Our Greatest Battle

Featuring Tom Kraeuter Posted on February 1, 2010

Even while these people were worshiping the LORD, they were serving their idols (2 Kings17:41a).

What is our greatest hindrance in worshiping God? We could come up with a number of believable answers. Laziness, pride, and distractions could start the list. We could move on to sins of lust, self-sufficiency, and apathy. All of these, however, have their root in something even more serious and pervasive: the sin of idolatry.

The passage from 2 Kings referenced above describes a situation which can potentially exist in our church services today. We can engage in what we perceive to be all the proper elements of worship—singing, giving, praying, kneeling, listening to God’s Word, etc.—and be actively serving false gods in our hearts. God makes it clear in Exodus 20 that He will not tolerate any competition for the allegiance and affections of our hearts. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” That succinctly describes idolatry.

In the Old Testament, there is no sin God confronts more frequently than that of idolatry. In the second chapter of Jeremiah, God asks, “Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols” (Jeremiah 2:11). These idols were not always something external. God told Ezekiel in chapter 14, verse 3, that the Israelites had set up idols in their hearts, and could no longer hear Him. Time after time, God’s people are guilty of esteeming other people and things as more important than God Himself. At one point it’s a golden calf. Another time it’s the pleasures of Egypt. In the promised land they submit themselves to all kinds of detestable practices as they worship the gods of the Canaanites. In every case, a desire to pursue and be ruled by something other than God results in disobedience, rebellion, and unbelief.

In the New Testament, we don’t hear much talk of idols. What we do find is a focus on the sinful desires of the heart. Peter tells us “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). Romans 6 says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” What do sinful desires have to do with idolatry?

At its root, idolatry is wanting something other than God to rule over us. The key words are “wanting” and “rule.” While our tendency is to think that our hearts are uninvolved spectators in life, waiting to be acted upon, the reality is quite different. John Calvin spoke truly when he said our hearts are idol factories, constantly creating new objects for our attention and affections. We are always pursuing the things we think are most valuable. Those objects of our pursuit become our idols.
They also become the things which rule us and direct our actions. An idol is any person, situation, possession, thought, or emotion which we feel compelled to serve above all else. The idols we seek to worship in God’s place are rarely as obvious as a golden calf or a tottering wooden image. They surprise us with their subtlety, pervasiveness and power. We find ourselves wanting the silliest things more than we want God. Things like power, pleasure, a job or a relationship—any one of them can usurp God’s right to rule us, and start to govern our lives.

Idols are often revealed by the thoughts that run through our mind when we’re not purposefully thinking about something else. I’ve been ashamed at times of how frequently my mind dwells on the next thing I’m going to buy, when I already have more “stuff” than 95% of the populated world. Do I really think my life will be more complete with a faster computer or a more current wardrobe? That’s idolatry at work.
What kind of idols might we deal with as we participate on a worship team? Certainly the idol of man’s approval is one. We might more appropriately call it the idol of man’s applause. No, if we want to get to the heart of it, we are really serving the idol of man’s adoration. How tragic that we can be proclaiming the glory of God while secretly desiring glory for ourselves! “What does my worship leader think of me?” “Why didn’t my pastor encourage me?” “Do people appreciate my contribution?” All these questions could be evidences of an idolatrous heart.

Another area we might deal with is the idol of control. When things don’t go your way, when you’re asked to play a part you don’t particularly prefer, or when your suggestion is ignored, how do you respond? What if the worship leader takes the meeting in a direction you don’t agree with? It’s at those moments we face a choice to bow down to our own wants and desires to rule, or to humbly submit to an all-wise, all-loving God who carefully places us under leaders He knows will expose our sinful hearts!

A third idol we may confront is the idol of pleasure. In a culture that places a high value on immediate gratification, we’re prone to think that the temperature, sound, lights, and environment must suit our personal tastes at all times. If that were true, how could anyone worship God in impoverished third world countries? While we don’t want to view ourselves as martyrs for the faith, there will be times we simply ignore discomforts because the glory of God has captivated our hearts and our minds.

“While they were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols.” What a merciful reminder. Let’s be diligent to expose ways we serve anything other than God, knowing that the blood of Jesus has redeemed us from an empty way of life (1 Peter 1:18). He alone is truly worthy of all our thoughts, all our affections, and all our obedience.