What’s An Idol?

Most of us probably don’t make a connection between our favorite activities and the Bible’s definition of an idol.

We’re probably even content to pawn off our neighbor’s statue of the Virgin Mary as God’s idea of what a “graven image.” But the term idol is mentioned or alluded to so many times in the Bible – even in the 10 Commandments – that worshiping them must be a pretty serious offense!

So, before we discuss what an idol is, let’s first talk about what it isn’t, starting with those carved sculptures that are mentioned so much in the Old Testament. Sure, for those cultures that use them, they can be idols too, but they’re only a representation of the modern issues we’re dealing with today.

Second, let’s look at a passage that best defines what an idol is. Colossians 3:5 says it’s “everything that belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (NIV). Simply put, an idol is anything we live or swear by which keeps us from truly serving and worshiping God. So, chances are, there are elements of our daily routines which have “idol” written all over them (sorry, but that nightly smoke you “need” to get to sleep? That qualifies too).

Here are five things you probably didn’t know are idols:

  1. Your horoscope. It’s got the First Commandment written all over it. We’re not supposed to worship the image of anything that’s “in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” and astrology certainly fits that description. One reason it’s bad: it limits your potential. If you think you’ve got no more capabilities than a goat, then how are you ever going to walk on water?
  2. Television and media images. Yes, I know you’re really into that show, and you also think you can’t live without your Xbox. But entertainment and social media has taken on a life of their own, and these days, unfortunately, there’s very little reality or God in them. Idols created by the entertainment industry now influence almost everything in society, from lifestyle choices to career pursuits. Its images can be as extreme as porn, or as violent as your favorite video game. But they can also be simple images repeated over time, like the thin blonde girl symbolizing universal beauty, or the African American man in handcuffs symbolizing universal fear. These images become idols which influence thought. They illicit desire, disparage a race or gender, create a false reality, or negatively influence our ideas about absolutely everything and everyone – even Jesus. Psalm 97:7 (ESV) lets us know that “All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols.”
  3. Bad habits. Drugs, alcohol and other addictions; phobias, sickness, family history, overeating, uncontrolled emotions, thoughts…the list goes on. How many times have we heard (or said) statements like:

“I just can’t handle [insert phobia here]: that’s just how I am”, or

“We Smiths are [insert vice here]”, or

“My Mom and Grandma had [insert illness here], so I will too…”

Whatever limiting thoughts and ideas we allow ourselves to attach to are not only idols, but they can also influence the way our children and grandchildren think about themselves too (Exodus  20:5).

  1. Society’s norms. Gluttony, racism, oppression, and yes, casual sex; the practices we engage in and ideas we adopt which go against God’s instructions for our lives not only limit our own potential, but also the growth and potential of others.
  2. Money. This is a big one. Yes, it’s part of survival in our society. But love of money is another thing entirely. Jesus makes it plain in Matthew 6:24 that it’s impossible to live for greed and God at the same time. Greed has been at the heart of man’s endeavors from the beginning of time, and manifests itself in a variety of ways, from slavery to economic recession. If the motivation behind any action is monetary gain, as opposed to the intrinsic good of all mankind, then that action becomes an idol. From manufacturing a seed, to building a business, to developing a community or governing a nation: if God didn’t ordain it, then man’s probably in it for profit and control, and its effects diminish and destroy God’s people and His Will for the earth.

Idolatry keeps us from finding true liberty and freedom in Christ, and prevents us and future generations from being all we’re created to be (Exodus 20:2-5). “There are ways which seem right to a man, but in the end are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25). That passage defines idolatry in a nutshell, and God seemed to believe the message was so important for us to understand, He sent it twice! But in Proverbs 19:21, He also makes it clear that, in spite of man’s ways, it’s only God’s methods that triumph.

So save yourself years of trials and anguish: drop the idols and do things His way.