This post last updated on November 6th, 2021
If you were asked to identify idols, where would your mind take you? American Idol? Billy Idol? If you’re like me, you may tend to think about carved wooden figures or giant metallic statues. Or maybe even the Tower of Babel as an enormous, in your face representation of idolatry.
Idolatry isn’t just an Eastern mysticism thing and it’s not a Western consumerism thing. It’s a human thing and regardless of whether or not we physically bow down before a statue, we all have idols in our lives.
Idols are anything that becomes more important than God and we all have something at sometime that does it.
Ed Stetzer said this in his article, Idolatry is Alive Today and he completely nailed the danger of idolatry:
Is it that a 12-inch tall piece of wood or bronze can do something bad to us? Or is it that we do something awful to ourselves when we place adoration and attention that should go to God in other things? When it comes to idolatry, the danger is not in an item… it is in us.
In order to recognize idols, you don’t always have to use your eyes, particularly when dealing with spiritual idols. Idolatry is anything that either disproportionately consumes your thoughts, actions or resources, or that take your focus off of God.
What are these things in our lives? That’s something only you can answer for yourself, but the available idols are endless. If you were to make a list of all of the important things in your life, would that yield any clues?
Here are a few of those things that we deal with in today’s world that compete for our attention and that could become idols in our busy, always “on” and connected lives if we give these things undue attention…
1. People. Many people in our lives can take the front seat, consuming our thoughts, actions and energy. This could be a spouse, a potential spouse, a boss, or a child. This could be an entertainer or a public figure. In some cases this could even be a pastor or a church leader, especially in today’s Western church environment where sadly, unreachable “celebrity pastors” are becoming more and more common.
2. Your Church. Again, the modern church model in the West is producing a spiritual-consumer mentality that is replacing the traditional church model. Programs, buildings, and real estate all have a place in our church, but when these are the things that prevent us from discipleship and church multiplication, we may have to back up and dissect the situation.
3. Your Ministry. Believe it or not, ministry and “religion” are among the easiest things in life to become idols. When you’re involved in ministry at any level, it can be very easy to fall into a place of how much “good” you’re doing. What’s more, if you’re like me, then desire for encouragement could become striving for encouragement. What that looks like in my life and ministry is that I have to keep a guard against seeking out approval and commendation for what God decides to do through me or my work. Guess what idol that could lead to? Number 4…
4. Humility. What? Being humble could be an idol of the heart? You bet it can! If seeking out recognition for accomplishments could lead to idolatry then wouldn’t it make sense that humility can also be abused? This could look like someone wearing their humility like a neon badge, and that’s not true humility.
5. Lifestyle and the Idol of Self. This has been an American Achilles heel. “Keeping up with the Joneses” may have first been used by Mark Twain (affiliate link)as far back as 1923, but in today’s economy this idea of social inferiority based on our possessions has translated into crippling amounts of debt and has even contributed to the housing market crash. These insurmountable debts have wrecked many good marriages, destroyed lives and has rendered entire households unproductive.
6. Rights and Freedom. As an American, I have enjoyed rights and certain freedom that a huge number of people in other parts of the world don’t even consider possible. Sadly, the establishment of rights and freedom have begun to erode around us into a constant, all inclusive demand for everything under the sun to fall into the categories of rights and liberty. With freedom comes responsibility, and without responsibility liberty becomes slavery. But when our demands for freedom outweigh our surrender to the cross, our arrogant expectations of rights keep our eyes from the freedom that only Christ can bring.
7. Your Challenges. If there is one thing that can always take a person’s eyes off of God that would be life’s challenges. Sometimes, the smaller the challenge the easier the distraction. It’s saddening how many people navigate their lives from one challenge to the next, never able to see anything else. It ultimately robs them of any real accomplishments that God would bring into their lives.
8. Social Media. The new human Achilles heel. The subtle idol of self in it’s full modern glory comes in the form of likes, shares and follower counts. This one has led to lower self esteem, depression and even suicide. Rather than ditching the social networks, it’s now more important to be noticed in a stream of posts that more than 80% of our “followers” will never even see.
Kathleen Louise Burnett
Good thoughts. We have many idols in our culture, and don’t always see them as such. I think perhaps even politics and “issues” have become idols for some Christians.
Hi Kathleen, you are absolutely right! I could have included the politics more deeply. Isn’t it alarming how many people become filled with hope in a political candidate in an election year? Completely takes our eyes off of God, and for most people politics can be such an emotionally charging thing that they lose sight of who’s really in control!
Hello Kathleen! Wow…. you could NOT be more right! The past 10 years IMHO Politics & World Issues have consumed many Christians but Current Times “2019” seems to be REALLY CONSUMING MORE & MORE CHRISTIANS along with worshiping leaders, seeing so much anger & hostility! Saddens me!
Gene S. Whitehead
I’m with you on that, Sheila. The idols and the cult of personality is real but sadly not only in politics and issues, but in the church as well. It’s astonishing how many pastors are for the most part unaccessable by their own congregation. I’ve even seen some surrounded by security details as they walk through their own church. Not that security is bad, but for a pastor to be unapproachable doesn’t seem right at all.
Yes that’s very convicting for me. I have the TV on listening to the news commentators debating politics Conservative vs. Liberal views. I find it fascinating to be aware of how our Country is governed be it good or bad. I want to be knowledgeable because our leaders & representatives decisions do impact our lives . While that choice may be acceptable, the amount of time spent listening ,watching runs into hours. My time with the Lord is impacted by lack of reading the word of God & prayer! I’m not the most disciplined disciple . I think this has become an idol. I’m a senior who stays at home most days, the TV is a companion. I pray the Lord forgives me and knows how much I love the Trinity. Pray he strengthens me to hunger for his word because the world truly is a desert especially now. Thank you for your excellent teachings, they’re filled with truth and love guiding our hearts & minds to set our sights on the coming horizon of our long awaited Lord and Savior!
Gene S. Whitehead
Thank you for taking the time to share that. I can relate entirely to what you are experiencing. A few years ago, I had more than a few news apps on my phone and on my tablet. I was constantly bombarded with news non-stop, and then when covid hit, it was non-stop death and fear on both of my devices. I had to put a stop to it as well, so I removed all news related apps.
Now it’s been a few years, so I have a news reader that I decide what goes in that feed. And wouldn’t you know it…over the last few months I’ve added this news stream and that, and just a few days ago I looked at my wife and said, “I have to delete some of these news feeds. Not that it’s bad, but it’s just too much and it’s all the time.”
So that’s to say, I get it. Most people don’t even recognize what they’re consuming is affecting them in many ways, so you’re way ahead anyway. I’m glad you found this article and that it’s helpful, and I’m thankful you shared today.
If you’d like to see some other posts that may be helpful to you right now, you can take a look at these:
How to Renew Your Mind is one that I wrote while I was asking, “how do I navigate my thoughts when I’m getting off course?”
5 Steps to Staying Focused on God is the most read thing I’ve ever written, and it could be helpful for you if you’ve not already seen it.
And finally, though it may not be as directly helpful as those first 2, it could be encouraging in other ways, here’s The Politics of Unity and Division.
God Bless you as you press on, and thank you again for being here!
Hello Gene and thanks for pointing out some ‘idols’ God’s enemy uses to discard our holy purpose of glorifying Him. The greatest defense I have found from these spiritual killers is abiding in Christ. Privately humbling myself before Christ destroys pride and opens me up to His holiness. Thanks for the deep thoughts on this issue.
Hey Walter, thank you for taking the time to read and comment! Abiding in Christ is absolutely necessary and I have found Andrew Murray’s extensive writing on the subject to be the most beneficial.
Thank you for your article!
I believe Music can also become an Idol, we are so consumed with voices and new trends thinking that we cannot worship God in the silence of our quiet times before the Lord.
Gene S. Whitehead
Big time! And how high society elevates entertainers in the music industry…and sadly even in the Christian music realm. You’re right about the silence before the Lord though. Thank you for that reminder, Gustavo.
Ouch, Gene! The Holy Spirit used your exhortations to speak to my heart. Laying down idols is not easy, but what peace it brings. Blessings to you!
Thank you for your most encouraging comments! What a fact you bring up: it’s not easy but peaceful. I often find the most peaceful steps are most frequently not the easy ones to take!
Many years ago, I allowed my job to become my idol and, before long, I became it’s slave. Everything took a back seat, including my relationship with God. Eventually, God removed me from that position and sent me into early retirement. But, instead of turning me out to pasture, He led me to write a Bible study. In His grace, He restored me to His service in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
Hi Sherry, I can relate to your story. I also served in employer and I chased promotion after promotion and God rescued me from that as well and delivered me into full time ministry. The job may have been easier in a sense, but it did lack true peace that was never found in the next promotion. Thank you for reading and for sharing!
Karen M. Roth
For us, it has become the very thing that brought my husband and me together in the first place…the Computer and the internet. We spend so many hours in our own little worlds with so little one on one interaction. He in games that I no longer choose to play as God spoke to me about them.
But the biggest one for me is to just keep busy to keep from thinking. busy with housecleaning, being a Crafter, a Blogger. Trying to be the perfect wife for one with special needs who never even sees me anymore. Thinking hurts for me as it drudges up all the traumatic and dramatic abuses of my life. So I have turned to Online Shopping to fill up the void in my soul which has only driven us into debt that we cannot repay and both of us are too disabled to work. I thought I was helping to dig us out of the debt by buying craft supplies to make things to sell in my online boutique that I have been trying to get up and running since September 20th, but then my health took a major downturn and now I am not even able to care for myself and in deep debt, not deep by most people’s measures but it is for us.
Karen, I’m really sorry to hear of your struggles. Sometimes the burdens are just too much for us to carry on our own.
Are there people close to you and more familiar with your situations that you can ask for help? Are you involved in a church that could help with any of your situations? Maybe someone can assist more immediately and in a practical way.
Remember also what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Hi there Gene,
Thank you for the encouraging article. Definitely was an exhortation to my life…and as i meditated on this i thought about some of the idols i have in me. I think one of the biggest one is: Freedom…i always pray for spiritual freedom, freedom in Spirit…however Our Lord always answers me the same: Walk by faith not by sight. I think i get it now…keeping my eyes on Him at all times will prevent my heart to complaint about not been “free” and enjoy each day filled with gratitude.
I also think : Culture or Patriotism can be a form of idol.
Jesus said on Matthew 28:18-20 that He wants many disciples of all nations….and i truly believe He wants us to be One in Him. One culture, one faith, one gospel, one body. Not different nations, or having my nationality been my first form of identification rather than people known me as a disciple of Christ.
Thank you again, grace and peace be upon your life and household in Jesus name.
Hi Marina, Thank you for reading this one, I’m encouraged that you enjoyed it!
I’m finding myself really tracking with you on nationality and patriotism being our first identity. And the more I see people demanding their rights as such, I’m reminded that our rights truly were surrendered on the cross.
I believe that what you accurately called the idol of culture and patriotism really just divides people more and more. I wrote more about that in the Politics of Unity and Division (http://genewhitehead.com/wwjd/).
Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment on my post. God Bless you, Marina!
I might be a little late to the party (I just found this blog), but I could probably spend an hour trying to list the multitude of things that can, and have, become idols to us these days.
I think you best summed it all up with the statement, “Idolatry is anything that either disproportionately consumes your thoughts, actions or resources, or that take your eyes off of God.”
When I think of it in that light, there’s not enough room in my “Trophy Closet” for all the idols I covet. I’m going to go lick my wounds now, pray to God for renewed focus, and start reading more of your entries.
Gene S. Whitehead
Elliott, you nailed it for me, too. My trophy closet isn’t big enough either! Something I admit to is that many times I am my own first audience. The Holy Spirit convicts me very much as I continue to dig into the word and write about what He is teaching me.
I’m glad you’ve found this site and thankful you’re here. I trust you’ll find a few things around these parts that will encourage, equip, and strengthen you along the way.
So,,,, what is the definition of idolatry. Anyone or anything we place in importance and turn to for answers,,,,, BEFORE GOD.
I challenge modern day Christians, to stop and consider,,,,,, their Health care insurance,,,, along with their dependance on primary care physicians and the ever increasing number of legal drugs, we all depend on.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)
Gene S. Whitehead
Francis, your definition is right on the mark, and very similar to the one I used here. And, you raise another valid point in healthcare.
Though I do not think that many parts of healthcare are bad, there are most definitely aspects of our healthcare system that are quite horrible, including a lot of pharmaceutical drugs and even some treatment options.
And you’re right, there are times when people rely on medicine to the point of it replacing God in terms of healing and saving, which defines idolatry.
I also believe that we should use medical technology, like anything else, with wisdom and discernment.
I go to great extremes to find and use doctors that are NOT all about pushing meds, but who rather identify root causes and practice preventative medicine instead of reactionary.
However, at the end of the day, it is God alone who holds the days and hours of my life in His hands.
How do you feel about extreme fitness and the self-motivational movements? And are dating apps new temples of Baal and Asherah?
Gene S. Whitehead
Good questions, Jeremiah. In my own experience, any time I place the idea of “extreme” in front of many things, with my tendency to go overboard, I can at least become very distracted and get away from what God is calling me to do.
Fitness is definitely one of those areas. There was a time when fitness was my top priority, above everything. If I missed a workout or didn’t get a proper meal at exactly the right time, I’d get angry. No doubt my addiction to fitness in that season of my life was idolatry. I won’t even get started on the guys who spent more time staring at themselves in the mirrors at the gym than working out! 😀
Self motivational movements certainly have the right ingredients for idolatry. I cannot say they are all evil, idolatrous, or bad, but it’s easy to see that some of them are. For example, when any teaching or ideology instructs you that you’re the source of power and strength, or that idea that you are the “captain of your soul” and the “master of your fate.” That kind of independence FROM God is complete rebellion.
Those online dating apps are along the lines of motivational movements and physical fitness. To what degree is the person elevating the experience in their life, and what priorities in life have taken the back seat? What is the experience (dating app, working out, etc) replacing?
Those are the questions to ask when something that’s usually healthy or beneficial goes extreme and crosses over into rebellion, or even idolatry. And sometimes, certain experiences or teachings just need to be avoided all together. We each have those things in our lives, and if you don’t know what they are in yours, it’s absolutely critical that you identify them.
Thank you for the questions that make me think! I just hope my response is helpful!!
Wow! Great thoughts here! I completely overlooked church and ministry as potential idols, but it’s so true that we often place them higher than God in our hearts. I’ve recently had these thoughts on my heart, and wrote a post on modern day idolatry here: https://debtakesherlifeback.com/modern-day-idolatry/
Thanks so much for sharing this important (and often overlooked) message!
Gene S. Whitehead
Hi Deb, thank you for sharing that resource! Looks like we’re tracking in the same direction! 😀
There are so many good and wonderful things in our lives that can so easily cross the line and become as idols in our hearts and minds. I bet there’s no end to what you and I could write on the subject!
Hi, please add sports and holidays. Every year, there are new “National___Days” in addition to holidays like Halloween!
Gene S. Whitehead
Angie…yes and amen!! I’ll refresh this post in the coming months and I will certainly add those things and elaborate on them. Thank you!
Norton blocked access to that site saying it was dangerous.
Gene S. Whitehead
Hmm, which site is that, Timothy? I’ve checked the links in the comments as well as my own links and I can’t find anything suspicious or reported as dangerous.
Marriage can be an idol too. The feeling that comes from TV and social networking ads that say you have to find “love” (whole other topic that I can get on) and then people feel like they have to go seek out that “perfect spouse”.
Gene S. Whitehead
Absolutely Corey. The drama from media over the topic of love is astonishing. Some of the popular tv shows make a complete mockery over love and the institution of marriage and you can totally see people creating idols of other people as well as of a relationship itself. It’s a sad thing to watch on tv, and heartbreaking to watch what that does to people in reality.
All of you have so aptly described things that make up idol worship in our 21st century western lives and culture. Thank you.
I must carefully examine the importance placed on my own personal comfort, convenience and amusement. So often, things that deplete my time, energy and resources are not overtly evil. A mentor once told me that the Lord posed the following question to him as he wrestled with some issues, “Does it bring you closer to Me?” Whenever my answer is, “no, not really,” I have erected an idolatrous altar, however unintentional it may be.
As some here have pointed out, so-called good things, when not truly God inspired and driven, can be the most diabolically deceptive.
Relationship, relationship, relationship! So be it for us all.
Again, thanks to you all for posting and to Gene for this blog.
Gene S. Whitehead
Hi Ruth, I really appreciate your insight into the Western culture. These are some of the things that stood out to us after we had lived in Eastern Europe for 3 years. There are places where people pay a price to proclaim faith in Christ.
I do think we need to be careful when removing things that might be fun, but most certainly anything that takes priority over our relationship with the Lord presents a problem. Yet, there sure are a ton of deceptive, unassuming little pillars of idolatry available to us today!
I’m glad you found us, and trust you’ll find some helpful things around here.
Victoria L Januchowski
First thank you, for a well written article. I have seen all of what you have written. I am constantly praying for the Lord to check my heart, that He will be my first Love and focus. So let me add the following to your list and it’s due to living in a country, where we have excess. It seems when a country is blessed abundantly, they will forget Who blesses them.
I have seen a move toward idolizing animals and pets, as well. More and more people are adopting a Vegan way of eating, because they do not want to kill animals. I have seen family members, go into debt, by thousands of dollars, trying to save their old pets, who may live possibly a year, maybe two. I see pets wearing clothing and treating them like people, which has become huge, in making them equal with people. Pets are over a billion dollar industry, when you add the collective of our country. Yet, more than a few, will support the country’s unborn children to be sacrificed on the alter of Molech. Animals taking the place of human children, treating their animals like children, idolizing them. Meme’s that state, animals are preferred to people.
All people were created in the image of God, yet, we will place our animals in a place higher, due to our thoughts of them being more loyal, more loving, more _______ (fill in the blank).
Just an added note, I have been to a couple of developing countries, on mission’s trips, many would starve without meat, there is no excess in those nations, they use every part of the animal…no waste. In one country, Guinea pig is a delicacy. Yes I ate it and thought about my grandsons having them as pets, in America. Yet, I honored my host and ate it.
So it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes, when another person, some even Christians, in our country who say, they can’t harm an animal, so they have become Vegan. God killed the first animal, to make a covering for Adam & Eve. What would Jesus do? He ate fish, he ate meat and had no qualms of them being killed for food…why do we? Do we think we are more righteous and moral than God, if we do not utilize animals for sustenance?
I do not agree with those who are cruel, fight and mistreat animals. I believe we have at least one verse from God’s Word concerning that (Proverbs 12:10).
Gene S. Whitehead
Hi Victoria, thank you for your message! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts and I’m glad you took the time to visit and share. I’ll certainly agree that pets have become disproportionately valued in Western culture, to the point where sometimes you wonder why some people place more value on them than human lives. I’ll admit the difficulties in saying goodbye to a loyal and loving pet, I’ve done it too many times myself, but even that pales in comparison to saying goodbye to a suffering family member. I particularly love the memory you shared about visiting another culture and honoring your guest. Looks like you’re setting a tremendous example for your grandsons!
In studying the prophets, I’m concerned that we may be on the path Israel/Judah was on before before exile. Worshipping idols, saying the right things, but their heart was far from God…
In Malachi it says the oblivious people whined (in so many words): “what did we do wrong?”. They were blind and deceived.
We individually and corporately need to repent. Not just acknowledge idols in our lives and admit we “need to do better” but STOP and TURN the other way. We must return to our first love.
God has been merciful to us in America, but when will He step in and say “ENOUGH!”?
Gene S. Whitehead
Mary, I believe your concern is reasonable and right on track. “Blind and deceived” is an accurate observation of those in and outside of the church. Never before have we seen such large scale acceptance, approval and now endorsement of teachings and behaviors that are far from God’s word.
His mercy has indeed been greatly heaped upon America and all of mankind, but what is his limit? I’m afraid that most of humanity isn’t afraid to test those limits.
We must therefore remain in Christ, love unconditionally, make disciples and teach them. There is no other hope than in Jesus.
Gene this is a great list of potential idols that many people don’t often consider. I would say another one that is big right now is politics and social justice. It can be so easy to get caught up in that stuff that you forget it’s all temporary and that Jesus is coming soon.
Gene S. Whitehead
Yeah, wow, that is a really big one all of a sudden. Political identity has really taken over for individuals, while the prosperity gospel and the gospel of social justice have distorted and distracted the church and other Christian agencies from the actual gospel. Any false gospel is definitely idolatry, re-shaping the entire gospel message into our own agenda.
This was a great read.
I had to take a step back because as an entrepreneur during this time of Covid I became a so consumed with making sure to keep my business afloat that I now noticed that my business has become my idol.
It has taken my off my spiritual path by having me focusing that time dedicated to prayer and meditation, now being focused on webinars and customer engagement.
I can’t change the path God has for me so I do my best, stay in His loving grace and the business will take care of itself ?
Gene S. Whitehead
Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I know exactly how you feel about things which take the place of devotion, meditation and prayer and we all have seasons like that.
Honestly, I believe it’s ok that there are seasons of life which demand we restructure our time with God. He doesn’t want us to be stuck in rhythms that are not fruitful and result in us just going through the motions. I’ve been there quite recently myself (https://genewhitehead.com/study-the-bible/).
It’s most important that you’ve recognized His grace in the matter and that He’s revealed to you things that were getting in your way.
I’m thankful you enjoyed this article and took a moment to say hello and share your thoughts. Blessings to you, Keenya!
May I offer something further to consider? The idolatry spoken of in the Old Testament involved following rules, customs, or offering obeisance to a spiritual entity to receive worldly: wealth, power, health, fritful family, etc….These “gods” were the cultural/religious systems of Israeal’s neighbors. When we identify the things that we are not trusting God for, it, ie; prosperity, health, life satisfaction in general. It’s important to recognize that there is a component of spiritual unfaithfulness, demonic or Satan himself. Many of the things we want for ourselves: prosperity, health, a good name, God promised as a blessing from Himself to Israel and us (Deut. 28). If our heart is convicted that we are not trusting God for these things, it’s important understand we are offering acknowledgement to another spiritual entity behind the scenes. Hope this is not too vague, its a big topic. The physical idol in O.T. times was meant as a conduit for a demonic spiritual entity to inhabit. So, our “idols” are representations of a spiritual unfaithfulness. God is gracious and full of mercy, this is not meant to condemn, but just to hopefully clarify what needs to be repented of.
Self-government may be the epitome of idolatry.
Gene S. Whitehead
Definitely rooted in pride, too!
I just wanted to add, I was really convicted of idolatry in my own life regarding wealth. God showed me, through some painful financial times, how rooted my heart was in money, and the system behind making money, and who was in charge of that system. I was a Christian for 30 years, didn’t think I had any problem with Idolatry. It’s been an eye-opening journey. Alot of conviction and sorrow, along with alot of grace and mercy. I want to understand the full depths of my problem with Idolatry so as not to offend God’s Spirit any longer. Two books I picked up are “Greed as Idolatry” by Brian Rosner. An excellent thorough biblically researched book on the topic. The other is “The Unseen Realm” by Michael Heiser, another biblically researched book discussing the reality of the spiritual realm on earth from God’s perspective. Maybe this helps someone.
Gene S. Whitehead
Hi Robert, replying to both of your comments here. I really appreciate your insight, you make some really good and interesting points. There certainly is so much of the unseen involved in our own idolatry, and worse than that too.
You really hit a mark when you said, “If our heart is convicted that we are not trusting God for these things, it’s important understand we are offering acknowledgement to another spiritual entity behind the scenes.”
This really does begin to dive into a much deeper topic with much bigger implications! Your insight did remind me of Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm. I’m actually reading that right now and about half way through it, it is a lot to take in, isn’t it?!