In the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses, the Second Commandment was to not worship idols. This was very applicable to the culture which existed back in that time, where nearly all the cultures around Israel worshiped physical idols. But does this Commandment still apply to us today, when we live in our secular 'western' countries? I believe it does, but we have a harder time identifying what is an 'idol' than in other countries where physical idols may still exist. It is important to identify what is an idol so that we can resist it and make sure we are truly worshipping God with our whole hearts. So lets investigate what the Bible says about idolatry.
What is the definition of an Idol?
The Second Commandment says "Do not make idols that look like anything in the sky or on earth or in the ocean under the earth. Don't bow down and worship idols. I am the Lord your God and I demand all your love."(Exodus 20:4-5). However, I believe this is just a sub-point of the first commandment "Do not worship any god except me"(Exodus 20:3). God specifically states that someone who worships anything, whether it is another 'god' or a statue that looks like something, is going against God's will.
However, in the New Testament, Jesus took this definition and expanded on it. Jesus said "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind." (Matthew 22:37). And in fact, Jesus said that loving God has to come even before our love to our family our our own lives: "You cannot be my disciple unless you love me more than you love your father and mother, your wife and children, and your brothers and sisters. You cannot come with me unless you love me more than you love your own life." (Luke 14:26).
What does Idolatry look like today?
As seen in the previous paragraph, idolatry is much trickier than not praying to a golden statue of Buddha. Idolatry as defined by Jesus is anything that we value or love more than God. If we look closely at ourselves and our society, we can see that idolatry is still very prevalent. In our walk with God we need to be on the lookout for things in our own lives that we value more than God, to recognize them, and put them in their proper place. Some things which may easily become idols in our society are:
- Money or financial security
- Physical beauty
- Reputation, popularity, or social status
- Career success
The best way to test if any of these, or anything else, is an idol in your life is to ask the following question: "If Jesus wanted me to give this up, could I?". You can also ask "What do I use to define myself?". For example, if the first thing that comes to your head is something like "I'm pretty", or "I'm the most popular in school" or "I'm the CEO of Company X", or "I'm a goth", or "I'm the best basketball player" or even "I have a wonderful family", it may indicate that those things are an idol. In these cases, If God removed your beauty, if your friends suddenly left you, or you are laid off, if you could longer dress "goth", if you lost your talent, or if your family died, would your identity still be intact? If we base our identities on being a follower of God, then even though all these other things could disappear, we can still stand strong in God's promises of heaven, eternal life, and the special status of being God's children. If there is anything you hold on to so tightly that you would not let go of it if God asked, then that is an idol.
Physical Idols Still Exist
It is also important to note that physical idolatry does still exist. There are still cultures out there that worship their statues, or worship nature, instead of God. Even the Catholic church comes very close to idolatry with its worship of Mary, the Saints, and the use of their statues, holy water, and rosaries. If the Catholics are merely using these things to help direct their thoughts towards God, then it's probably ok. But if they think there is some mystical power in these objects, or attribute divine characteristics to Mary or their Saints, this is idolatry. God does not live in the statues of Jesus or in rosaries, or even in the communion wafers. The Bible never says we should use icons to point us to God, and I believe that it is safer to not use them in case they may become idols. We are to pray only to God as the Trinity (God the Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit), and to have faith only in Him.
How to Overcome Idolatry
Basing our primary identities on God instead of the other things we can find in life is a good first step towards overcoming idolatry. If we know God's promises to us, and see ourselves as God's special creation and try to always serve God, we will avoid many of the traps of idolatry. But even serving God could become an idol if it is done not out of love for God, but out of desire for status or a 'godly reputation'. So instead of defining ourselves by external factors, we should define ourselves more as "A Christian, who happens to work as CEO of company X" or "A Christian, who happens to be blessed by God with beauty and talent", etc.
If we have our identity first based in God, we can lose or gain material wealth, popularity, beauty, or anything else and our security and identity will not be affected by it. I believe this is why Jesus said "But more than anything else, put God's work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well." (Matthew 6:33). If we care first about God, then God can safely give us blessings without those blessings becoming idols.
This can be very difficult when nearly everything in our society tries to tell us that our identity is defined by external things. This is the entire point of advertising - to convince us we 'need' something so that we can become like the people in the commercial who have it all. That we 'need' to look beautiful to be happy and secure, or that we 'need' to have this thing to fit in and be cool. Celebrity culture worships people who are pretty, thin, successful, popular, and rich. When I see these people on TV, I often wonder how they would react if they lost it all. Would they even know who they are without these things? Can you imagine someone like Paris Hilton losing her looks, fame, and riches and having to work as a janitor? Would she be able to say "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised."? (Job 1:21). Job also lost everything, yet his identity was based on God and he was able to endure his testing, and God rewarded him afterwards for his faith. As Christians we need to remember that all of our blessings are from God, and to not attach ourselves to them as they could be taken away anytime.
Idolatry is still very alive today. However, it doesn't take the simple forms of physical idols as it did in the Old Testament. Idolatry in our hearts is caused when we value, love, and base our identities on anything that is not God. This can be fame, money, looks, or anything else. This is why many of us may be guilty of idolatry without even knowing it. We need to look carefully at our lives and values to make sure we truly love God with all our hearts. In this way we put our treasure in heaven, instead of things on earth which will be destroyed (Matthew 6:20). If you would like to learn more on the subject of idolatry in our modern world, I would recommend the book "Counterfeit Gods" by Timothy Keller.