When modern people hear the term "idol" they think of statues used in ancient versions of religion. When we read a command like the one at the end of 1 John "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols", we tend to think that it does not relate to us. But does it?
Let's start with a better definition of the term idol. An idol is any thing that we use to replace the one true God. Yes, it can be a statue... but it can be a wide variety of other things. We can replace God with money, reputation, family, work, religion, etc. An idol is any thing from which we try to gain things that God offers.
“Having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God.”
~ Heidelberg Catechism #95
The protestant reformer John Calvin once wrote "the human mind is ... a perpetual forge of idols." We are idol factories. Here are some questions to help you identify the many idols in your heart, mind, soul.
To what do you turn for security?
What, if it was taken away from you, would make your life not worth living?
What do you most look forward to?
To what does your mind wander? About what do you day-dream?
When you are in distress, to what do you turn for comfort, relief, hope, or help?
What stirs up the most emotions in me? What is the thing that makes me mad, worried, passionate?
What makes me “right” and better than others? (morality, political beliefs, denomination or doctrinal beliefs, etc…)
The answers to these questions will lead you to the idols you are commanded to avoid. These are the things you may be using to replace the one true God.
We all have a constant seemingly insatiable thirst. We are continually thirsty for love, acceptance, security, affirmation, meaning, significance, etc. Our modern life is a constant hunt for something or someone that will satisfy our deepest thirsts. If we look over our shoulders at our pasts, we can find a trail of discarded toys, abandoned activities and relationships that could not provide all that our hearts long for. If we look at our current activities and endeavors, we will see a variety of attempts to nourish our parched hearts. We are all tempted to try to suck life from friends and family, jobs and ministries, hobbies and vacations, psychology and religion. After all, the ads and propaganda say they’ll satisfy us. We are repeatedly promised that these things will quell our deepest thirsts. Yet sadly, many of these things will be soon discarded and we will move on to more hopeful things. The inspired writer of wisdom, in Ecclesiastes, called this constant, never-ending and never-fulfilling pursuit of idols a “chasing after the wind.”
But there is Good News. There is forgiveness from our idolatry and the offer of a satisfying source for all that you crave. Jesus provides the perfect payment for our sin of idolatry and opened the way to a vibrant relationship with God himself. We now have access (Romans 5:1-2; Hebrews 10:19-23, 11:7). True saving faith is bringing our needs and desires to the Lord and accepting His solutions.
Take seriously the command to "keep yourself from idols." This is an important command for modern people. Reject the temptation to suck life from any thing but the Lord himself. Only in His presence there is fullness of joy; only in His right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps16:11). Jesus is the way, the truth, the life!
“Our soul-thirst is powerful, and it makes all of us idolaters. To be sure, not many of my contemporaries bow before actual pagan altars. Nevertheless, the Bible sees idolatry as a universal problem. To be alive is to be an idolater. One of the most basic questions in spiritual formation must be “What am I doing about my idols?” not “Do I have any idols?”
~ James Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation As If The Church Mattered.
To explore this important topic more fully check out Timothy Keller's book Counterfeit Gods or check out this helpful article by David Powlison Revisiting Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair