Who, or What, Owns Your Heart?

Identifying and breaking free from our idols

We might be tempted to dismiss idol worship as an ancient practice that has little or no relevance in the twenty-first century. That would be a mistake. We’re all vulnerable to idolatry. Our hearts are made to worship and if we do not bow down to our creator, we bow down to the created. God knows this. That’s why the very first commandment instructs us to forsake all other gods (Deuteronomy 5:7).

Idol gods not only vie for the limited real estate in our hearts: they intend to evict God. Idols can be people (particularly those who carry power and influence like celebrities and politicians), things we do (for example careers or sporting events), or things we make (such as electronic devices or cars). Most of the people, activities, or objects are not intrinsically evil nor do they have power over us in and of themselves. They gain control when we habitually trust and value them above God. Intellectually, we know this is foolish. So why do we fall for it?

Human nature prefers easy. And let’s be honest; it’s often much easier to drink a few glasses of wine or practice retail therapy than face our pain or disappointment. Our proclivity toward idolatrous behavior makes more sense when we realize that the idol’s promise often represents (or symbolizes) a legitimate need. For example, the pursuit of money might indicate a felt need for security and safety. A preoccupation with certain types of food or women’s breasts might suggest a need for comfort.

No one aspires to become an idolater and typically, the objects of our affection don’t become idols overnight. Our relationship with sports, money, food, sex, social media, or whatever usually starts out quite innocently and shifts over time. This can make it difficult for us to notice when we cross over into idolatrous behaviors. One of the ways we can identify idolatry in our lives is by paying attention to what we think about, where we spend our money, and how we react when the object of our adoration becomes unavailable. (Certainly the pandemic is giving all of us plenty of opportunities to topple our idols.)

What we inevitably discover after a season of kneeling before small-g-gods is that we’re dissatisfied and angry. This makes sense because we’ve been deceived. Idols always over promise and under deliver. Our God-given spiritual and relational needs for security, comfort, companionship, and love can only be satisfied by our Creator and in the context of healthy relationships. If we don’t believe this fundamental truth, we will probably continue chasing idols. That plays out in a myriad of ways, including through broken expressions of sexuality and unreflective consumerism.

Sexual idolatry has ancient roots. That’s part of why it’s so powerful. One of the idol gods mentioned in Scripture and other ancient Near Eastern literature is Baal, a fertility god. You might recall how Baal’s prophets lost the remarkable showdown with Elijah as recounted in 1 Kings 18. Worship of this god included temple prostitution and human sacrifice. The enemy took something that God created and blessed—sex—and fused it with the abuse of power, destruction, and murder.

Because we live in a hyper-sexualized culture and because there are so many stressors and insecurities in life, we are particularly vulnerable to sexual idolatry’s promise of escape and pleasure. When we engage in idolatrous behaviors, we’re not simply choosing to ignore God’s boundaries; we’re saying we know better and trusting our judgment over God’s. This never ends well. Particularly as it pertains to our sexuality.

Like sexual idolatry, consumerism constantly pulls at us. As the pop icon Madonna crooned back in the 80s, we live in a material world. The idea that buying and owning lead to popularity, power, and happiness has been etched into the American psyche. Shopping is part of our civic responsibility. That’s how we keep our capitalistic economy afloat. Perhaps the most blatant example of consumerism is Black Friday when some bargain hunters camp out in the parking lots of big box stores and forget all the rules of civility when the doors open Friday morning. (Ironically, this happens less than twenty-four hours after the one day of the year set aside for us to be thankful.)

Meeting our needs while avoiding the “tiny parasite” called greed is complicated. We can’t live without material good—which drives us into stores. While there, we notice those cute shoes, the latest iPhone, and the still-warm donuts. Noticing leads to wanting, which leads to justifying, which leads to impulse buying and sometimes hoarding. If we hope to purge the parasite of greed from our system and curtail unnecessary buying, we will have to regularly repent and choose gratitude. Even when our lives do not measure up to cultural ideals. After all, contentment is not a commodity. It’s a choice.

From birth to death, we are being wooed by God and seduced by the enemy. This ongoing battle has epic consequences for our marriage. If we say yes to God, he will draw our focus outward and empower us to love and serve our spouse. By comparison, pursuing idols makes us inherently self-centered and thwarts our ability to love and serve others. From an intellectual standpoint, the choice between the two warring factions seems clear. But as many of us will attest, it’s not always easy. The apostle Paul explains why: “We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We’re naive if we discount this. Based on how Satan played Adam and Eve, he’s intent on turning us away from God and each other. This is because healthy marriages uniquely reveal the kingdom of God on the earth—something that Satan hates.

If we fail to recognize and repent of our idolatrous habits, we will be blown off course by the winds of deception, and we don’t have time for that. There’s an urgency about midlife. Mistakes are much more consequential now. The fallout from our choices affects more people. There’s less time to regroup and recoup our losses. But we need better motivation than warnings and the threat of dire consequences if we hope to renounce idolatry. We need hope and vision for our future.

Intrigued? Want to read more? The Kindle version of Marriage in the Middle is currently on sale over at Amazon for a mere $3.99. Marriage in the Middle is fiercely honest, incredibly practical, and full of hope. You won’t find any cliches or pat answers here.

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This excerpt is adapted from Marriage in the Middle, by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The quote including the phrase “tiny parasite” is from Eugene Petersons’ book, Tell It Slant, published by Baker, 2008, Grand Rapids P62.