Idolatry as it Applies to Us

by | Jun 10, 2019

I’ve heard messages against idol worship that consisted of anything that a particular preacher had a problem with people doing—baseball, football, hunting, fishing, etc.


I teach that a god is anything that pulls your affection and allegiance away from our Holy God. I am not so sure I have the clearest explanation. I’d like your input! —Tom

Hi, Tom,

Many think of idolatry as worshiping what isn’t God, but worship of idols is a result, not the root; it’s a symptom, not the disease. As best I can tell, idolatry is relying or depending on anything besides God— for satisfaction, hope, happiness, security, success, strength, wisdom, deliverance, etc.

Ultimately, the root of idolatry is unbelief that God is enough for us.

When God isn’t enough, we want something besides God, so we look for it elsewhere. Wherever we look for satisfaction becomes an idol, i.e., it is in God’s rightful place in our lives; and God’s rightful place is being the source of all our satisfaction.

Scripture teaches this in several ways. First, by how it describes idol worship. Second, by how it urges dependence on Yahweh. Third, by its identification of greed as idolatry. Isaiah describes idol worshipers who prayed and looked for deliverance from something other than Yahweh (Isa. 44:17; 45:20; 46:7).

What they wanted was safety and salvation. Their idolatry was looking for it from something besides Yahweh. Jeremiah records idol worshipers who said they received “abundant food and freedom from misfortune” from the “queen of heaven” (Jer. 44:17). What they wanted was satisfaction and success.

Their idolatry was looking for it from somewhere besides Yahweh. Yahweh’s sad lament is “My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves …broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). They were relying on something besides Yahweh for their satisfaction.

Second, when God calls His people away from idolatry, He doesn’t just say, “Worship only Me” (Deut. 6:13; Matt. 4:10). He calls them to trust Him alone (Isa. 30:12, 15; 31:1; 42:17). He calls them to look for salvation and deliverance from Him alone (Isa. 43:11-13; 45:21-22). He calls them to open wide their mouths to receive His bounty (Psa. 81:10-16).

We avoid idolatry not just by worshipping Yahweh alone, but by relying solely on Yahweh for all that we need and all that we want. When we turn to other persons or things to satisfy our longings, we are idolaters.

Third, Scripture identifies greed as idolatry (Col. 3:5; cf. Eph. 5:5). Several versions translate Col. 3:5 as “covetousness is idolatry.” As a result, it is often equated with the 10th commandment. However, the wording isn’t the same. The 10th commandment forbids coveting (epithumeo), i.e., wanting what belongs to others for oneself (Ex. 20:17). Col. 3:5 forbids greed (pleonexia), which is broader than coveting.

Greed is a desire for more than one needs, which expresses itself in exploiting others or selfishly withholding good from others. In Luke 12:15, Jesus warns His followers to be on guard against every kind of greed (pleonexia). He illustrates this warning with the story of the rich fool who kept more than he needed.

He was “not rich toward God” by sharing with the poor. In Luke 16, Jesus tells the Pharisees who were lovers of money, “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). This statement helps us see how greed is idolatry. Persons who love and serve money don’t worship money. They don’t bow down to it. No, they look to money for their security (Luke 12:32-34). They rely on money rather than God to meet their needs and so don’t make His kingdom their primary objective (Matt. 6:24-33).

They are guilty of idolatry because they are relying on something besides God for their security and satisfaction. People often err by calling things “idols.” The problem is not hunting, fishing, etc., but how and why we use such things. If we make our life about possessions or pursuits or people, no matter how legitimate in themselves, we are idolaters. In sum, idolatry is relying or depending on anything besides God.