It has become a commonplace in Christian circles to talk about idolatry. There are a litany things that we are said to lift up as idols, such as money, sex, power, nation, family, etc. However, what are we really saying when we talk about these various “idolatries?” From experience, what seems to be more prominent when people are talking about idolatry is along the lines of misplaced desires and loves that wrongly replaces the type of love we sohuld have for God. It is common to connect idolatry to the affective center of the person. While there are certainly various ways people understand idolatry, this seems to be the prominent understanding of idolatry, particuarly in the circles I run in.
Let me put forward, however, that is if a misunderstanding of what idolatry is in the Bible, and idolatry as misplaced love can do more harm than we realize. In fact, I want to suggest that such a definition of idolatry smuggles is in an incipient ‘Stoicism’ that treats Christian faith and life as about *directly* getting our desires correct and in order.
First off, it is important to point out something that is obvious but obviously overlooked: what we talk about as idolatry today is not the same thing when the Bible talks about idolatry. Idolatry was part of cultic ritual and worship where a certain god or goddess had a visible representation of them that people came to, worshiped, prayed, make sacrifices to, etc. With one important exception, when idolatry is talked about in the Bible, it is referring to this practice. It is not referring to the misplaced affections of the heart or some entrenched subservience to some idea or value. Idolatry is the relationship one took with the idols and the divine beings these idols represented.
So, let me give an alternative definition of idolatry that can begin to make better sense of what idolatry is as its core in the Bible: idolatry is the perception of power in someone or something that we then we become dependent and allegiant to them for the preservation of life and fortunate in a way that supplants faith and loyalty to God. At the core idolatry is the notion of power. In the cultic practices of idolatry, there was a belief that these beings who were worshiped through visible representations impacted the course of life, depending on how you responded to them. Gods and goddesses were consider to be as beings of great power that exceeded what mere humans could do.
This doesn’t usually apply to many of the things we apply “idolatry” to today. I once heard that “family” was an idolatry of evangelicals, but most evangelicals do not think that family has some pervasive power, all-encompassing power over life. They think it is a good, an important good, of life, but the vast majority of people do not consider their family to be of a god-like power over the nature of their lives. Certainly, some people may place too much of their happiness in their family, but that does not approach close to idolatry in the Bible sense.
Or, lets consider sex: it is often talked about as an idolatry. I supposed in some rare instance if might function that way to narrow range of people, but most people do not consider sex to be a power that they are dependent upon for their life. Rather, they have some sort of desire for sex that leads them to act in ways that may be unhealthy, both spiritually and mentally. This isn’t idolatry as much as it is sin in the spiritual manner and dysfunction in the mental. Certainly, idolatry and sex went hand-in-and in the some cultic rituals and practices, but that is because sex was instrumental in the ritual experience, not because sex itself was necessarily the idol.
While it may be well-meaning to regard these two examples as idolatry, with the intention of helping people to find their true self in God, there is a problem. By calling them idolatry, we treat the unhealthy desires and attachments to family and sex as something we can directly choose, as if it is as simply as simply redirected our hearts to God and away from the idols. While our desires can change as a result of other choices and practices we make in life, we do not choose our desires.
However, we can choose how we act on our desires. This is where desire and idolatry can interface. Our desires can lead us to act in specific ways to depend upon and seek some being or thing we perceive to have a pervasive power over our lives that can fulfill our various desires. This is how money works, as its ability to be used to exchange for a wide array of goods and services makes it perceived to be a pervasive power that means a person who has made money their god will actively seek its power and make various life decisions based upon it, especially in a way that takes away faith and allegiance to God. However, our desires and the most immediate object of our desires themselves are not themselves “idols” in the Biblical sense. They may be temptations to sin, they may be unhealthy, they may cause problems, but these are not idols.
On the other hand, idolatry in the Bible was about people’s actions to seek, inquire, and sacrifice to these idols that ignores the right place of God. When King Ahaziah in 2 Kings 1 sends messengers to inquire of Baal Zebub, the word of God that Elijah brings to him isn’t a criticism of his heart being in the wrong place, but that he acts as if there is not the God in Israel. Idolatry is about misplacing of what power we are seeking and are dependent upon. When Paul urges the fleeing from the worship if idols in 1 Corinthians 10.14-21, the problem isn’t that they have the wrong desires, but some of the Corinthians choice to eat the sacrifices to idols as the problem, as this ats somehow brings them under the influence of demons. One commits idolatry not in the heart, but by what one does. The heart may provide a temptation, but it is one’s actions to relate to some being or entity deemed to be source of pervasive power that constitutes idolatry.
Certainly, idolatry and the heart goes hand-in-hand, but we need to be able to distinguish between them. Many harms can be done to people by treating unhealthy desires as idolatries, as if they simply need to choose to re-up their commitment and devotion to God. This can lead to people to run in circles to try to fix their hearts through the direct control of emotions and feelings.
Furthermore, rightly directed worship can be instrumental in addressing misshapened desires without directly trying to control desire, but the present of this desire or even the sinful giving it to the wrong form of the desire is not idolatry, but it is simply sin. Otherwise, we risk taking the sins of believers and exaggerating them into idolatries, thereby treat them as if they are evidence that they are not rightly seeking the very One who gives them redemption, leading to a form of spiritual arrogance by those whose life circumstances allow them to be free from what they perceived to be misshapen desires and make them subtly thing their worship and life before God as purer and in the true direction, whereas those people in their “idolatry” are deeply mistaken. “Those people with their struggles are struggling because they aren’t truly worshipping God. They aren’t truly giving their hearts to God with the right motives, the right intentions, the right heart.” While certainly, sincerity is important, redemption comes not because we rightly directs our hearts, but because in choosing to sincerely worship the living God in Christ and through the Spirit through our usage of our bodies in worship and life, our lives and our hearts are put on the trajectory of transformation.
By making a finer distinctions between idolatry and misshapened desires, we can still recognize they can go hand-in-hand, but we can avoid the problems of an incipient, powerless “spiritual” Stoicism and “spiritual” arrogance of the fortunate and privileged that can come when we begin to think them as synonymous. Furthermore, we can begin to more effectively imagine the Biblical world through making this distinction.