Few stories in the Old Testament tend to make us feel more superior to the Israelites than the tale of the golden calf in Exodus 32:1–6. How backwards they must have been to think you could make a god out of metal! How silly to think bringing offerings to a statue would bring peace, joy, and happiness! The entire story is almost too absurd to believe.
Or at least, until we examine our own idols.
Imagine if the Israelites could see the idols we bow down before—cable-news shows on big-screen TVs, grades on a report card, acceptance on social media. They would likely find our idols even more ridiculous than we find their golden calf.
The reason idolatry is listed first in the Ten Commandments is because idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. As Tim Keller points out, “We never break the other commandments without breaking the first one.” The secret to change, then, is always to identify and dismantle the basic idols of the heart.
Dismantling our idols, however, is often difficult because we don’t want to expose them. We don’t want to admit—even to ourselves—that we’ve made an idol out of our politics, our work, our relationships, or our comfort. It’s easier to rationalize that they’re not really idols at all, merely good things we sometimes focus on too much.
Not everything that we love is an idol, of course; there is much in creation that we’ve been given for our enjoyment. We can appreciate the gifts of God without making them a replacement for him. But if they are the first things our mind turns to, then you may have identified a problem area.
Here are a few areas to examine in order to determine whether the “good things” in your life have replaced a good God.
- Examine your imagination. What do you daydream about? When your mind wanders, is it to material goods, like fishing boats and exotic vacations, or to intangible items, such as the fame of celebrity or the approval of your peers?
- Examine your attention. Consider the times you would rather be doing something else rather than practicing a spiritual discipline. What activity would you rather be doing instead? Are there one or more time-wasting activities you regularly turn to when to avoid engaging in more productive tasks?
- Examine your finances. Most of us have discretionary or disposable income, money left over after the bills have been paid. How do you spend your disposable income? For what material goods or services are you most likely to go into debt to finance?
- Examine your prayer life. How do you feel when God doesn’t respond to your prayers in the way that you wanted? Do you trust that he knows best, or do you become angry and bitter? Have there been unanswered prayers that have made you doubt God’s goodness or made you want to turn away from him?
- Examine your relationships. What person do you love the most? What person do you most want to please? Do you have friendships or romantic attachments that lead you away from God?
- Examine your emotions. What do you most fear? What do you most hope for? What are you most passionate about? What do you most desire? What makes you extremely angry or sad?
- Examine your concerns. What do you worry about? What makes you most anxious? What do you most fear losing?
- Examine your past and future. If you had a time machine and could travel into either the past or the future, what would you use it to change? What makes you nostalgic? What are your biggest regrets? What do you most want to happen in the future? What would cause you to despair if it didn’t come to pass?
Use these questions to uncover deepest cravings and desires of your heart. Once you’ve identified a potential idol, consider whether you’ve put it ahead of or in place of God. Pray that he will help you become more aware of your idols, and that he’ll lead you on the long, hard path of faithfulness.
Like the Israelites, we may have to accept the bitter consequences of our idolatry. But any price is worth paying if it helps us to turn back to the true worship of Jesus.