How Does Idolatry Harm Individuals & Societies?

Mark Driscoll » Worship Worldviews Heart Doctrine Sin Culture

We were created to worship God and make culture in which God is worshiped in all of life. Subsequently, when idolatry is committed, all of life is implicated, damaging individuals and societies. This reality negates the popular myth that idolatry is not damaging, or that it is merely a personal matter that does not implicate society at large, as if we were each isolated individuals not affected by or affecting others.

Idolatry destroys idolaters

First, idolatry harms the individuals who participate in it. Commenting on Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s 1849 book The Sickness Unto DeathTim Keller says,

    Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity apart from him. . . . Most people think of sin primarily as “breaking divine rules,” but Kierkegaard knows that the very first of the Ten Commandments is to “have no other gods before me.” So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship to God. (The Reason for God)

Our identity is our idol

Whatever we base our identity and value on becomes “deified”; this object of worship then determines what we hold in glory and live for. If that object is anything other than God, we are idolaters worshiping created things. For most people, their proverbial “tell” happens when they introduce themselves: they first say their name and then say something to the affect of, “I am a [blank].” How they fill in the blank (e.g., education, vocation, number of children, neighborhood they live in) often reveals what they have deified and are building their life on.

Whatever you base your life on—you have to live up to that.

The ensuing problem is that our marriage, children, appearance, wealth, success, career, religious performance, political party, cause, loving relationship, possession, hobby, pleasure, status, and power crumble under the weight of being god to us. Regarding the instability of an identity based upon anything other than Jesus Christ’s saving work to claim us as his own, Keller says,

    If anything threatens your identity you will not just be anxious but paralyzed with fear. If you lose your identity through the failings of someone else you will not just be resentful, but locked into bitterness. If you lose it through your own failings, you will hate or despise yourself as a failure as long as you live. Only if your identity is built on God and his love, says Kierkegaard, can you have a self that can venture anything, face anything. . . . An identity not based on God also leads inevitably to deep forms of addiction. When we turn good things into ultimate things, we are, as it were, spiritually addicted. If we take our meaning in life from our family, our work, a cause, or some achievement other than God, they enslave us. We have to have them.

God's love grounds our identity

As God’s image-bearers we will only have a true, lasting, deep, satisfying, and sufficiently rooted identity in God’s love. Keller says,

    Remember this—if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. If you live for career and you don’t do well it may punish you all of your life, and you will feel like a failure. If you live for your children and they don’t turn out all right you could be absolutely in torment because you feel worthless as a person.

    If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, “If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!” But we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity. Whatever you base your life on—you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you—one who breathed his last for you. Does that sound oppressive?

This explains why those whose idol is beauty become frantic to maintain their appearance, even if it should compel them toward eating disorders, abuse of cosmetic surgery, and a panic as they age. Similarly, this helps to explain why those who are the richest and most famous among us struggle with substance abuse, depression, and even suicidal longings.

Idolatry destroys societies

Idolatry also harms the societies in which it is practiced, to the degree it is practiced. In his book Idols for Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg surveys the various idols of modern life and thought. According to Schlossberg, the chief errors of our time stem from attempts to deify various aspects of creation: history, nature, humanity, economics, nature, and political power. Only affirmation and application of the Creator-creature distinction can point the way out. The issues, then, are essentially religious and moral; we will not escape our dilemmas by some new form of political organization or a new economic system.

When we turn good things into ultimate things, we are spiritually addicted.

Schlossberg is emphatic to point out that just because a culture turns away from God, it still turns toward something to replace God:

    Western society, in turning away from Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is being turned to in its place.

If you idolize, you demonize

One of the great evils of idolatry is that if we idolize we must also demonize, as Jonathan Edwards rightly taught in The Nature of True Virtue.

  • If we idolize our race, we must demonize other races. 
  • If we idolize our gender, we must demonize the other gender. 
  • If we idolize our nation, we must demonize other nations. 
  • If we idolize our political party, we must demonize other political parties. 
  • If we idolize our socioeconomic class, we must demonize other classes. 
  • If we idolize our family, we must demonize other families. 
  • If we idolize our theological system, we must demonize other theological systems. 
  • If we idolize our church, we must demonize other churches.

This explains the great polarities and acrimonies that plague every society. If something other than God’s loving grace is the source of our identity and value, we must invariably defend our idol by treating everyone and everything who may call our idol into question as an enemy to be demonized so that we can remain feeling superior to other people and safe with our idol.

If you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else.

Curiously, some people are aware of this fact and idolize tolerance and diversity, as if they were more righteous because of their open-mindedness. However, even those who idolize tolerance and diversity must demonize those they deem to be intolerant of certain diversities. Simply stated, everyone who idolizes also demonizes and in so doing is a hypocrite contributing to the tearing of a social fabric of love, peace, and kindness they purport to be serving. 


Adapted from Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe by Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears

« Newer Older »