Sunlight dappled through the trees on ancient ruins in a tranquil Tunisian wood. The quiet weighed eerily, and the dirt path sloped gently downward. At the bottom, several caves were carved out of the rocky hillside. Shoebox-size stone boxes littered the ground, stacked carelessly; coffins of children sacrificed to an idol.
This is the ruins of a temple of Tanit, a Phonecian and Punic goddess of war and fertility, consort of Baal. Around 20,000 urns containing the remains of children under the age of two were deposited between 400 BC and 200 BC, continuing until the early years of Christianity. Parents sacrificed children for rain and victory, desperate for their goddess' attention and blessing. This idol thirsted for the blood of children.
If you've read the Old Testament, you know that God's people have idol issues. From erecting the golden calf after coming out of Egypt to habitually worshipping the fertility gods of Baal and Ashtoreth, God's people turned from the great I AM to false gods far too easily and often. It's no surprise then that this was the first and second of the Ten Commandments that God gave Israel:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.Exodus 20:3-5
Yet humanity consistently shaped and worshipped stone and wood. These were gods they could see, touch, and manipulate. They didn't want a God to tell them what to do. They wanted gods they could control. In the end, they themselves were their own god.
We are All Idolaters
The heart itself is an idol factory, able to take the most basic (even good!) things and twist them into sinful desires. Jeremiah explains why:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?Jeremiah 17:9
What does 21st century idolatry look like? Paul has the answer.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.Colossians 3:5-6
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.Ephesians 5:5
Idolatry is covetousness -- yearning to possess something. Anything that we desire, love, or enjoy more than God is an idol. Like all sin, it's not something to be made light of. The penalty is the wrath of a perfectly holy and just God, eventually in the form of eternal torment in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). Like the desperate, deceived men and women who sacrificed their children to Tanit, idolatry is a way that leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).
What are your desires? What do you yearn for? Where does your mind go when you're stressed out for relief? What are you willing to spend your precious time and money on?
Take a moment to pray and ask God to reveal idols in your heart or things that could possibly become idols. We must remain vigilant! If God reveals an idol in your heart, share it with your accountability partner(s) so they can spur you on and help guard you against your own wayward heart.
Diagnose Your Yearning
If anything can be an idol, how do we determine if a desire or love is idolatrous?
Don't trust your heart (Jeremiah 17:9). While self-reflection has its place, don't land there. Our hearts are hard-wired to rationalize and justify our desires, not to pursue God.
Scour the Word. Read to understand what God has to say about your desire. It may be a sinful desire (adultery, revenge, impurity, etc). Repent, confess, and turn! It may be a good desire (marriage, children, ministry opportunity, etc.) that God is waiting to give you or may never give you. Obtaining a good desire in the wrong way is also idolatry (adultery, impurity, etc.). Ask God to search your heart, try your thoughts, and lead you in the way that is everlasting (Psalms 139:23-24).
Confess and take heart. Over and over in the Old Testament God forgave His faithless people and kept His covenant with them. We walk under a new covenant, one paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection free you from slavery from sin and idols of the world and your heart. Submit your desires to Him and ask Him to transform them into His desires.
God is truly worthy of being our greatest and strongest desire! When we find our value, identity, and hope in Him, He overwhelms our earthly desires. In the words of the old hymn,
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.Turn your Eyes upon Jesus by Helen H. Lemmel