll care about pursuing anything else. We’ll still care about other people and things, but our desire for them will eventually become so eclipsed by our desire for God that idolatry will cease to be a threat to us. It all starts with knowing where to turn for a permanent solution to the problem: we turn to God, not to our own striving. We rely on HIS power and HIS willingness to change us into the people He wants us to be. We don’t let Satan get us all tangled up in fretting over our failings or in feeling guilty every time something starts mattering to us in life. So then, if you are concerned about idolatry in your life today, ask God to do whatever is necessary to have that first great command satisfied in your life. Ask Him to make Himself your First Love—the One you love infinitely more than anyone or anything else. If we ask, He will do it. The danger of idolatry is very real, yet it does not have to be something which leaves us bound in some corner of fear. Instead it can spur us on to pray the prayers that will lead us to glorious intimacy with our Maker. When we listen to God in life, He turns every threat, trial, and temptation into a new opportunity to thrive.