We are currently on another lockdown in Uganda; one which caught most of us off guard when the announcement was made. While we cannot drive personal vehicles, use public transportation, or cross-district borders in an attempt to curb the rise of the India strain of this pandemic, the biggest hit we are taking is that churches, once again, cannot meet together for worship and preaching.
Reactions to this cross a broad spectrum of opinions, which I do not intend to add to in this post. Rather, what I have observed in myself and others over the past few weeks is that our personal responses to these lockdowns are often not “Christian” at all. In fact, what I am discovering is that for many, our reactions are actually revealing the idols of our hearts, rather than drawing us closer to the Lord in intimacy.
Idol Worship in the Old Testament
When we read through the Old Testament, and look at the nation of Israel, we see a lot of idol worship taking place. What I find interesting about their idol worship was that it was often a slow turning from the Lord toward the false gods and cultural idols of other nations. Idol worship was not normally a momentary decision. It was the slow introduction of false worship through personal compromise and willful participation.
As I am currently reading through the book of Jeremiah, I am struck by images the Lord gives to discuss the infection of idolatry in the nation.
“How can you say, ‘I am not unclean, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done— a restless young camel running here and there, a wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust? None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her. Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst. But you said, ‘It is hopeless, for I have loved foreigners, and after them I will go.’”
The Lord goes on to say,
“(They) say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ For they have turned their back to me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they say, ‘Arise and save us!’ But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you, in your time of trouble; for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah.”
It is clear that the children of Israel had not forgotten God. They still discuss themselves as being “clean,” which is to reference the moral law of God. Though they were mistaken, they still believed they were living faithfully.
When times got rough, the people would cry out to God for salvation, likely recalling the stories of Exodus and how He delivered the land to them from the pagan nations.
Still, though they gave lip service to God, their hearts, minds, and pursuits were not toward Him. Their daily lives were full of selfish pursuits and the worship of things that are not God.
Idol Worship in the New Testament
Although most of us today want to pretend that Christian believers are different than those foolish people in the Old Testament and that our own hearts are much cleaner before the Lord, the truth is idol worship was just as prevalent among believers after the cross, as it was before the cross.
Writing to believers in Rome, Paul gives a warning against idolatry.
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
What I find most interesting about idolatry in both the Old and New Testament is that God goes out of His way to show that the things being worshipped are created by men and in the image of men. (See Leviticus 19:4; Psalm 115:4-8; Jeremiah 3:9; Acts 19:24-25). Idolatry is, at its core, worship of ourselves and the works of our hands. As Habakkuk clearly states:
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!”
Idol Worship Today
Now, I hear what you’re already thinking. “I don’t worship wood and stone idols.” Which is true of most of the modernized world (though I have been in many indigenous cultures around the world who still used idols and tokens as part of their tribal worship). The problem is that though the modern age has left behind the worship of sticks and stones, we still have not shed the heart which worships our own accomplishments and the work of our hands.
As someone in ministry who is once again in a season where the work of ministry is extremely limited, the Lord is revealing this sort of idolatry in myself and others around me. It is a call to repent — a call no different than those given by Jeremiah, Habakkuk, or the Apostle Paul! The question is, will we hear the call, or will we – like the nation of Israel – declare ourselves clean, and continue on ignoring what God wants to do in and through us?
Exposing Ministry Idols
It is obvious that the heart of Christianity is relationship with the Lord. After all, when Jesus revealed Himself it was as Emmanuel — “God with us.” John writes very eloquently about His appearing in the world as “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Paul writes how Jesus, though He was God, emptied Himself and took on flesh and lived among us in order to die for us (Philippians 2:5-8). The author of Hebrews calls Him our High Priest who was tempted in every way, just as we are so that He can sympathize with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was God with us, in relationship with mankind, in order to redeem us to Himself for eternity.
When Jesus went away, His plan was that our intimacy with Him would go deeper! So deep, in fact, that He said it was better for Him to go away so that the Holy Spirit would come and live inside of us (John 16:7). He would come to speak to us and guide us in everything Jesus directs Him to say to us (John 16:13).
The problem is that although we are meant to live in relationship with Him, our hearts are continually diverted to worshipping the things of God, rather than God Himself. In His grace, the Lord wants to expose the idols of our hearts, so that we can return to Him completely!
1. The Idol of Ministry
I love ministry! I love preaching and teaching. I love training and equipping leaders. I love helping people discover their ministry gifts and praying for impartation. I love seeing people get saved, healed, and set free from demonic torments. The privilege of ministry work is awesome, and I wouldn’t trade the life I get to live for anything. However, the danger of my life is that I would begin to worship the ministry itself, rather than worshipping the Lord through my ministry.
The idol of ministry rears its head whenever we get more focused on doing the works of ministry rather than keeping our focus on the One we are called to minister for.
See, for a minister, doing the work of ministry is not actually our calling by God! Our lives are supposed to be oriented toward what God is doing, and how we can partner with Him, rather than what we can do for Him.
Doing the ministry is secondary. Being with Him is supposed to be our highest goal.
This idol of ministry gets exposed when we are limited in our ability to do the ministry (as in this lockdown season). Rather than simply resting in God’s presence and listening for His voice in how to respond, we immediately begin to complain, fight, or even struggle with anxiety and depression. We excuse it by declaring that we are just zealous for the work of the Lord, but the truth is, deep in our hearts, we are struggling because our idol has been taken away from us.
It is a dangerous place when we begin to worship our service to the Lord instead of worshipping Him alone, yet it is a very real temptation. We must be aware of it, and we must be ready to repent as soon as it becomes evident.
2. The Idol of Blessing
For many of us, ministry itself is not the idol we are tempted to worship. Instead, it is the blessings which come from the Lord that capture our hearts and minds. I see this over and over again when people spend their Christian lives seeking the next blessing, the next breakthrough, or the next mantle and anointing.
While these things definitely come from the Lord, the danger is that we begin to seek Him only to receive from Him, rather than simply to receive Him.
I believe this idol, for many, actually stems from their initial salvation experience. Too often people are told, “if you put your faith in Jesus, you will go to heaven when you die.” The salvation exchange takes place, simply to receive a reward from Jesus (heaven), rather than to receive Jesus Himself.
He is the true blessing of our salvation. When we get saved, we get Him! When we go to heaven, it is to spend eternity with Him. Our focus won’t be on the pearly gates or streets of gold. He is the central focus of eternity!
“I Just Want Your Stuff”
This is the message of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. In that story, the younger son demands his inheritance from the father. Simply stated, the young man says, “I wish you were dead. I don’t want you, old man. I just want your stuff.”
After some time of licentious living, the young man once again begins to look to his old father as a means of “blessing,” though he knows he is no longer worthy to be called a son. Instead, he returns to become a servant. Still not looking for relationship, he rehearses his speech, looking at how to get material gain from his dad. However, the father is not worried about the stuff. Instead, he is thankful to have his son back. He throws a party to celebrate. The moral of the story is that we sinners need to come to God for relationship, not blessing.
However, there is another character in the story; one not representing the sinner, but representing the religious people in the crowd — the older brother. When he draws near and hears the party going on, he refuses to come inside. In his anger toward what is happening, he shouts at his father, “I have been here with your the whole time, serving you in every way you asked, and you never even gave me a goat to celebrate with my friends.”
Though the hearts of the two brothers were different – one a rebel and one obedient – their goal was the same. They wanted the father’s stuff; not the father himself!
While this happens with regular believers all-too-often, there is a danger for those of us in ministry, who, like the older brother, are only serving the Lord while looking for a blessing.
This is idolatry — worshipping the things of God rather than God — and we must repent when God reveals it in our hearts.
3. The Idol of Esteem
A third idol I am seeing exposed in this season is the idol of esteem. As churches cannot meet and ministers must sit down out of the public eye, the idol of public recognition is getting exposed.
This is a topic I have dealt with many times before, yet one that I am sensing now, in bigger ways.
What is happening is that many ministers who have spent years “making a name for themselves,” are now being overlooked. Pastor and Apostle are not “essential services” and therefore not being exempted from government restrictions. The temptation to declare, “do you know who I am?” is looming on the lips of many (and I am even hearing stories of pastors using their titles and status to get sympathy from police when they are not following the mandated protocols.)
The truth is that being a minister of the Gospel does not make you special or important, above anyone else. Instead, you are called to go to the lower place, as a servant of all. In fact, when Paul spoke of his apostleship, he used words like “dead,” “weak,” “fools,” and as those in “disrepute” (1 Corinthians 4:9-10).
He never spoke of his ministry as a means of attaining celebrity status or of having special privileges, yet that has become the expected outcome for many who serve in ministry today.
Serving the Lord is not intended to make you famous. It is meant to make Jesus famous! Just as John the baptizer said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
When ministry becomes about our own fame and recognition, we are actually worshipping ourselves at the Lord’s expense, and we must repent. We must humble ourselves so that He can be lifted up in our hearts and lives.
Repenting of our Idols
The truth is that all of us deal with idolatry in one way or another. It usually begins unintentionally, with just a small amount of compromise. Yet as it takes hold in our hearts, it grows, often without our realizing the slippery slope we are going down.
It is God’s grace to expose our idols. It is His grace that draws us back to worshipping Him alone. However, it is one of the hardest things to do to lay down our habits and our ingrained mindsets, openly admitting that we have been wrong all along, and returning to Him. The embarrassment and shame that can come from this kind of confession are enough to keep too many people living in their sin. It is just easier and definitely more comfortable.
However, the call to repentance is the same call that brought us to Christ in the first place. A call to die. A call to lay down everything, take up our cross and follow Him. As always, He will be our reward when we do, and it is so worth it to have Him, only and fully.
I encourage you, do a heart check today, and let’s lay down all the idols we have built in our lives and ministries.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Anthony Scott Ingram