If asked to name the sin most likely to provoke God’s judgment on the nation, churchgoers might point to Hollywood’s debauchery, Wall Street’s greed, Washington’s escalating antagonism to religious freedom, Planned Parenthood’s abortion mills, or society’s swelling sexual depravity. While such behaviors certainly reflect a decline in our nation’s moral fabric and are an affront to God, they are limited in scope, practiced by segments of the country but not an overwhelming majority of the nation.
To pinpoint the most dangerous sin in America, the one most responsible for sending our country down a moral slope so steep and so severe we may never recover, we must identify one practiced across most of society, both inside and outside the church, that directly challenges God’s sovereignty, and that is difficult for the sinner to recognize. That sin is idolatry and it grips the hearts, minds, and souls of more Americans than probably any other sin.
Anyone doubting the danger of idolatry need look no further than the Old Testament. Time and again the nation of Israel turned its back on God to chase false gods and worship foreign idols. And in every instance their decision resulted in separation from God and, eventually, His punishment. What Israel failed to understand was the severity of its idolatry. It both angered and grieved God.
The First Commandment clearly communicates God’s expectation that He alone deserves our worship, praise, and adoration: “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Deuteronomy 5:7, NKJV). God demands we recognize His preeminence and we have no other gods in our lives.
Too often we assume this simply means we have no gods in the form of a graven image. We likely make that association because the Second Commandment specifically proscribes bowing down and serving such images. But we need to understand that idolatry is not limited to kneeling before graven images, praising inanimate objects, and verbalizing allegiance to deities of stone and wood. Idolatry occurs whenever we love something more than God, pursue it with more passion than we pursue God, and make it a greater priority in our lives than Him.
The fourteenth chapter of Ezekiel provides insight into God’s view of idolatry. While Ezekiel is visiting with some of Israel’s leaders God tells him, “These leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin.” (vs. 3, NLT). We learn two critical truths from this exchange. First, idolatry is first and foremost a condition of the heart. That’s what makes it so difficult to identify. Second, idolatry represents the embrace of things that lead us to sin and which separates us from God.
God makes that connection clearer a couple verses later when He informs Ezekiel that He will punish anyone in Israel “who separates himself from Me and sets up idols in his heart and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity” (vs. 7, NKJV). Idolatry drives people away from God. Whenever we allow something to nestle into our hearts and usurp God’s rightful place there, we commit idolatry.
Merriam-Webster defines idolatry as “the immoderate attachment or devotion to something.” We demonstrate idolatry, then, whenever we pursue something with unbridled fervor and display excessive loyalty toward it. In other words, idolatry exists whenever we allow anything except God to consume our lives.
Looking through that lens makes it easier to recognize the presence of idolatry in our lives. We need only ask ourselves what activities, priorities, and passions do we chase with more zeal than we pursue God? An honest assessment might reveal the existence of one or more idols in our lives, and may include one of the following:
- Entertainment: Our culture is saturated with myriad forms of entertainment including television, movies, video games, sports, concerts, gambling, and online diversions to name a few. And an ever-increasing number of us devote every spare moment indulging an insatiable appetite for our favorite form of entertainment.
- Thrills/Experiences: Perhaps at no time in history has mankind valued thrills and experiences as much as we do today. We want to travel to the most exotic locations, participate in the most extreme sports, partake in death-defying activities, and enjoy memorable experiences on a regular basis. And many of us prioritize these pursuits and excursions above everything else in life, including God.
- Careers: Achieving the pinnacle of success in corporate America these days often requires working twelve-to-fourteen hour days, going into the office on weekends, being available to your boss around-the-clock, and a resolute commitment to helping the company exceed expectations. Not surprisingly, this demands a level of devotion that often leaves little time or energy for anything else, forcing God to the sideline.
- Self/Pride: Society has made the celebration of self a virtue. We have placed celebrity on a pedestal, honoring those with the creativity and hustle to make themselves the center of attention. Modesty and humility are the currency of chumps. If you want to be popular in the world then you must constantly promote yourself on social media and among your friends. Sadly, it is a vice that thrives inside the church as well.
- Material Things: It is difficult to overstate the degree to which we have become a materialistic culture. We want more stuff, better stuff, newer stuff, and we want it faster than ever – witness Amazon’s new one-hour delivery program (so you don’t have to suffer the interminable one or two day wait with conventional delivery). And when our homes, garages, and attics are filled to the full, we simply get a bigger house, a second house, or rent a storage unit. And the more we buy and own, the more our souls are bought and owned.
I could go on but you get the picture. These are the things that often win our devotion, enthusiasm, and allegiance. And while in moderation none of these pursuits is sinful, they become idols when they consume our lives and force God to the periphery. When they dominate our resources, time, and energy, these innocent interests evolve into gods. And while the secular world may shrug at this assessment, or even embrace it proudly, those in the church resist, knowing it is an abomination to the Lord. We insist that Jesus alone gets our worship and devotion.
But the evidence reveals how specious that assertion is for many of us. And the evidence is overwhelming. By almost any reasonable metric – time, energy, enthusiasm, focus, and resources – God often takes a backseat to one or more of the idols listed above. For many of us He isn’t even the second or third priority. Irrespective of what we claim to believe, God doesn’t always sit on the throne of our heart. It is the gods above that often occupy that place of prominence.
So what do most of us do when made aware of this lethal sin? We compound our iniquity by justifying our behavior. We sprinkle Jesus over our idols and claim to pursue them for His glory, insisting He has placed in our hearts the desire to chase them. Many of us go to great lengths to demonstrate the virtue of these idols and tell ourselves that God created us to enjoy them to the full.
All the while Satan smiles with smug satisfaction that we have bought into his lie. He rejoices when we bow down to his idols and do so with more fervor than he ever imagined. It is His greatest deceit that so much of the church is consumed with idolatry yet remains convinced such behavior doesn’t exist.
It is time we adopt a different approach. Instead of asking whether there is anything wrong with the things that consume our resources, demand our time, and secure our devotion, we ought to ask whether there is anything right with them? Are they good for our spiritual development? Do they make us into the men and women God wants us to be? Do they honor Christ and draw us into a more intimate relationship with Him? Those are the more appropriate questions we need to ask.
So how do we rid ourselves of idolatry? First, we need to examine our lives carefully for the presence of false gods and idols. Next, we need to get real, recognize that their existence represents sin, and repent. No more justifying our excessive devotion to and zealous pursuit of anything but God. That only perpetuates the problem. Instead, we must seek forgiveness and ask God to give us a growing desire for Him. Finally, we should begin directing more and more of our time, energy, attention, and resources toward Him.
And if we don’t? He will eventually remove those idols from our lives – not because He hates us but because He loves us. He knows that the best thing for us is having a healthy, mature, and vibrant relationship with Him, not a life filled with passion for the things of the world. Because, after all, idolatry is the most dangerous sin.