As part of this series about idolatry, I want to do what I can to help you identify the idols in your life. I think Christians should really make this a regular process, because I think new idols will quickly take the place of old idols, and that as we change and go through life, our idols will change, too.
I am not an expert, and I still have lots to do in my own life regarding idolatry. But we can do this together.
First, I think we need to seek God’s help. I believe He wants to reveal our idols to us because He is a jealous God and wants our full worship. So start by praying that God would reveal to you the idols you’ve carried for years, or the idols plaguing your life currently. Seek His guidance. Seek His whispering regarding things in your life. Open your heart to what He wants to show you!
Tim Keller gives these suggestions for identifying idols (via Christianity Today):
One way requires that we look at our imagination. Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” In other words, the true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention. What do you enjoy day-dreaming about? What is it that occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement? Or material goods such as a dream home? Or a relationship with a particular person? One or two day dreams do not indicate idolatry. Ask rather, what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?
Another way to discern your heart’s true love is to look at how you spend your money. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” (Matt 6:21) Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love. In fact, the mark of an idol is that you spend too much money on it, and you must try to exercise self-control constantly. As St Paul has written, if God and his grace is the thing in the world you love most, you will give your money away to ministry, charity, and the poor in astonishing amounts (2 Cor 8:7-9). For most of us, however, we tend to over spend on clothing, or on our children, or on status symbols such as homes and cars. This reveals our idols.
A third way to discern idols works best for those who have professed a faith in God. You may regularly go to a place of worship where you are a member. You may have a full, devout set of doctrinal beliefs. You may be trying very hard to believe and obey God. However, what is your real, daily functional salvation? What are you really living for, what is your real—not just your professed—God? A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. If you ask for something that you don’t get, you may become sad and disappointed. Then you go on. Hey, life’s not over. Those are not your functional masters. But when you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god. Like Jonah, you become angry enough to die.
A final test is for anyone to use. Look at your most uncontrollable emotions. Just as a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is roiling, look for your idols at the bottom of painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong. If you are angry, ask, “Is there something here too important to me, something I am telling myself I have to have at all costs?” Do the same thing about strong fear or despair and guilt. Ask yourself “Am I so scared, because something is being threatened, which I think is a necessity when it is not? Am I so down on myself because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?” If you are over-working, driving yourself into the ground with frantic activity, ask yourself, “Do I feel that I must have this thing to be fulfilled and significant?” When you ask questions like that, when you “pull your emotions up by the roots,” as it were, sometimes you will find your idols clinging to them.
Grace Online Library offers these suggestions for questions to ask yourself:
- What do I worry about most?
- What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live?
- What do I use to comfort myself when things go bad or get difficult?
- What do I do to cope? What are my release valves? What do I do to feel better?
- What preoccupies me? What do I daydream about?
- What makes me feel the most self-worth? Of what am I the proudest? For what do I want to be known?
- What do I lead with in conversations?
- Early on what do I want to make sure that people know about me?
- What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?
- What do I really want and expect out of life? What would really make me happy?
- What is my hope for the future?
- What do you blog, tweet or post the most about on social networks?
Other questions to ponder, as you try to identify what may be an idol in your life:
- What do I worry about?
- What consumes my thoughts?
- What do I spend excessive money on?
- What are the bad habits I can’t get rid of?
- What produces strong emotions in me?
- Where do I feel out of control in my life?