Idols? What idols?

Idols are an interesting thing. They sneak into our lives and subtly fool us into replacing God with themselves. Some idols are more evident than others but each of us has something that we are inclined to idolize. As followers of Christ, we are all aware that idolatry is sinful and must be avoided. But we can be unaware of what the Bible actually says about idolatry. Today we will look at what God has taught us about idols in his Word and its implications for how we live our lives.

The most well-known passage on idolatry is likely Exodus 20:3-6. God is giving Israel the Ten Commandments. The first commandment is to have no other gods before him. The second commandment is more specific in stating that Israel is not to make any idols. For context, Exodus is the story of Israel’s rescue from Egypt. God is leading them out of slavery and into the land that was promised to the Patriarchs. He knows that when they enter this land they will be surrounded by other cultures and people groups who regularly worship idols. God knows that Israel will be tempted to join them in this idol worship. So he begins his law with TWO commandments to not have idols or other gods. As we find out in Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, the prophets, etc, Israel fails miserably when it comes to fleeing from idols. Even when they can point out that idols are worthless and those who worship them come to nothing (Psalm 115:4-8; Isaiah 44:9-20), they seem incapable of fleeing. Their idol worship ultimately ends with their conquest and deportation. God commanded them to worship only him and when they didn’t, he acted in judgment.

It would be easy for us to write that off as an Old Testament concern. What does the New Testament have to say about idols? It has quite a bit to say. In Galatians 5, Paul talks about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. The works of the flesh include idolatry amongst other sins such as sexual immorality, witchcraft, hatred, jealousy, etc. Earlier in Galatians 4:8-9, he reprimands the Galatian church for coming to know Christ and then turning back to their old lives of worshipping idols. In Romans 1:21-23, Paul condemns mankind for exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” In 1 Corinthians 10:14, Paul tells the church in Corinth to flee from idols. Lest we think that only Paul had an issue with idolatry, in 1 John the apostle ended his letter by imploring his readers to keep themselves from idols. The commands and exhortations to flee from idols are woven throughout Scripture. This is but a small sample of them.
These commands and exhortations are common enough that it leaves us considering what this means today. In the United States, most of us do not encounter physical idols on a regular basis. They certainly exist within other religious traditions and cultures, however, physical idols are not common like they were in ancient Israel or the time of the New Testament church. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have idols. They abound in our culture. We idolize ourselves, our children, sports, smartphones, money, sex, power, and a host of other things. We take these things and place them on the altars of our hearts where only God should sit. Two idols that have become increasingly worrisome over the last 20 years or so are smartphones and kids' sports. 

The original iPhone was released in June of 2007. At the time, we had no idea the cultural impact smartphones would have. Fast forward to today and the average American spends 4 hours using their smartphone PER DAY. By the age of 12, 66% of kids will have their own smartphone. In 2015, Sherry Turkle published Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In the book, she discusses the impact smartphones have had on how humans interact. She interviews college students about how their friends are never actually present because they are always checking their phones. She talks to children who complain that their parents don’t pay attention to them because they are constantly looking at their phones. This book was written 8 years ago and it has only gotten worse. Smartphones can be incredibly powerful and useful tools. More commonly they become idols that slowly but surely take over our hearts.

This is also true of kids’ sports. I am going to sound like a member of Vintage, but back when I was a kid, sports didn’t happen on Sundays. That fact may have been a feature of where I lived but I suspect that Sunday sports were uncommon in most places in the late 80’s and 90’s. Travel sports existed but they weren’t common. Today, it is common that a child will have practice 4-5 days per week in addition to games. A survey from 2019 found that on average parents spent $700 per child per sport annually. When travel expenses were included that increased to $9,000-$10,000 per child per sport. Another study found that 1.7% of all high school athletes will play for an NCAA Division I team of any kind. A high school athlete's chances of becoming a pro athlete range from a best-case 0.018% to a worst-case 0.005%. As a culture, we have decided to spend $10,000 per year and all of our time pursuing our children’s sports careers. Kid’s sports can be an awesome activity. It teaches teamwork, physical fitness, and hard work, amongst other things. However, when we sacrifice our time, money, and faith to it, then it has become an idol.

My intention is not to shame anyone. I am guilty of idolizing things. I must frequently search my heart for idols and humble myself before the Lord and repent. Fortunately, we serve a gracious God who will forgive. When it comes to idols, Scripture tells us to flee. The good news is that we can. We can flee, we can identify and ruthlessly eliminate idols in our lives. We can do this because God has promised that when we come to Christ, the Spirit indwells us and gives us the power to escape it (1 Cor 10:13). An ongoing 25-year longitudinal study has found that one average 85% of evangelical youth walk away from their faith as adults. This same study has identified that deprioritizing church attendance and time spent online are two of four major contributing factors to that loss. If we want our kids to know and follow Jesus, we MUST ruthlessly eliminate idols. Again, the good news is that God has given us the power and ability to do so. In closing, I want to leave you with the words of the Apostle John in his first epistle, “Dear children, flee from idols.”

Josh Cervone