Rethinking the idol factory: challenging the “idol” construct as the explanation for all sin in the lives of Christians

Clay-Ganesh-Idols-1024x562Why does it matter whether or not all sin is described as idolatry? 

It has surprised me, as I’ve researched it, how many Christians simply assume that all Christians churn out idols. To think that everyone who worships Jesus Christ is all the time actually worshiping something else is disturbing at its core.

As I studied the topic, I saw this quotation again and again from John Calvin: “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” (Even though the writers who quoted him were speaking to Christians, the vast majority of them didn’t seem to see a need to let people know that Calvin was talking about man in his pre-redeemed state, not a person with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.)

As I study it, I see a few significant problems with the Christians-as-idol-factories construct that I hope to address eventually, but for now I’d like to explore just one of them: how this teaching goes down in the life of one who is being abused.

Idols in the Bible

Yes, the Old Testament spoke of “other gods” the people were forbidden to worship, as well as idols to “image” those gods. In the New Testament, which was written to those whose hearts had been redeemed—after the “image” of the one true God had come—First Thessalonians 1:9 says, For they keep talking about the wonderful welcome you gave us and how you turned away from idols to serve the living and true God.”

Now, according to the New Covenant under which we Christians live, we are told to not be idolaters like some of the Israelites (I Corinthians 10:7), to flee idolatry (I Cor 10:14), to keep ourselves from idols (I John 5:21), to refuse the idolatry of covetousness (Col 3:5), and to avoid keeping company with idolaters who call themselves Christians (I Cor 5:11).

This is the sum total of the instruction the Lord saw fit to give His New Covenant children regarding idolatry. Idolatry is significant enough to be mentioned and warned against several times, but it is obviously not the explanation for all sin, because sin is talked about so much in all the rest of the New Testament.

However . . .

Idols in modern teaching

The “idol” explanation for sin as a common construct began, as far as I could tell, in 1991, and has been gaining in steam and momentum ever since. Many articles and books since then have been written by heavyweight Christian teachers to explain all sins in terms of idolatry (though neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament does this), which basically means whenever we sin, we Christians are worshiping something other than Jesus Christ. In Tim Keller’s recent and popular book Counterfeit Gods, he devises a very broad definition for the term idol. He says an idol is:

  1. Anything we make more important than God.
  2. Anything that absorbs our hearts and minds more than God.
  3. Anything we seek to give us what only God can give (security, value, meaning, etc)
  4. Anything so central and essential to life that if we lose it, life no longer feels worth living.

I challenge you to look at that list in the context of someone who is in an abusive relationship, with either spouse or parent.

Why have a number of women from abusive marriages said, “My husband became a god to me”? It’s because all her thoughts were absorbed in either trying to please him, trying to avoid angering him, trying to appease his anger, or trying to protect her children from him. So even though she tried to diligently maintain her quiet times with the Lord, there were times when #2 above was definitely true for her.

Also, notice that in #3, there is no distinction drawn between ultimate security, value, and meaning—which are to be found in God alone—and the security, value, and meaning in human relationships, which are perfectly right and appropriate for human beings to have. This is the way God made us.

Grave SiteAlso notice in #4 that there is no allowance made for grief. If someone loses a child in a tragic accident, it may feel for a time that life is no longer worth living, but this doesn’t mean that child was an idol. It simply means the person is going through the dark valley of grief. If a woman who wanted to keep her body pure for marriage is raped, she may feel for a time that life is not worth living. But she shouldn’t be told that virginity was an idol to her. She should be allowed to grieve the loss and process the trauma. If a woman who never believed in or wanted a divorce then ends up divorced because of adultery, abandonment, or abuse, she may feel for a time that life is no longer worth living. This doesn’t mean that her husband or her marriage was necessarily an idol to her. It simply means that she is going through the valley of grief.

Four “root idols”

In recent years, according to Tim Keller and others, all the many myriads of possible idols have been boiled down to four “root idols” of the heart, or “meta idols” (idols that are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, just FYI):

A longing for influence or recognition                   —     That’s an “idol of power”

A longing for things to go according to my plan  —    That’s an “idol of control”

A longing for pleasure                                           —    That’s an “idol of comfort”

A longing to be accepted or desired                   —    That’s an “idol of approval”

If you look at those four descriptions of idolatry through the eyes of a woman with a sensitive conscience who is in an abusive marriage, you’ll see a problem immediately. (This also applies to men in abusive marriages and children of abusive and neglectful parents.) First, she would love to be recognized and noticed by a husband who instead ignores her, stares right through her, and perhaps gives her daughter the attention she believes she should have. She would love to have a voice in decisions rather than being completely discounted, especially regarding the children. So then, because she has a “longing for influence or recognition,” she reads or hears that she has an idol of power. And because of her sensitive conscience, she believes this and struggles with it.

She would love occasionally to be able to make a plan for the family without it being overridden or sabotaged or destroyed by an unpredictably unstable spouse. She dreams of maybe even getting to drive somewhere in the car without having to account when she returns for every tenth of a mile on the odometer. So then, because she has “a longing for things to go according to my plan,” she reads or hears that she has an idol of control. Do I? she wonders. Maybe I need to repent of that.

Child-Abuse-agBecause she would love to be able to spend a day walking on something other than eggshells and trying to keep the children quiet and happy and perfect, because she would love to feel happy anticipation instead of fear as the clock approaches time for the husband to return home and she wonders what kind of emotional state he’ll be in when he returns or even if or when he’ll return, wanting to have stability in the home, then she has “a longing for pleasure,” an idol of comfort, and she knows she needs to repent and try harder.

Because she would love to hear, just once, her own real name used in a kind and gentle tone rather than that sickeningly mocking tone or those other unspeakable names, because she would love to receive a gentle touch or maybe even a gentle hug instead of no touch at all or the “touch” of nightmares, well then she has “a longing to be accepted and desired,” and that’s an idol of approval. It’s wrong to want that, she thinks. I’m just an idol factory.

I hope you don’t think I’m exaggerating or overstating the case. In hours of research and reading I couldn’t find a single Christian-as-idol-factory book or article or blog that allowed for any sort of legitimate longing for recognition, stability, pleasure, or acceptance, except for that to be found in Christ.

And I want to emphasize, without a doubt, that our ultimate recognition, stability, pleasure, and acceptance is to be found in Christ! But there is appropriate recognition, stability, pleasure, and acceptance in this life too. It’s called human love, agape love or even filial love. God told us to love one another, and He made us to receive that love.

Digging at the roots of idolatry

Here are a few of the questions David Powlison recommends to help you find the idols of your heart. Read them through the eyes of someone in an abusive relationship in which she lives with the fear, emotional instability, chaos, and confusion of her husband’s mental manipulations, threats, and terror:

  • Whose desires do you obey? This summarizes the internal operations of the “flesh” in the New Testament epistles.  Notice, sometimes another person’s will rules you (peer pressure, people-pleasing, slave-like behavior).  Your heart’s craving in such cases is to get whatever good they promise and avoid whatever bad they threaten. 
  • What do you fear? What do you not want?  What do you tend to worry about? 
  • Who must you please? Whose opinion of you counts?  From whom do you desire approval and fear rejection?  Whose value system do you measure yourself against?  In whose eyes are you living? 

And some more questions from the Village Church website to help you find your idols:

  • What do you worry about the most? What do you worry about all the time? A psychologist actually said, “If you want to find out what you’re worshiping or what’s determining or driving your live, look at your nightmares. What’s your greatest nightmare? What are you worried about?”

The answers to these questions, they say, will help you find your idols. So, because a woman in an abusive relationship will answer “my husband” . . . “my husband” . . . “my husband” . . . she will then be told she has made an idol out of her husband and needs to repent of this sin. She is to submit to him without making him an idol, which means submitting without thinking about any of these questions. The tightrope has become thinner and higher as she tries to balance and gasps for breath.

Idolatry as worship or appeasement?

The concept of true Biblical worship of the true God—heart worship, the kind that God demands and delights in—always carries with it the idea of joy, gladness, fulfillment, responsiveness, and aliveness of the entire self.  And that’s worshiping the true God, who He really is, not some construct of the worshiper’s mind. Our God is ill-impressed by those who don’t worship Him in spirit, and by those who don’t worship Him in truth. But the true worship that is the worship of the spirit, He delights in, and we can too!

The Christian-as-idol-factory teachers say that all sin falls under the category of false worship of false gods. False worship, as worship is defined in the paragraph above, would be a case in which a person would need to repent of deviant desires.

But the scenarios I’ve mentioned suggest the possibility that there may be false gods that people don’t actually worship but only appease.This would be a case of a person needing to be rescued from the darkness.

Appeasing an angry god

In some of my missionary books, I write about tribal people who practiced spirit appeasement through sacrifices and other rituals. The overwhelming emotions involved were fear and despair. Joy, for them, was a foreign concept—until they heard the gospel and believed in Jesus Christ.

A woman whose husband is a demanding, fearsome overlord and whose church supports his abuse with their demands to submit and try harder may find that she has to practice appeasement in order to survive. And so she might say, “My husband became a god to me.”

Even the wrong view of God as a demanding, exacting overlord who is always angry and waiting to punish for the smallest misstep, the kind preached in spiritually abusive churches, presents a situation in which people believe they have to perform acts to appease an angry god. This is not worship.

How to help someone who is appeasing an angry god

First, offer hope! This isn’t the time to rebuke someone for their sin. They’re living in fear, and they need hope. They need hope that the true God actually has power over the spirits they fear. They need hope that the abuser husband does not represent the true God. They need hope that the true God is not like that one preached in that spiritually abusive church. Their thinking needs to be untwisted with truth, bit by bit, in love.

I’ve known of women who lived with abusive husbands, women who feared for their lives, who were told they had sinful fear and needed to memorize Bible verses on not fearing. These women don’t need to be reprimanded for deviant desires. They need to be rescued from the darkness.

Don’t allow “idolatry” to be a catch-all accusation

Because it’s very common to paint all sins and even some non-sins with the brush of “idolatry” these days, this has the potential to be a long section, but I’ll address only a few.

Don’t confuse idolatry with grief

crying at windowA number of years ago a friend of mine who loves the Lord experienced the loss of a baby through miscarriage. She talked with someone about her struggles, including guilt at the lack of excitement she had been feeling over this new baby, because she had been wondering how to care for a fifth child when her other four were still so young.

The person she spoke with told her that her idol was comfort.

“I can see what she’s saying . . .” my friend told me.

I said to her, “Oh friend, you’re not struggling with an idol of comfort. You’re struggling with grief!”

I’ve written about grief on this blog before, and at much greater length in Untwisting Scriptures in the chapter called “I must be bitter.” I believe Christians need to have a much deeper understanding of grief and its complexities, to be willing to sit with others in their grief, and to grieve with them. The loss of a precious child is one of those times.

Don’t confuse idolatry with doubt

Before she miscarried her baby, my friend struggled with doubt that the Lord would strengthen her for the task before her of raising five small children. Again, this isn’t idolatry. Doubt needs encouragement rather than castigation. Even our Lord Jesus, when the disciples doubted, didn’t scold them. His rebuke “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” was a gentle one, given after He had already calmed the storm.

Doubt also dissipates with the feet-on-the-ground encouragement of Christians helping each other in trenches of life. In this case my friend didn’t need to repent of false worship, and she didn’t need to be rescued from a pattern of appeasement. She needed someone to lovingly walk with her through a dark valley of grief and doubt, reminding her of His faithfulness, until she could once again clearly see the goodness of God.

Don’t confuse idolatry with fear

shepherd“Fear not, little flock,” Jesus said to His disciples, “for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Does this sound like a reprimand given to people in idolatry?

There are many who live with fear, maybe because they don’t understand who God really is, or maybe because of an abusive person in their lives, or maybe because of a past that haunts them. Instead of being told to repent of idolatry, they need to be offered hope and love. They need to be offered rescue and deliverance. They need to be offered the fullness of the great Salvation of Jesus Christ.

showing compassionIf we can see each other with our sin and struggles in a more three-dimensional living and breathing form than simply as idol factories, if in the power of the Holy Spirit we can walk with each other in compassion, then we’ll be more like the disciples the people in Acts marveled about. We may have the privilege of seeing people in our own communities say, “Behold, how they love one another.”

Let’s look to Him for it to be so.


Note: This article isn’t meant to imply that someone who thinks of himself or herself as a Christian can’t become an idolater—the Bible speaks clearly otherwise about that. I want to talk more about that eventually, exploring when and how a distraction or a desire can become idolatry, but I wanted to limit this post more to the topic of abuse. It was long enough already!

18 Replies to “Rethinking the idol factory: challenging the “idol” construct as the explanation for all sin in the lives of Christians”

  1. Sometimes, I think there is nothing in our lives that someone in the church hasn’t written a book or developed a theory about to make us feel guilty for going through it. Several of your examples applied to my past. And now, coming out of an emotionally abusive and betrayal filled marriage, it is the must forgive and “forget” thing. Can’t be a good Christian unless you jump on that and get it cleared up a.s.a.p. You’ll get bitter and won’t be close to the Lord….Ugh

    1. Ilene, you might be interested in the chapters on “bitterness” in the book Untwisting Scriptures, which you can see in the right column or on my Books page. I’ve also written several blog posts about bitterness. Though there is sinful bitterness, all too often “bitterness” is just another guilt word to heap the burden on those who have been wounded and crushed. In researching this word, I couldn’t find anybody who really unpacked it and explained what it meant in the Scriptures, so it was high time.

  2. Very perceptive post, Rebecca, one that will hopefully bring understanding and relief to those laboring under the weight of false guilt.

    1. It’s possible for things or people in this life to become idols, for sure. Otherwise, John wouldn’t have said, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” But also, from the very same Scripture, we know that it must be possible to keep ourselves from idols, right? We can enjoy and revel in the wonderful gifts God has given without letting them become idols. Hopefully another post on this will be coming soon.

      1. Yes things can become idols. One must think this thought, “If I seriously had to chose between this(this person) and Jesus, hands down who would I chose. We must not think we have to love others less in order to love Him more. The more we love Him the more we love others.

  3. Thank you for this! Much to think about. Currently I’m going though a series at church about this very thing. That no matter what circumstances come, if God is my satisfaction I won’t sin. And if I do sin it’s because I have an idol.

    For example the other day I was mad because once again, after making appeals in much sorrow for help at home, my husband just won’t. And then jokes about how he won’t do it. There is more but I won’t get into it.

    Whenever I get angry I always think “ok, what is my idol here?” And my conculsion that day was having my husbands help is an idol. I just feel so confused. In your post you mentioned that we were made for human love also. Does this mean it is a right? I just wish that I would get over wanting his help.

    If it’s an idol I don’t know how to let it go. I know God is my satisfaction. It is causing me to become bitter. I try not to let it show because then he will ask what’s wrong and I don’t want to lie, but it does no good to talk about it because then it just ends in a fight.

    Thank you for bearing with my lengthy post. Any advice would be appreciated?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Angela. I know I need to write more on idolatry and haven’t done it yet. But besides what I’ve written in this post, there are a couple of questions to consider and sort out. (1) When you’re angry, are you sinning? The answer is, “Maybe, maybe not.” You don’t have to immediately jump to the conclusion that you’re sinning if you’re angry. Maybe you’re angry about something that’s worth getting angry about. After all, Jesus did.

      And the other question is (2) If your anger is sinful, is it born of some sort of idolatry? The answer is, “Maybe, maybe not.” It is absolutely wrong and unscriptural for people to be teaching “all anger = sin = idolatry.” So very unBiblical, on both counts.

      Leslie Vernick distinguishes three types of marriages, Difficult, Disappointing, and Destructive, which she elaborates on here: Worth reading and studying; I found it very helpful for sorting out situations.

      From what you’ve described, I can’t determine for sure whether your marriage is destructive or just disappointing. Reading more at Leslie’s site can give you more insight into that, and also can give more insight into abusers and their ways. Continue to cry out to God for wisdom about how to proceed, knowing that He loves you and that as you trust Him He is transforming you into His likeness. I’m praying for you.

        1. I think allowing our thinking to be challenged is always a good thing, especially if it drives us back to Scripture with the prayer, “Lord what are You really saying in Your Word?” and asking the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to what He wants us to understand. Even if we end up where we were before, it will be with a deeper understanding of what we believe and why. I know that’s been true for me.

  4. Wow!! I didn’t even question the idol doctrine until now, but this explains why some Christians can feel guilty about anything. It doesn’t take an abusive relationship because if I feel desire for a hamburger, it must be an idol according to some.

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