Homemade Gods: A Warning Against Modern-Day Baal Worship

Acts 17:29

"Idols? You must be kidding.”

“That’s what they have in Africa, right?”

“Me? An idol-worshiper? What do you take me for? A pagan?”

“The only thing I worship is my brand-new car.”

What is an idol anyway? The dictionary offers this definition: “an image used as an object of worship.” That sounds like those pictures we’ve seen in National Geographic of squatting Buddhas surrounded by burning candles. On that ground most Americans can claim innocence. We’re far beyond that … aren’t we? We don’t use images when we worship. At least most of us don’t.

But that’s not the only definition. The second part reads “one that is adored.” Hmmmm. That raises many questions. If adoration is the issue, then perhaps idolatry is closer than we think. Pushing onward, we discover that “adore” has three different meanings:

1. To worship with divine honors.

2. To love deeply.

3. To like very much.

Obviously there is a huge difference between #1 and #3. We all understand that liking something is not the same as worshipping something. It’s #2 that gives us problems. At what point does “loving deeply” cross the line into idolatrous worship?

¨ Is it possible to love another person too much?

¨ Is it possible to love your house or your car too much?

¨ Is it possible to love success too much?

¨ Is it possible to love the praise of others too much?

¨ Is it possible to love sexual fulfillment too much?

If the proper answer is yes to all those questions, then idolatry can pop up anywhere in life, even in places we usually don’t associate with religion. That leads me to say that anyone reading my words might be an idolater—and if you are, you almost certainly don’t recognize it.

No Graven Images

Are you an idolater? I’m sure that most of us would answer “No” to that question. After all, we certainly agree with the Apostle Paul that “we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill” (Acts 17:29). For most of us an idol is something like the golden calf the children of Israel made while Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 32). We’ve never done anything like that, and if that’s what idol-worship is all about, no thank you, we want no part of it.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, most of us know the Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5). That’s fairly clear, isn’t it? No idols, period. End of discussion. Don’t make them, don’t bow down to them, don’t worship them. If you see an idol, run the other way. When God said, “no graven images” (the King James term), he meant it.

If you read on through the Old Testament, you’ll find that God repeated this commandment over and over again. His harshest punishments always came when Israel disobeyed this command. Sometimes he ordered whole cities to be wiped out because of idolatry. Evidently this was a persistent problem because it pops up again and again over the centuries. The Bible mentions the names of certain false gods—many of them connected with the corrupt worship of the Canaanites. Baal is the false god mentioned most often, but there were others—Ashtoreth and Astarte and Molech. Those pagan deities were often connected with fertility, sexuality, and the harvesting of the crops. The Israelites generally tried to combine these false gods with the worship of the true God—resulting in a polluted form of religion that God utterly rejected. He gave the people many chances to repent of their idolatry, but when they didn’t, his judgment was swift and terrible—leading eventually to the destruction of the northern ten tribes (Israel) by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the deportation of the southern two tribes (Judah) to Babylon in 586 BC.

Most of us know the general outline that I have just sketched. And we probably also know that the New Testament itself contains several strong warnings about idolatry (I Corinthians 10:14; I John 5:21). Our problem at this point is quite simple. Deep in our hearts, we don’t think this applies to us in any meaningful way. We don’t worship Baal, we don’t bow down before a golden calf, and we don’t practice voodoo or drink blood or do anything weird like that. So how could we be idol-worshippers?

How Good Things Become Idols

I think the place to begin in answering that question is with the following observation: Anything can become an idol when we love it too much. Colossians 3:5 warns us against, “greed, which is idolatry.” Every person worships something. What you worship becomes your god. If your “god” is not the God of the Bible, then you are an idolater whether you understand it or not. Idol worship happens whenever we substitute anything in the place of God as the most important reality in life. You can worship nature, money, power, sex, history, a political system, or another person or a group of people.

This leads me to an important distinction. Most people become idol-worshippers by accident because anything good in itself may become an idol if it assumes a place of ultimate importance in our lives. Before we go on, ponder that thought for a moment. Anything good may become an idol. That’s a tricky thought—and one that might be terrifying in itself. Marriage is good—but marriage can become an idol. Work is good, but work might become an idol. The church is good, but the church might become an idol. A higher degree is good, but a higher degree might become an idol. Children are a blessing from God, but even they might become idols to us.

Anything good can become an idol if we love it too much. That’s what Paul was driving at when he called greed a form of idolatry. What is greed if not loving something too much?

Let’s consider some modern-day idols in three separate categories.

I. Idols of Power

Idols of power are those created things that give us a sense of significance and personal worth. When we have them, we feel able to control others to one degree or another. In that sense a job can become an idol and so can a career or an advanced degree. We may look to our skin color, racial identity, family background or to a political party as the source of our personal worth and as a means for controlling others. The same is true of a title, a large office or a position you hold. Note that none of these things are evil in themselves, but any of them can become idols when we love them too much.

In this category we should add things like sorcery, witchcraft, palm reading, astrology, the psychic hotline and all forms of communication with the dead.

On another level we should add that the statues that some people use in their religious worship can easily become idols. I know people who buy statues of a certain saint and then bury the statue in their yard in order to ensure a quick sale of their home. We might also think about having a lucky rabbit’s foot, a St. Christopher medal, and so on. This may seem like benign superstition but does it not come perilously close to the very thing God condemned in the Old Testament?

II. Idols of Pleasure

So many things fall into this category. It could be something that seems harmless—like playing golf or tennis or baseball or watching TV or buying a new car or buying the home of your dreams or spending money on frivolous things. Remember, anything good may become an idol if it becomes too important to us.

Consider golf—a fine pastime enjoyed by millions of people. I know some men who love the game of golf so much that they have voluntarily given it up because it has become too important to them. They don’t believe playing golf is wrong, only that for them the only way to control their passion is not to participate at all.

Let’s suppose that we took six golfers and put them on the sanctuary platform and let them hit chip shots up into the balcony. Could anyone spot the idolater among them? Answer: No, from the outside they would all look perfectly normal because idolatry is a matter of the heart—not of outward appearance.

Is television evil? No, the technology of television is neutral. It can be used for good or for evil. But in many Christian homes the television is the center of life. We can’t live without some background noise. If you don’t think TV is an idol, try living without it for seven days and see what happens.

Let me pause and comment that just as television can become an idol, so can the computer. One recent secular book argues that in the future our culture will turn to “computer system idols"—virtual reality gods that will advise us exactly as the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt instructed their followers.

Second Timothy 3:4 reminds us that in the last days men will become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Idols of pleasure are the ones that make us happy. They give us comfort and make life easier. Many people today adopt this as the bottom line on personal morality. If it makes you feel good, go ahead and do it. Just don’t hurt anyone else in the process. How many times have you heard sin justified with the words, “I just want to be happy?” And so we divorce our spouses because we are unhappy, we break our commitments because we can’t find fulfillment, and we abandon our promises and walk away from family and friends—all in search of that elusive thing called happiness. We do wrong and excuse ourselves by saying, “God understands.” Don’t be so sure about that. God wiped out whole cities in the Old Testament for that kind of cavalier attitude.

Sexual fulfillment may become an idol. At this point I would say that so-called Gay Christianity is a very clear form of modern-day Baal worship because homosexuals attempt to justify their sin by baptizing their immorality in the guise of Christianity. This is unspeakably evil because it links the holy name of Jesus with that which God has condemned.

And food can become an idol. This insight comes from the Weigh Down Workshop that has benefited so many people. While the Bible tells us that food is a gift from God (1 Timothy 4:3-4), like any gift it can be misused and become an end in itself. That’s why gluttony was counted as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s not simply overeating or eating like a pig. It’s making eating the focal point of your life. You can be skinny and still be a glutton. When food controls you, you are a idolater whether you admit it or not.

So many of the addictions of life fall into this category. When God created the world, he pronounced it good, but ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve, Satan’s number one strategy has been to cause us to take that which is good and put it in the place of God. We may say it quite simply: Whatever controls you at a deep level is the god you worship. If you are not controlled by God, then you must be controlled by an idol of your own making.

III. Idols of the Heart

I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to bow down physically before an object in order to worship it. We may go to church and yet have our hearts filled with idolatry. What about the love of money? Didn’t Jesus warn us that you cannot serve God and money? “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). Money is capitalized because when you serve it, it becomes your god. Our Lord said you cannot have God and money both in first place in your heart. One of them has to go. You cannot serve two masters.

Along the same line a relationship can easily become an idol when it becomes the controlling interest of life. You can love a person too much or for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way or with the wrong motives. Once you say of any human relationship, “I cannot live without that person in my life,” then you have crossed a line that should not be crossed.

God’s warning: Destroy your idols or I will do it for you!

Let’s go back to the Second Commandment for a moment. Notice the warning in Exodus 20:5 — “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” The word “jealous” is very strong, having the idea of burning, passionate love. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is used for the love of a husband for his wife. Some of you may be put off by the idea of a jealous God, but jealousy in the right context is a very healthy emotion. I have every right to be jealous of my wife’s affection and she has every right to be jealous for my undivided attention. Jealousy in marriage can be a very positive emotion because it means, “I am fully committed to you and I expect you to be fully committed to me.” In that sense we might say that if you are not jealous for your spouse’s affection, you’re probably not fully committed to him or her.

True love is jealous. If the love is right, then the jealousy is right. So what is it that God is jealous for? Our undivided attention, our exclusive focus on him. Seen in that light, idolatry is a terrible sin because in reality it is a form of spiritual prostitution.

In one of her books, Elisabeth Elliot comments that the Christian life is a process of God breaking our idols one by one. I have learned the hard way how true that is. God loves us too much to let anything come between us and him.

In the beginning, we come into the world with empty hands. Slowly we acquire many good things—family, friends, a career, achievements, wealth, popularity, the respect of others, and a certain share of this world’s goods. Our tendency is to hold onto those things as if they constituted our reason for existence and as if they truly belonged to us. We think because we have these things that we must have earned them and that they must therefore be ours to keep forever. But the very desire to cling to the things of the earth is the very essence of idolatry because it puts us in the place of God—as if we own what we were given. Slowly God begins to pull our fingers away one by one. When he finally gets down to the thumb, we fight back but to no avail. In the end God takes back that which always belonged to him and we are left with nothing but God.

An Idolatry Inventory

If all of this seems rather theoretical, let me share three questions you should ask about the things in life that matter the most to you. These three questions are a kind of “Idolatry Inventory” because they help us spot those places in life where we are holding on too hard.

Do I want this too much?

Has this become too important to me?

How would I feel if this were suddenly taken away from me?

Let’s focus on the last one for a moment.

¨ What about your career? How would you feel if it suddenly disappeared?

¨ What if you suddenly lost your health?

¨ What about your marriage? Your children?

¨ What about your home?

¨ What about your eyesight? Or your hearing? Or your ability to walk?

¨ What about your parents?

¨ What about your money?

These are not easy questions to answer. But they point out a crucial fact. God has never promised us any of those things. Just because you have them now doesn’t mean you will have them tomorrow.

The only thing God has promised us is himself! Anything else is a bonus.

Pastor Donald Hoke notes that idolatry may not be full blown at the beginning. There is such a thing as “creeping idolatry.” That happens when something besides God becomes all-important to us. Sometimes we hardly know it’s a problem until we have to make a choice.

Think with me about the following statements for a moment. How would you complete these sentences:

“Lord I’ll give you anything but .”

“Lord I’ll do anything for you but .”

“Lord I’ll change anything in my life for you but .”

Are there habits you will not give up? Are there places you will not forgo? Are there relationships you are not willing to end? Anything you put in those blanks is actually an idol in your life—though you probably haven’t thought of it that way.

Two Sobering Conclusions

Let’s wrap this message up with two sobering conclusions.

A. Anything good can become an idol if we love it too much.

That should be completely clear by now. Idolatry lies in the worshiper, not in the thing worshipped. A golden calf is not an idol by itself. Left to itself, a golden calf is just a golden calf. It becomes an idol only when we begin to worship it. It is a wrong attitude that turns something good into something bad.

¨ Don’t blame your car if you aren’t happy. It’s your fault that you trust in your car to give you satisfaction.

¨ Don’t blame your boy friend if you aren’t happy. It’s your fault that you look to him to make you happy.

¨ Don’t blame your spouse if you aren’t happy. No husband or wife can make you happy all the time.

¨ Don’t blame your boss if you aren’t happy. He’s not responsible for your happiness.

¨ Don’t blame your children if you aren’t happy. God never meant for you to look to them as the source of your happiness.

¨ Don’t blame your new house if you aren’t happy. No house can provide ultimate happiness.

¨ Don’t blame your church if you aren’t happy. No church can make you happy.

Happiness comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He alone can satisfy the deepest needs of your life. Looking anywhere else for ultimate happiness is really just a sophisticated form of idolatry.

B. The ultimate tragedy of idolatry is that it takes all that you have and gives nothing in return.

Have you ever thought how strange life is? You are born, you grow up, get married, get a job, have children, raise your children, take a vacation, retire, and then you die. And your children, what do they do?

The same thing. And their children? The same thing.

You are going to live 60 or 70 or 80 years. For some of us most of that time is already gone. Truly we are here today and gone tomorrow. Take the whole span of human history. Where does your life show up on the screen? It’s just a microscopic blip.

You have two choices. You can spend your life chasing idols your hands have made. But what happens when you die? Your idols die with you. Or you can spend your life doing God’s will. And when you die, it’s not over. Life has just begun.

The folly of idolatry is that it’s only for this life and then it’s over. You’re a loser now and a loser later. The idol robs you now and leaves you penniless in the grave. You’re cheated all the way around.

Idolatry makes sense if you are going to live forever on earth. But if you plan to die someday, it’s the greatest stupidity of all.

That’s why Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” You aren’t going to be here forever. Make sure you use your time wisely.

Friend, your days are numbered. That’s why you have no time for idols.

Your idols won’t help you when you need them most. When a child dies, what good is money? What good is the god of pleasure when you say farewell to a loved one? When you lose a job, how will the false gods help you? When there’s a problem in the family, what will your idols do for you then? How will they help in any great decision of life? Will they rescue you when tragedy strikes? The answer is, they can’t. We need the living God to come to our aid.

The only lasting cure for idolatry is a fervent love for God. The words of an old hymn, written in the form of a prayer, form an appropriate close for this message: “Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole. I want Thee forever to live in my soul. Break down every idol, cast out every foe. Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

As I have pondered the matter, it seems to me that the hardest step is seeing our idols in the first place. Even as I write these words, I am conscious of a little voice inside me saying, “Ray, don’t worry about it. You’re not an idol-worshipper.” But that voice is not the voice of God. If I am honest before God and open to the Holy Spirit, I must admit that I have my idols that must be torn down.

It also occurs to me that without the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, we will never see the idols that come between us and God. Now may the Lord give us eyes to see ourselves as we are. Create in us, O Lord, new love for you and a fervent hatred for the idols hidden in our hearts. Show us our true condition that we may fly to the Cross for the forgiveness we desperately need. Set us free from idolatry that we may worship God and God alone. Amen.


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