Simply put, an idol is anything we place our security, hope, identity, pleasure, or ambition in more than God. When we look to an object, person, or activity to make us fulfilled or complete, we are committing idolatry. When a certain temporal value or priority determines what is right-wrong, worth our time, or friend-enemy, then that thing has our heart.
For most Christians, that is not a novel definition (at least, I hope not). But there comes the point where that definition is very challenging to apply. What happens when the idol is something that God intends for me to have?
A young girl wants an absent father’s love, so she is willing to compromise with her boyfriend to be affirmed.
Someone has been abused and wants to feel safe, so they seek comfort through an unhealthy habit (i.e., smoking, overeating, etc.…).
After repeated rejection and ridicule, an individual commits to being a people-pleaser in order to be part of a community.
This is not to imply that all pre-marital sex, smoking, overeating, and people-pleasing results from the above-mentioned situations. However, we want to recognize that some people engage in these activities in the pursuit of pleasure while others do so as an escape from suffering.
With either motive, the actions are wrong, and the activity/relationship is seeking to fill a role that only God can fill. Yet, they are replacing God in different ways. My attempt to capture this difference is to coin the phrase “idols of suffering.”
We most naturally think of “idols of sin.” We want something we do not think God will or can give us, so we seek it outside of his commands or character. Not only that, but we are blinded by our desire, and we are crying for freedom.
With “idols of suffering,” we want what God offers, but due to broken life circumstances, it is largely unavailable. We are looking for the closest thing we can find to what God offers in an attempt to make life work. We are confused by pain and want relief more than freedom.
In both cases, our actions are morally wrong and doomed to failure. The most gracious thing that can happen is for our idolatry to be unmasked as a God counterfeit. Yet, the tone of this conversation would be different based upon the two situations.
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
In this passage, Paul assumes that the idle, fainthearted, and weak are all living outside God’s will (or else there would be no need for intervention). Paul is pointing out that it is not enough to know the sin merely. We must also know the sinner and the situation.
We may know the answer, but not the question or the context. If we are going to minister effectively, we must take the time and spend the effort necessary to know all three.