Updated: Apr 15, 2020
1 John 5:21
Idols are often carved from good things. At times we take that which is forbidden and turn it into an idol. But often our idols are good things turned ultimate. How do we identify when a good thing has become an idol? God wants us to enjoy with gratitude His good gifts. How can we know when that good gift has replaced Him in our affections?
There are two steps to identifying idols. The first is to ask a series of questions designed to determine what good things you are most likely to turn into idols. You can think of these questions like the questions a nurse asks you while you’re waiting for the doctor. These questions look for symptoms—they don’t make a diagnosis. They identify areas of concern.
Where do you find meaning in your life?
What can you not do without?
What do you dream about?
What makes you most happy? Most sad?
What do you get most angry about?
What defines your life?
What will you sacrifice to get or to keep?
What do you want to achieve?
How do you define success?
What do you complain about?
Where do you look for safety and security?
Where do you find your identity?
Now that you’ve identified some possible areas of idolatry, it’s important to determine if these are actual idols. We serve a kind and giving God. We don’t want to assume that every good gift He gives for us to enjoy is an idol. The second step helps us determine where the good gifts have replaced the Giver in our affection and attention. This step is like talking to the doctor. It’s taking a critical look at the symptoms to determine the underlying cause. A cough may be nothing more than a cough, but it also could be evidence of lung cancer. The following four guidelines will help you determine the difference between a symptom and a disease, between a good gift and an idolatrous attachment.
Examine your reaction to conviction
When a certain favorite activity, person or possession is identified in step one as a possible idol, how did you respond? If you ignored it or immediately excused it, that’s a cause for concern. If there’s a certain issue you don’t want to consider because you know it might be a problem, you’ve probably found an idol. Idols don’t want to be uncovered. They seek to distract or minimize the Spirit’s conviction. Consider those areas that least want to be considered.
Fast from it for a week
God gave us fasting as a tool to fight idolatry. Fasting is a way of reminding ourselves that nothing is more important than God. So, give it up for a week and see what happens. If you find yourself constantly craving it, daydreaming about it, or even breaking your fast, it’s probably an idol. Its level of control over your attention and affection will be seen as you attempt to ignore it.
Involve others in the evaluation
You are the person most blinded to your idols. Invite others into the process. Ask your spouse, children, friends and small group members to help you evaluate potential problems. Tell them the symptoms you’ve uncovered and listen to their advice. They can see things in your life that escape your sight.
Look for larger patterns of idolatry
For instance, television may not be an idol. Movies, magazines and sports may not be an idol. But if you put them all together, you may discover an idol of entertainment. If you view the answers to your questions from the first step as symptoms, then you can study them as a doctor would to discover the root cause. Don’t treat symptoms without determining the underlying problem.
The motivation for this process is not a morbid fascination with idolatry. Its purpose is not to produce a paralyzing level of introspection. The reason we should do the hard spiritual work of identifying idols is to be faithful to our Lord’s command: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).