3 Kinds of Idolatry
God created human beings as worshipers. There is something within the human heart that responds to a sight of glory with adoration and praise. This is true of both religious and non-religious people. Worship, though a religious term, is simply being devoted to someone or something. It is showing reverence and honour towards something. It is making a sacrifice in order to protect or procure something. In other words, every person on the planet is a worshiper every moment of every day, because we all are devoted to someone or something that captivates our hearts. For us this becomes a functional god.
In his book Doctrine, Mark Driscoll puts it this way:
Worship is not merely an aspect of our being but the essence of our being as God’s image bearers. As a result, all of life is ceaseless worship. Practically, this means that while worship does include corporate church meetings, singing songs, and liturgical forms, it is not limited by these things, defined solely as these things, or expressed only in these things, because worship never stops. Rather, we are continually giving ourselves away or pouring ourselves out for a person, cause, experience, achievement, or status.
Whatever most dominates our affections is what we worship. And without the power of the Holy Spirit, no person ever worships God. In our sinful nature, we worship and serve created things rather than our Creator (Romans 1:25). We always choose someone or something other than God to be the object of our affections and the desire of our heart. We are all, therefore, idolators.
Idolatry is hard to spot sometimes because it comes in different forms. Some idolatry is obvious, and some idolatry is subtle. But we know from Scripture that idolatry is universal among human beings, and so we would be wise to take a closer look.
I would like to suggest three forms idolatry can take. Perhaps it may help us examine the idols in our lives that rob God of the glory he is due.
1. Pagan idolatry
When people think of idols, usually the first thing that comes to mind is some ancient or uncivilized tribe who are bowing down to an image carved out of stone or wood. This most certainly would fit the category of pagan idolatry. Pagan idolatry is the easiest to spot because it takes on the most obvious forms: some kind of ceremony or ritual that is performed to a deity that is not the God of the Bible.
Pagan idolatry is characterized by practices that are explicitly spiritual in nature but do not involve God the Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Rather, it may be for some other named or unnamed god. Things like yoga in its truest form, attempts to connect to nature, bowing down to idols, transcendental meditation, and the like, are examples of pagan idolatry. This would also include Hinduism, Buddhism, and forms of nature-driven spirituality. Other kinds of pagan idolatry might include the use of ouija boards, crystal balls, tarot cards, reading the stars, reike, and the like.
2. Secular idolatry
Unlike pagan idolatry, secular idolatry is harder to spot. This is because it is generally free of religious language or typically spiritual practices. But don’t be deceived, it is just as real and just as damaging! Secular idolatry is practiced even by those who don’t consider themselves to be religious in any way. It is the most common form of idolatry in our modern western world.
The gods of our culture include sex, money, power, physical appearance, family, romance, fame, leisure, celebrities, success, food, comfort, image, and the like. People, religious or otherwise, give themselves away to attain these things. They give themselves away in order to to get them and to keep them. They dominate their lives in a way that mirrors religious devotion.
It works something like this. Someone has a false idea of what heaven is, a false idea of what hell is, and they turn to a false god for deliverance. For instance, a teen girl might think the worst thing imaginable is to not be the object of a boys affection. For her, this is hell. On the flip side, the best thing she can imagine is for a cute boy to be totally enthralled with her. This seems to her like heaven. Therefore, in order for her to get out of her functional hell and into her functional heaven, she needs a god to save her: a boy who likes her. Though almost no teen girl would say her boyfriend is a god to her, she often will act like it. He is her first thought in the morning and her last thought before sleep. He is the one who is trusted to take away her loneliness and bring meaning to her daily life. He is the source of her happiness and self-worth. And she is willing to do anything to please him and stay on his good side.
In other words, the boyfriend is her god. She is practicing secular idolatry.
Everyone in North America struggles with secular idols. We all have hearts that turn away from God and to other things to solve our problems and meet our needs that only God can really do.
3. Religious idolatry
The third form of idolatry is religious idolatry. Religious idolatry seems like worship on the outside but is not the real thing at all. Churches are full of religious idolatry because there are always people who go through the motions of religious practices without ever engaging them with their heart.
Imagine a person who goes to church faithfully every week. They sing the songs, listen politely to the sermon, put money into the offering, and perform the various rituals that are expected of them, such as taking communion and being baptized. Because this individual is doing all of the religious things expected of them, they assume that they are in God’s good graces. But in fact they are committing idolatry. Their false god is the religious practices themselves, not what the religious practices point to.
Jesus regularly butted heads with the Pharisees of his day, because they were devoted to their religious traditions without having any real love for God. They trusted in their performance, not God, to save them. They believed that their external holiness meant they were internally holy as well—yet Jesus called them beautiful graves with dead mens bones inside (Matthew 23:27).
There are millions of very religious people who are guilty of religious idolatry. One example is the Holy Doors of Mercy located in St. Peter’s Basillica, Rome. The Catholic church declared a Year of Mercy in 2016 and said that the Holy Doors in Rome would be opened for a limited time, and anyone who passed through the doors would have their sins absolved. This is classic religious idolatry. It is trusting that somehow a doorway can do something only God can do. God alone can forgive sins, and he does so simply by a repentant sinner asking for forgiveness (1 John 1:9), not by passing through a doorway or any other activity, religious or otherwise.
The reality is this: God is real and we were made to worship him. Yet there is only one way to truly worship the One True God: through faith in Jesus Christ. Sin separates us from God, but through Christ we can have the barrier of sin removed and be reconciled to God, freed from the idols that enslave us. Jesus said in John 5:23
Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.
This means to be a worshiper (which we all are) without honouring Jesus is by definition idolatry. Step one of turning from our idols and worshiping God is to honour the Son, Jesus Christ. When we submit ourselves to Christ, and believe on him and Saviour and Lord, we begin a life of worship to God. And a life of worship to God through faith in Christ is the most freeing, life-giving thing a human being can ever experience.