Idolatry is a theological thread woven throughout the biblical narrative and an invisible cord entangling humanity throughout history. It is so central to the human predicament that God gives it priority in the Decalogue, addressing it in the first two commandments.
The first commandment reads, “I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). This commandment reflects the theme of this issue of the Epistle. It establishes that God is intended to be our “first love” (Revelation 2:4) and that He who loves us so unconditionally is alone worthy of worship, trust, and obedience.
The second commandment then unpacks the first, stating: “You shall not make for yourself an image…” (Exodus 20:4). This commandment envisages the crafting of idols, the proverbial example of which is the golden calf Israel forged while Moses was atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 32).
When contemporary readers encounter the term “idolatry,” many imagine the second commandment’s conception of images, statues, or figurines. Today, there are world religions that continue to create totems to place in temples. However, for the modern Westerner, the second commandment may seem a bit foreign. The first commandment, read in parallel with the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 14:1-8), frames idolatry not merely as the creation of physical representations of gods but as a disorder of the heart which causes us to make “first loves” of secondary things. (The Bible uses the word “heart” in reference to the center of our mind, will, and emotions.)
It is not that the human heart is out of order; it is disordered. When a vending machine is out of order, it is not dispensing properly. On the other hand, disorder describes when something is working, but it is working against its design. For example, in an immune disorder, the immune system, designed to protect from illness, begins to attack the materials the body needs to thrive.
The human heart is capable of love and worship, and in that regard, it is working. The heart becomes disordered or idolatrous when love and worship work against God’s design.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism poignantly states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Humanity was created for love and worship. Even those far from the Lord and those who presume no religious conviction have hearts designed for worship. Some “great end” is being pursued in every heart as an order of “first love.” Since the fall, all of humanity has held a proclivity toward loving and worshiping the wrong things. Instead of loving and honoring the Creator from whom all blessings flow, the human heart gives itself over to the love and worship of creation (Romans 1:20). Since God is the source of all creation, anything that God has made—even a good thing—can become an idol when pursued as a chief end. The human heart’s ability to turn even good things into idols has led some to describe the heart as a “perpetual factory of idols.”1
In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines idolatry in this way: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”2
Idols can take the form of careers, money, possessions, status, family, relationships, sex, health, beauty, reason, or ideology, to name a few. Notice that these are not necessarily inherently sinful so long as they follow God’s design. However, when a disordered heart makes these into “first loves,” it has erected an idol by looking to God’s creation to provide what only God can provide. God is the true source of life, love, salvation, and satisfaction. When our first love is God—when we put first things first—the secondary object is not diminished but becomes even more vibrant (Matthew 6:33). In a letter written to Mrs. Ashton (dated November 8, 1952), C.S. Lewis stated:
When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.
When secondary things are loved as primary things, our hearts become disordered and idolatrous. In this state, humanity becomes less loving and less satisfied. On the other hand, when God alone is our first love, our heart is in an ordered state. Only when we get our “first love” right will we find ourselves in the right relationship with God’s creation.
Here are a couple of questions to ponder: What aspect of your life are you pursuing as a first love, assuming that you will find life, love, salvation, or satisfaction through it? How might you reorder your “loves” to remember that God is your “first love”? As disciples of Christ, we are constantly bound to pursue first things first and allow our love of God to come first. This pursuit is part of our purpose; let it be the invisible cord that unites us in all of life’s narratives.
by Pastor Brad Rogers
1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 1.11.8.
2Timothy J. Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, New York, NY: Dutton, 2009, p. xvii