How to Recognize an Idol

In last Sunday morning’s message we learned from Hosea 4 that idolatry hinders our pursuit of knowing God.  Just as the people of Israel in Hosea’s day became attached to idols (Hosea 4:17), so can we today.  Even Christians are warned about idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14; Colossians 3:5; 1 John 5:21).

Almost anything or anyone can be an idol.  What makes it an idol is what’s in your heart.  Idolatry is wanting and pursuing something other than God or more than God. An idol can be anything that hinders your relationship with God. 

You can have religious idols, such as a statue on a shelf in your house or the dashboard of your car.  Worshiping a dead saint or the virgin Mary is idolatry.

Idols can be material things or what those things represent in your life, such as a new car, an old car, a fast car, a smart phone, the latest technology in TV, golf clubs, a fishing rod, a lake house, Xbox, camping trailer, or knitting bag.

Your work can be an idol, as can the sport you like to play or watch, the health you want to preserve, or the level of fitness to which you aspire.

Your spouse, your marriage, or your friends can be idols.  A certain church culture that you prefer can be an idol.  You can idolize America, how it used to be or how you think it should be.  You can idolize your concept of what God should be like.  News, sports, Netflix, video games, smartphone apps, and social media can all distract you from your relationship with God. 

These things are not evil in themselves.  Neither was the golden calf that the people of Israel worshiped.  Calves are cute, and can even be tasty!  So how can something that is good, and not even a religious icon, become an idol?  How do you know if it is an idol?

Here is a list of questions that I gave in the message.  These are intended to help us evaluate if we are allowing something to become an idol in our lives. 

  • How often and how much do I look to this for guidance, comfort, pleasure, or fulfillment?
  • Do I give up time I should spend in the Word, prayer, and in worship and fellowship with God’s people in order to pursue this?
  • If this were taken away from me, how would I react?
  • Do I do something God forbids in order to have this? Would I sin in order to get, keep, or not lose this thing or person?
  • Do I neglect people or duties in order to have or do this?
  • What do I think would make me happy if I could have it? What can I not be happy without?  What are the “if onlys” in my life?
  • What do I desire, crave, or treasure that my mind goes to when not forced to think about something else?

Ultimately, if we ask God to show us idols in our lives, He will.  He wants our whole heart, and will make sure we know if there’s anything in competition with His rightful place in our lives.  When you identify an idol, do not despair.  Do not ignore it either.  God is showing it to you so that you can acknowledge it, turn from it, and return to pursuing knowing Him with your whole heart. 

Practical Ways to Pursue Knowing God

The theme of my summer Sunday morning messages at Calvary is Pursue Knowing God. Hosea the prophet called on the people of Israel to “pursue the knowledge of the Lord” (Hosea 6:3). The book of Hosea is the focus of our study. 

Last Sunday morning near the end of my message I shared some practical ways to pursue knowing God. I thought it would be helpful to provide them here. 

  • Accept what He has promised and provided through His Son, Jesus Christ. (John 17:2-3)
    Jesus gives eternal life to those who believe in Him, and eternal life is knowing God.
  • Intentionally (re)focus your heart on knowing God. (Philippians 3:10)
    The downward pull of our flesh and the busyness of life distract us from knowing God. We need to regularly choose to make knowing God the passionate pursuit of our lives. 
  • Pray specifically for a growing knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10)
    Paul prayed for the Christians in Colossae to increase in their knowledge of God. This is a scriptural prayer, one that God will surely answer. Pray the words of this verse for yourself.
  • Read the Bible with purpose, looking for attributes and acts of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5)
    Good places to start doing this are the Psalms, the Gospels, and Genesis through Exodus.  Relate these to the circumstances of your life, thinking, “What do I know about my God?”  Journal these. Write them down – “God is ______” or “God is my ______”. Then pray them back to God. Write down how these encourage and help you in your daily life.
  • Anticipate knowing Him fully forever.  (1 Corinthians 13:12)
    Our understanding of God is so very limited. There are many hindrances. But don’t be discouraged. Look forward to seeing Him face to face.  

Questions about Patriotism in Church

Around the time of national days of remembrance such as Memorial Day and Independence Day, I hear two questions about patriotism in church. Here are the questions in their basic form:

  • Why don’t we do more to show our patriotism in church?
  • Why do we celebrate patriotism in church?

These questions represent two mentalities about recognizing national holidays and what they represent. Some people wish we would devote more attention to it while others wonder why we devote any attention at all.

I have considered speaking to this issue, and a recent article prompted me to go ahead. You can read the article, titled Why Younger Evangelicals May Feel Uneasy in a Patriotic Church Service, here.

Here’s a less recent article, this one by Kevin DeYoung, making some of the same observations and expressing his opinion on the issue.

My thoughts are similar to some, not all, of these guys’. If any of what I say sounds the same, it is not copied. I thought these things before I read what anyone else said about them. Here goes, not in any clearly logical order.

  • We should express gratitude to God for all of our blessings, including the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans. There is plenty of Scripture that directs us to be thankful, and it is certainly appropriate to publicly thank God for our freedom, just as we thank Him for other material and circumstantial blessings in our lives. We should be grateful for the people who founded the USA and for those who have defended it and do so today. We can express thanks in prayer for them in the local church setting.
  • Christianity is not national. America does not equal Israel. America is not a manifestation of the kingdom of God. Christianity is personal. It is experienced individually, and it is embodied and expressed in the setting of the local church, not in the culture and political leadership of a nation. I am uncomfortable with preaching and praying for “America to turn back to God.” I do not think it is helpful to urge people to “Return to the faith of our founding fathers.” What Scripture guides us to pray for “God’s blessing on America?” We need to preach and pray for people to turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ. God does not have to give a particular nation prosperity, freedom, and security in order to show that He is alive and well and at work in the world.
  • Our fellowship in Christ does not eliminate national identity, but it does supersede any and all distinctions, including nationality (Acts 2:5ff; Galatians 3:26-29; Revelation 5:8-14). My local church is not an American institution. The church was founded by Jesus Christ, and He is its head. Having too much patriotic and nationalistic expression in church gatherings sends the wrong message. I did not say any expression, just too much. Finding that balance is each church’s prerogative. In many local churches, including ours, there are members, attenders, and guests present from countries other than the USA. I do not want to convey to them that our church is American. The worship, focus, message, and attitude of our gatherings should transcend nationality. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . . “ (Philippians 3:20).
  • Church gatherings should include times of specific prayer for national leaders, especially for those who are not friendly to Christianity (1 Timothy 2:1-7). This should not be limited to national holidays and election season.
  • Christians’ lives should be characterized by submission to, cooperation with, and respect for government leaders (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-7). Read that sentence again. Read the Bible verses. Christians who get upset about not having a patriotic service in church and then disrespect, mock, and defy national, state, and local governmental authorities are hypocritical.
  • In summary, I see Scriptural basis for giving thanks for blessings we enjoy as Americans, praying for governmental leaders, and learning and practicing what the Word of God says about living as Christians in whatever national setting we have been providentially placed.

Here’s what we did last Sunday, July 6, at our church. During our Sunday morning gathering, we made comments acknowledging the significance of the weekend, expressing gratitude for freedom, and a reminder that true freedom is found in Jesus Christ (John 8:36). Our prayer included thanks for national freedom as well as prayer for our brothers and sisters in the world who are oppressed and persecuted for being Christians. After that there was really no further mention of anything that would be considered patriotic. The musical worship and the message were focused on God and our relationship to Him. Then those who wanted to stay enjoyed a fellowship lunch in our wooded picnic area. At 1:30 a few children and families shared songs, and we sang a few fun Americana type songs and one or two that you’d find in the Patriotism section of the hymnbook. One of our pastors shared a message from 1 Timothy 2:1-7.

Our observation of Independence Day at Calvary may have been too little for some, too much for others. I think it was appropriate in that the main gathering of worshiping, learning, and growing was not focused on our nation, but on God and His Word, and that we spent time as a church family later in the day expressing our thanks to God, being reminded of what it means to live as Christians in our nation, and just enjoying being together.

Let the fireworks begin. =)