Exodus 20:3 has the first commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall have no other gods but me.” With the biblical and historical background of Israel written for us, we can easily point out the idols- the golden calf, the Baal statues, the Asherah poles and the molded pagan deities. It is easy to look at all those and think, “Well, I definitely have no idols.” However the truth, Beloved, is that the command of idolatry applies today just as it did with Israel in the desert. You see an idol is a God-substitute. It is anything that replaces the position that God your Creator has in your life. In our eyes (and in the Israelite’s) it may not seem profound, but let me explain.
Imagine for a moment that you are married. You have a spouse and you live together, naturally. Then one day you come home early from work and find your spouse got there before you. You are excited because you can get to spend some time together. You find the door open so you let yourself in. You hear your spouse laughing and talking to someone, excitedly. They must be on the phone, you imagine. Your spouse’s voice is coming from the kitchen. You head there, smiling. Then you hear another voice. You enter the kitchen and you see your spouse with someone else in the house (who is of the opposite sex). The other person seems to have caught your spouse’s full attention. Nothing queer is going on, at least you think so. Until you see this other person place their hand intimately on your spouse’s shoulder. Your spouse places their own hand on this stranger’s and smiles at them. They seem to be working together in the kitchen preparing dinner. Your spouse, who was chopping carrots, picks a piece and playfully feeds it to this stranger in the house with them. The stranger bites the carrot from your spouse’s finger and licks their finger “by accident.” They giggle and push each other around playfully and affectionately. You have no idea who this other person is. You see them laughing and having such a good time that they don’t even notice your presence. It takes a clearing of your throat for them to notice you standing at the doorway to the kitchen. Your spouse welcomes you and embraces you. You embrace your spouse back perfunctorily; meanwhile your eyes are fixed on this other person you’ve never seen. They are definitely not family. You’ve never seen them before.
“And who is this?” you ask your spouse, whilst trying to maintain a smile.
“Oh this is my very old friend, M, with whom we grew up together,” you spouse responds.
M excitedly walks towards you and gives you a handshake.
“You’ve never told me about M,” you state rigidly, trying not to have the handshake linger.
“Sorry dear,” your spouse responds, “But I have been talking with M for the past six months since we reconnected on Facebook. I thought I told you.”
“Nope, you didn’t mention it,” you state as a matter of fact.
“Well, I got so excited meeting M, I just forgot to let you know,” your spouse states, their gaze all the while pouring into M’s face.
“And we went on a few dates last month,” M states, gazing back at your spouse. “That’s when your spouse told me that you guys got married.”
“Indeed,” you spouse adds. “We bumped again into each other today afternoon and I thought I’d invite them home and make them dinner.”
Your mind is reeling! You don’t like the sound of it but you compose yourself. You study M; This is undoubtedly a sexually attractive human being to anyone of the opposite sex.
Your eye catches a basin and towel near your spouse’s favourite chair. “What’s this doing here?” you ask.
Your spouse laughs it off and replies, “Oh, M was just giving me a foot wash and massage before you came in.”
Your eyes bulge open! WHAT! You still feign control and try to appear calm.
“Oh, and don’t worry about the ruffled cushion, dear,” your spouse continues, “I was just giving M a little backrub when we got here and I had to have them lie down.”
It all sounds like a prank. You pull your spouse into the bedroom to have a serious talk outside the reach of M’s ears.
“Are you cheating on me!” you explode.
“What!” your spouse exclaims, bewildered! “M and I are just friends! How can you even say that?”
You feel a chilly breeze and notice the bedroom window open. You walk towards the window to close it, still trying to process a non-regrettable response to your spouse.
“Stop!” your spouses cries, “M likes that window open so that fresh air can fill the room!”
That’s it! You are besides yourself with rage! But just before you go all Hulk-smash, none other than M walks into your bedroom asking if everything is okay between you two. It’s too late; you lose it…
Okay, back to real life now!
M, Beloved, has taken your role as a spouse. They are a spouse-substitute. They take the place they should not take and they cause a lot of hurt, especially to the one replaced (you). M is an idol to your spouse. It is the same thing with God, Beloved. The moment you get born-again, you are the bride of Christ; he is the groom. And like the situation above, it is very easy to have an idol like M in your life. It is very easy to have a God-substitute. That situation with M is a dim reflection of how the LORD sees idolatry and how it breaks his heart. Throughout scripture, idolatry is likened to marital infidelity. Idolatry is spiritual adultery. Idols replace God. They take away our devotion towards him and they falsely try to give us the fulfilment that we need from God. We receive three key things from God:
- Unfailing love.
The believer’s unfailing love comes from the cross of Christ. We see God pour out unconditional affection towards us by sacrificing his only son. Our significance draws from our positioning in eternity. God has preserved for us eternal rulership and co-heirship with his son, Jesus. The scriptures say we are glorified (Romans 8:29) and we shall be moreso literally glorified when he appears. We shall have high rank and authority. That is significance. Finally, security. Our safety is so solid and everlasting. We are hidden with Christ in God and saved from eternal wrath.
What does that have to do with idols? Well, Beloved, the moment anything else but God becomes the source of our unfailing love, significance and security, it is our idol. We deny God the place he deserves and look for fulfilment in a lesser entity. The scary thing about idols is that they are often good things. The trouble is that when good things become ultimate things, they replace God in the lives of believers. An idol is a good thing made into an ultimate thing. We can look to money to give us unfailing love, significance and security. We can look to status to give us the same. But for today, I want to let you know, Beloved, that we can also do that with relationships and people. Beloved, if you believe that you are not loved and esteemed with affection apart from a marriage or relationship with the opposite sex, watch out. If you believe that a change of relationship status will make you more worthy, watch out. And if we believe that we cannot be content and complete in this life without a marriage or a relationship with the opposite sex, watch out. Don’t get me wrong, Beloved. I am not saying it is a bad thing to want a relationship with the opposite sex. It is great to desire it. It is healthy to wait for the blessed pleasures of marriage. This is by no means, an article to make you feel guilty about your desire for a husband or a wife. However, this article will show that the good things in life can hurt us if not within God’s space for them.
How can I know I am idolizing?
Here are a few questions that can help us know. The affirmative may confirm idolatry.
- Does this relationship interfere with my personal devotion to God?
A good relationship is not meant to replace the one you have with Jesus. If he makes you happy at the expense of you pursuing holiness, then you have reason to worry. If spending time with her makes you loathe spending time with God, you have reason to worry. Do you schedule everything around this person- including your spiritual walk? Even the longing for a relationship can put God at the backseat. Often we say, “God’s will be done” but we want our will be done. So we get impatient when God’s timing is not parallel with our timing. When you find yourself fighting with God because of his will over a relationship, ask yourself which is more important? God or the relationship?
- Does this relationship hinder Christian fellowship?
Any relationship that cuts us off from fellowship of the word with other brethren is a relationship that should cause us to worry. A relationship should never make us choose between healthy fellowship and itself. Idols demand our attention; our enslavement to them is proved when we are in a dilemma of choice.
- Does the absence of the relationship cause anger or inconsolable frustration?
If the idea of not being married/not being with this person debilitates us and steals our joy, then we have good reason to worry. A good relationship should never be the source of a Christian’s joy. While it is a blessing from God, we must realize that everlasting joy comes from the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19, Demetrius the smith shows us how we react when our idols are challenged. He was angry at Paul for preaching the gospel and began a riot in a bid to salvage his idols. Anger, rage, frustration. All these are the obvious deeds of the flesh that are mentioned in Galatians 5.
- Without this relationship, is my life without real lasting significance?
In other words, beloved, do you get your sense of importance and reputation from having a relationship with the opposite sex? If your relationship was to end, would you conclude that you are ruined? Does the idea of being single sound like a curse?
Like any idol, the best way to be free is to put our trust in God. God wants good things for us. The enemy lies to us that God doesn’t want us to enjoy marriage, sex, friendship and many other things that come from relationships. So he tries to make us have those things in an improper time or in a way that puts God out of the picture. In the end we always get hurt and the enemy ends up laughing. The truth, Beloved, is that when God is at the centre of our lives and worship, everything else works better than our best plans could conceive. Tear down the idols and see God refresh you in ways you could never experience. Or as our modern Christendom famously puts it: let go and let God.
1 John 5:21 “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (NIV)