Before I expose the three great idols I have been forced to deal with in my life, it would probably be helpful if I first establish a working definition of idolatry. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as, “excessive devotion to or reverence for some person or thing.”
Spiritually speaking, this devotion to some object, activity or person is serious business because it takes the place of God in the person’s heart. The Apostle John concluded his first epistle with the sobering words: “…the whole world lies in the power of the evil one… Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (I John 5:19-21) Paul told the Corinthian believers: “Do not be idolaters… flee from idolatry.” (I Corinthians 10:7, 14)
Just to bring home the gravity of this subject I should mention that in three separate passages (I Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:20; Ephesians 5:5) Paul included idolatry as one of the practices that precludes one from eternal life. “For this you know with certainty, that no… idolater has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Ephesians 5:5) The Lord Himself named idolaters among those people who “…will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
The danger of idolatry is that it can be extremely subtle. As I mentioned, I have had to overcome three great idols in my life. It should go without saying that my obsession with sexual sin was an enormous idol. In one sense, despite its enormity, it was easier to deal with than the other two because it was an obvious sin issue. The other two were not so clear-cut.
Like many (if not most) men, success was another idol in my life. Believe it or not, it really didn’t become an issue until I went into ministry. I founded Pure Life Ministries as a direct call from God to help men get free of sexual addiction. I began with a sincere desire to obey God and help people. What I didn’t count on was the fact that my “self-life” was still thriving within me. That paved the way for self-ambition to take over my work.
What made this idol difficult to deal with was the fact that I had been called by God to do the very thing that was seeking to usurp Him from the throne of my heart. But He masterfully dealt with me about this issue over the years. I went through many painful experiences as He purged my heart of self-centered ambition. Eventually I came to the place where I could work in the ministry with the right attitude.
The most subtle idol I have dealt with centered around football, more specifically, the Oakland Raiders. Now, I fully realize that the first reaction of most female readers would be, “Whatever, Steve!” Women generally cannot comprehend the national male obsession with sports. But the old axiom is especially pertinent to idolatry: “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” The world offers a million different interests—all designed to entice people away from a true devotion to God. What one person loves another disdains. Satan knows how to present the perfect idol for each person.
I began watching the Raiders as an adolescent, but it was when I was a teenager that the team came into its glory years. What began as innocent affection grew into idolatry as the Oakland franchise of the 1970’s became one of the greatest football teams in NFL history. This idol remained lodged in my heart until 1985 when the Lord made it clear to Kathy and I that we were to get rid of our television set. One of the spiritual side benefits of that deed was that I was no longer able to watch football games. Before long, we had started Pure Life Ministries and my interest in the Raiders faded away.
But this idol had never been rooted out of my heart. During that period it simply lay dormant within me. Then, a few years ago, I accidentally discovered a website that posted daily newspaper articles about the Raiders. Initially, it was merely a casual interest, but before long I found myself visiting that website nearly every day. “It’s just a harmless hobby,” I assured myself. “There are no hidden messages or sensuous images. They are just innocuous articles written about a football team.” And so the idol began reemerging in my heart.
Over time, I became increasingly preoccupied with the Raiders. I found my mind drifting into thoughts about the team at inappropriate times. For instance, as an insomniac, for years I would spend time praying while lying awake at night. But now I found it much easier to think about the Raiders during those long nights.
I started to suspect that something wasn’t right in my heart. I went to a couple of trusted friends and laid out the situation. They both assured me that it was healthy for me to have an outside hobby. “You’re too hard on yourself, Steve!” one of them told me. I realized later that when I presented the issue to them I hadn’t been completely forthright about the level of my passion.
In spite of their assurances, in some inexplicable way, I sensed the Lord’s displeasure over it. One day, the issue unexpectedly came to a head through a sermon I have given many times about repentance. One of the points of this sermon is the need to deal strongly with sin, rather than allowing it to remain alive. Many times I have asked men’s groups, “If you have a mad dog out back, why would you keep it chained up? Why not just go out and shoot the thing and be done with it?”
This particular day, I was heading out my front door to go on a prayer walk. The Lord had been dealing with me about my growing infatuation with the Raiders. I announced to myself, “I’ve got to quit reading these articles for awhile!” At that very moment, the question I have preached a hundred times came forcefully into my mind: “If you have a mad dog out back, why would you keep it chained up?”
I knew the answer: “So you don’t have to kill it—so you can keep it.” I repented of my idolatry on the spot. The pull of it was still there for several weeks, but my determination to put it to death assured my victory over it.
At one time or another, every person alive either has had idols of the heart. By its very nature idolatry is extremely deceptive. For most people, it is just subtle enough to allow them to avoid dealing with it.
One of the most comprehensive definitions of idolatry I have read came from an old Puritan preacher named David Clarkson. He wrote that soul idolatry is, “…when anything is more valued, more intended; anything more trusted, more loved, or our endeavors more for any other thing than God… That which we most highly value we make our god… That which we are most mindful of we make our god.”
What about you, dear one? Has the Lord been putting His finger on any idols in your heart? Are you a mother who loves your children more than Jesus? If you are, He says that you cannot be His disciple. (Luke 14:26) Are there forms of entertainment, hobbies or possessions that you feel as though you can’t live without? If there are, Scripture says that you do not love God. (I John 2:15) There are a multitude of idols which Satan is glad to provide for anyone interested.
Idolatry is extremely dangerous because it allows some object, activity or person to take the place of God in one’s heart. The Lord wants to set you free of these false loves so that He can have you to Himself. After all, that is what it means to love someone, isn’t it?
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