idolatry is the issue
Imagine a man who has been coughing constantly. This coughkeeps him up
half of the night and interrupts any conversation hehas that lasts more
than a minute. The cough is so unrelenting thathe goes to the doctor.
The doctor runs some tests.
Now imagine the doctor knows how tough the news will be tohandle. So he
doesn't tell his patient about the cancer. Instead, hewrites a
prescription for some strong cough medicine and tells theman that he
should feel better soon. The man is delighted with thisprognosis. And
sure enough, he sleeps much better that night. Thecough syrup seems to
have solved his problem.
Meanwhile, very quietly, the cancer eats away at his body. Atmy church,
I talk to people every week who are "coughing."
They come to me and share their struggles.
They unload their frustrations.
They express their discouragement.
They display their hurts.
They confess their sins.
When I talk to people, they point to what they believe is theproblem. In
their minds, they've nailed it. They can't stop coughing.But here's what
I've discovered: They're talking about a symptomrather than the true
illness—the true issue—which is alwaysidolatry.
CASE STUDY 1: No Big Deal
She's a young woman who grew up in our church. Her familywants me to
meet and talk with her. They're concerned becauseshe's about to move in
with her boyfriend, who isn't a Christian.This ought to be a fun one.
I call her twice and leave messages, but she doesn't return mycall. The
third time she picks up. She knows why I'm calling andtries to laugh it
"I can't believe my parents are making such a big deal out ofthis," she
says with a nervous laugh. I can picture her rolling hereyes. In her
mind this whole thing is a "mild cough" and nothingto worry about.
"Well, I appreciate your talking to me for a few minutes.But I have to
ask, do you think it's possible that you've got thisbackward?"
"What do you mean?"
"That instead of making a big deal out of nothing, it could bethat
you're making nothing out of a big deal?"
More nervous laughter. "It's not a big deal," she says again.
"Do you mind my telling you why I think it is?"
She sighs deeply and proceeds to give me her prediction of allthe
reasons she thinks I'll produce.
I interrupt her with a question. "Have you thought about howmuch moving
in together is going to cost you?"
"You mean the cost of the apartment?"
"No, I'm not necessarily talking about money. I mean the wayyour family
feels about it, and the pressure you're getting fromthem. That's a kind
of price, right?"
"Yeah, I guess it is, but that's their problem."
"And what is this going to cost your future marriage?"
"I don't even know if we're going to get married," she responds.
"I'm not necessarily talking about your getting married to him,because
statistically speaking, you most likely won't."
She understands what I'm getting at, but I push it a bit further."How
much is this going to cost your future husband? What pricewill he have
to pay for this decision?" She has to stop and considerthat one.
I continue to count the ways that this decision is a big deal,because
it's costing her more than she knows.
"So here's what I suggest. If you're willing to pay a price, thenthis
must be pretty important to you. It must be a fairly big deal ifyou're
willing to go through all of this."
I take her silence for reflection, and I finally get to my point."When I
see the sacrifices you are willing to make, and the factthat you are
willing to ignore what God has to say about all this, itseems to me that
you've turned this relationship into a god."
"What do you mean by that?"
"A god is what we sacrifice for and what we pursue. From whereI sit, you
have God on one side saying one thing, and your boyfriendon the other
side saying something else. And you're choosingyour boyfriend over God.
The Bible calls that idolatry, and it'sactually a pretty big deal."
No nervous laughter this time. "I've never thought about it likethat,"
CASE STUDY 2: The Secret Struggle
He comes in maybe five or ten minutes late.
He had asked if we could talk for a few minutes, and I suggestedmeeting
for coffee. But he wanted to meet someplace "alittle more private." So
we decided on my office. He arrives andpauses in the doorway, as if
still not sure he wants to keep thisappointment.
"Come on in." I smile and motion toward a seat.
He answers my smile with a very brief one. He sits, and hisbody language
is all about reluctance. He wraps his arms aroundeach other, lightly
massaging his right elbow. He hasn't told mewhat this meeting is about,
but I know. The conversation I'm aboutto have has become very familiar.
I ask him a few mundane questions about his life, where he'sfrom,
anything to break the ice and create a more relaxed setting.
When we've done that for a couple of minutes, he finallybroaches his
subject. I can tell it takes all the courage he can summonto release his
"I ... um ... I think I'm addicted to pornography, or something,"he
He looks at his shoes.
"Okay. Well, you're not the first person to walk in here, sit inthat
seat, and say those words. How long has this been a struggle?"
He tells his story, starting when he was twelve years old andsaw certain
images with the guys. Pictures that disturbed him atfirst. Pictures that
lodged in his mind, that wouldn't go away, thatstarted calling to him.
Pictures he can perfectly visualize all theseyears later. He talks about
his hatred of the Internet. He describesthe web as if it were his mortal
"It's so easy," he says. "Any kind of picture, any kind of videois at
your fingertips. Just like that. Instant gratification, wheneveryou feel
the slightest urge."
He speaks with the weary tones of a slave, of a prisoner who hasgiven up
on escape plans.
"What am I supposed to do," he says, "unplug the computer?I'm dependent
on the Internet like everyone else. I need it foreverything. Even if I
just used my smartphone, I can pull up thoseimages there. Turn on the
television, and there are a million suggestions.Am I supposed to just
watch the Disney Channel?"
He says he had no idea what pornography would do to his
life,particularly his relationships. He seems to understand, at least
tosome degree, how it has changed the way he views and interactswith
"Thing is," he says, "you think it's just an itch. That's all. Anitch.
But it never goes away, and you have to scratch. Well, youhave to
scratch harder and deeper as time goes by. You know whatI mean?"
There is silence. I'm sure he's expecting me to give the sameadvice he's
heard for so many years: Put a filter on your Internetbrowser. Find an
accountability partner. Redirect your eyes. Allhelpful suggestions, but
I know he's tried them all multiple times.Otherwise he wouldn't be
sitting in front of me.
What I know is that there is an idol that must be dethroned,and until
that happens he will suffer. He won't enjoy intimacy inrelationships. He
will struggle to have any real connection withGod.
"You think what you have is a lust problem, but what you reallyhave is a
worship problem. The question you have to answer eachday is, Will I
worship God or will I worship sex?"
He doesn't verbalize it, but the expression on his face says, "I'venever
thought about it like that."
What Lies Beneath
Idolatry isn't just one of many sins. It's the one great sin that
allothers come from. So if you start scratching at whatever
struggleyou're dealing with, eventually you'll find a false god
underneath.Until that god is dethroned, and the Lord God takes his
rightfulplace, you will not have victory.
Idolatry isn't an issue; it is the issue. All roads lead to the
dusty,overlooked concept of false gods. Deal with life on the glossy
outerlayers, and you might never see it. But scratch a little beneath
thesurface, and you begin to see that it's always there. There are a
hundredmillion different symptoms, but the issue is always idolatry.
That's why, when Moses stood on Mount Sinai and receivedthe Ten
Commandments from God, the first one was, "I am theLord your God, who
brought you out of Egypt, out of the land ofslavery. You shall have no
other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2–3).
When God issued this command during the time of Moses,the people were
familiar with a lot of other gods. God's people hadspent more than four
hundred years in Egypt as slaves. Egypt wascrowded with gods. They had
taken over the neighborhood—literally.The Egyptians had local gods
for every district. Egypt wasthe Baskin-Robbins of gods. You could pick
and choose the flavorsyou wanted.
The Bible has a different standard. When we hear God say,"You will have
no other gods before me," we think of it as a hierarchy:God is always in
first place. But there are no places. God isn'tinterested in competing
against others or being first among many.
God will not be part of any hierarchy.
He wasn't saying "before me" as in "ahead of me." A betterunderstanding
of the Hebrew word translated "before me" is "inmy presence."
God declines to step inside the octagon; he is the ultimatefighting
champion. He is not interested in competing in a realityTV show; he is
the ultimate reality. Life doesn't work properlyuntil every other
"contestant" sitting around the boardroom ofyour heart is fired.
There are no partial gods, no honorary gods, no interim gods,no
assistants to the regional gods.
God isn't saying this because he is insecure, but because it's theway of
truth in this universe. Only one God created it. Only oneGod designed
it, and only one God knows how it works. He is theonly God who can help
us, direct us, satisfy us, save us.
As the events unfold in Exodus 20, the one true God has had itwith the
imitation and substitute gods. So God tells the nation ofIsrael to break
up the band of gods. Send them packing. All othergod activity is
cancelled. He makes sure the people understandthat he is the one and
only. He is the Lord God.
You may be thinking, Thanks for the history lesson, but thatwas a
long time ago. Today, the problem doesn't appear to be thatpeople
worship many gods; it's that they don't worship any god.
Yet my guess is that our list of gods is longer than theirs. Justbecause
we call them by different names doesn't change what theyare. We may not
have the god of knowledge, the god of agriculture,the god of sex, or the
god of the hunt. But we do have GPAs, cars,pornography, and sports. If
it walks like an idol, and quacks likean idol, it's probably ...
You can call it a cough instead of calling it cancer, but thatdoesn't
make it any less deadly.
One of our problems in identifying today's gods is that their
identitiesnot only lack the usual trappings of religion; they are
alsothings that often aren't even wrong. Is God against pleasure?
These things are not immoral. They are morally
neutral—andsometimes even commendable— until they become
somethingelse. It could be friendships or the pursuit of getting into
yourdream college. It could be a worthy cause. You could even be
feedingthe hungry and healing the sick. All of those are good things.
The problem is that the instant something takes the place ofGod, the
moment it becomes an end in itself rather than somethingto lay at God's
throne, it becomes an idol. When someoneor something replaces the Lord
God in the position of glory in ourlives, then that person or thing by
definition has become our god.
So to identify some gods, look at what you are chasing. Anotherway to
identify the gods at war in your life is to look at what youcreate.
Remember your commandments. First: no other gods.
Second: no making other gods to worship.
The profound wisdom of that second commandment is thatanything in the
world can be hammered into an idol, and thereforecan be a false god.
It's DIY idolatry: choose from our handyassortment of gods, mix and
match, create your own.
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on MountSinai, the people
waiting below whined because it was taking solong. Moses had left his
brother, Aaron, in charge, and the peoplebegan clamoring for a god to
lead them. They gathered everyone'sgold, put it on the fire, and made a
golden calf to worship. A littlebit ironic, don't you think? The very
moment God was tellingMoses about having no other gods before him, the
people weredown below rigging up a god.
Later in the Bible is a reflection on what these people did: "Thepeople
made a calf at Mount Sinai; they bowed before an imagemade of gold. They
traded their glorious God for a statue of agrass-eating bull" (Psalm
That's not a good trade. They traded the Creator God for a godof their
Are we really any different? We replace God with statues of ourown
The latest smartphone technology that keeps us from feelingleft out.
Clothes that get us into the right clique.
Grades that push us higher up the class rankings.
A team that wins the championship.
A body that is toned and fit.
We work hard at molding and creating our golden calves.
I already hear what you're thinking: "You could say that
aboutanything. You could take any issue, anything someone devoted
anythingto, and make it out to be idolatry."
Anything at all can become an idol once it becomes a substitutefor God
in our lives.
To describe the concept more clearly, anything that becomesthe purpose
or driving force of your life probably points back toidolatry of some
kind. Think about what you have pursued andcreated, and ask yourself,
If you have "hot button" issues that tend to get you upset, why?
If you plan to go shopping this weekend even though you havea closetful
of clothes, why?
If you spend countless hours fixing up your car and redecoratingyour
To think of these things as forms of idolatry, we need to usenew
imagery. Discard the idea of golden cows and multi-armedfigurines. Even,
just for a moment, strip away the whole idea ofidolatry as an item on a
ten-point list of don'ts.
This next exercise may seem a bit weird, but stick with me. Iwant you to
reimagine idolatry as a tree.
See it in your mind: one of those great oak trees that seemolder than
time itself, one with impressive branches reaching outin every
direction. And down below the surface, deep roots dig inand anchor it
Imagine this tree of idolatry with many branches, each withsomething
tied to it.
From one of the branches dangles a pot of gold.
Another branch grows entertainment all kinds. Xboxes (or,if you prefer,
a PS4), tablets, computers, and every kind of technologyimaginable seem
to sprout from a different section of thatbranch.
Another branch widens into a flat, round ending, and whenyou move
closer, you can see that it is really a mirror that showsan idealized
reflection of yourself.
Yet another branch is carved with beautiful craftsmanship. Youfollow its
sinuous lines and realize it is the image of two humanfigures, entwined
in a sensuous embrace.
One branch has, as fruit, different sets of keys—one set to
asports car, another to your own apartment after graduation.
Quite a peculiar tree. It has many other branches, each onewith a
curious item attached to it.
Here's the point: Idolatry is the tree from which our sins andstruggles
grow. Idolatry is always the issue. It's the trunk of thetree, and all
other problems are just branches.
the battlegroundof the gods
How would you feel if your entire Internet search history wasposted for
the world to see?
That's what America Online did. Remember this company?It's still around.
But when the World Wide Web began to intertwinethe earth, it was the
first big search engine. Then a numberof years ago, America Online
released, to the public, the Internetsearch history of 650,000 of its
network users. The company wastrying to demonstrate its vast reach among
So if you typed "NFL football scores" into a browser window,it was now a
matter of public record.
Already you're saying, "What were they thinking?" But thefact is, AOL
had taken certain precautions. No real names wereused—only user
numbers. So it wasn't Bob down the street, but ananonymous "User
#545354," who was checking to see if the GreenBay Packers won.
The problem was that the precautions weren't strong enough.The New
York Times quickly demonstrated how it was possible toselect a user
number and put a name to it.
How could they do that? It was actually pretty simple. Let's sayUser
#545354 searched for "transmission problems 2002 ChevyCamaro." This
wouldn't tell us much on its own, but AOL alsorevealed thousands of
other searches by the same user. Givenenough information it wasn't too
difficult to look at the searchesand match them up to a specific person.
Excerpted from "Gods at War Student Edition: The battle for your heart that will define your life" by Kyle Idleman. Copyright © 2013 by Kyle Idleman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.