The Bible’s Answer
The simplest definition of an idol is anything that takes the place of God in our lives. If you love, adore, or treasure something or someone more than God, then that person or thing is an idol. Idols can be conspicuous or inconspicuous.
An example of a conspicuous idol would be the “gods” and “deities” of different religions and cults out there that are worshipped by their followers. The Bible says that these so-called deities don’t exist, because the Triune God of the Bible is the only true God:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence”, and that “there is no God but one.” (1 Corinthians 8:4, ESVUK)
It even says that the idols that pagans and other non-Christians worship (including cultists who deny the Trinity) are actually demons:
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Corinthians 10:19–20)
Because the followers of these non-Christian religions love and adore their “gods” above all instead of the true God, this means that they are worshipping idols.
God Forbids Idol Worship
God forbids idol worship in the first two of the Ten Commandments, commanding us to have no other gods before him, and to not make images representing other gods and worship them:
“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, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:3–6)
Setting up images representing created things and worshipping them is also condemned in the New Testament:
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:22–23)
An example of a religion which openly promotes this form of idol worship is Hinduism. Hindus regularly pray to and worship statues depicting their deities in their temples.
People or Things Which Replace God
With regards to inconspicuous idols, many examples could be used in this day and age. One example of such an idol is worldly pursuits. The Bible warns:
For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:11)
Another example of such an idol is money. Jesus said:
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
Another example of such an idol is worldly possessions and lusts. The Bible says:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. (1 John 2:15–16)
All of these things have the potential to become idols in our lives. In addition, there are many more potential idols that have developed out of this technological day and age. An example of a more modern potential idol would be electronic entertainment. This could include TV series, movies, audio books, video games, and Internet sites like YouTube and Facebook. In and of themselves, none of those things are bad, but the danger is that unless we’re disciplined and self-controlled enough, we may end up prioritising these things above spending time with God. If that is the case, instead of them being innocent forms of entertainment, they become idols.
The same could be said with regards to sport, sex (with your spouse), work, or your favourite hobbies, such as cooking or travelling. Like the aforementioned things, these things in and of themselves aren’t bad, but if due to lack of self-control we end up prioritising them above our relationship with God, then they also become idols. And if we have idols in our lives, then we are guilty of committing the sin of idolatry—a violation of the first two of the Ten Commandments. Jesus said:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. (Matthew 22:37–38)
Summary and Conclusion
It’s okay for us as Christians to have hobbies and to enjoy innocent earthly activities. But above all, we must prioritise our relationship with God. The most important commandment in the Bible is to love God with our whole being, not just part of it. There is nothing whatsoever in this life that is more important or greater than God. But even if we have made idols in our lives, it’s not too late to turn back to God in repentance, and he will forgive us with open arms. Why? Because Jesus died for all of our sins on the cross, including the sin of idolatry. Moreover, Jesus rose again from the dead to triumph over sin, so that all who believe in and have been baptised into his name may also share in his victory. Let us celebrate this victory by loving Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit—the one true God, above all, with all our heart, soul and mind. Amen.