5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
15 Nov, 2019

Many things can creep into our hearts as hidden idols.

If we stopped to look at it we would see how they weave themselves into our everyday thoughts and actions. We don’t admit it to ourselves but they do get more attention than God and seem to offer us more meaning and happiness. Some things are more obvious: success, work, image, material possessions, even smart phones. But heart idols go even deeper than you think. They are bound up with the deepest emotions and instincts of our heart and that is what keeps them hidden. If we are serious about putting God first we need help in diagnosing what is taking His place.

James Durham explains the subtle ways in which we commit heart idolatry and helps us to diagnose it. The heart Idolatry need not be an avowed conviction that we should worship something or someone other than God. Neither is it restricted to letting ourselves fixate on sinful things. We can be committing idolatry when we let ourselves love or value lawful things–things which are good and legitimate in themselves–to an excessive degree.

5 WAYS TO DIAGNOSE tHE IDOLS OF THE HEART

There are five things which indisputably belong to God: respect, love, confidence, reverence, and service.

It’s not that we should give no honour, love, etc, to anyone other than God, but that we should not love or serve anyone or anything too much, i.e, more than God.

When we veer away from giving God these five things, we are in effect committing idolatry in our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-7). What does this mean?

1. WHAT DO YOU RESPECT?

We commit idolatry when anything – even any good and legitimate thing – gets too much of our respect, so that our happiness depends on it. We can’t do without it, while we can do without communion with God. If something happens to deprive us of this thing, and then by comparison all our other comforts, including the promises of God and God himself, are of little value to us, this shows that that thing had too much of our respect.

2. WHAT DO YOU LOVE?

We commit idolatry when we give our hearts away to created things – we’re addicted to them, we pursue them with excessive energy, we dote on them, or we sorrow immoderately when we lack them. A covetous person, who loves the world (1 John 2:15) is called an idolater (Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 5:5). Ahab loved Naboth’s vineyard so much that he could not rest without it (1 Kings 21). Demas idolised the world, when for love of it he forsook his service with the apostle (2 Timothy 4:10).

There are three ways to tell if your love to created things is excessive.

  • If your contentment depends on them to the extent that you fret when you cannot enjoy them, as Ahab did with Naboth’s vineyard, and Rachel when she had no children (Genesis 30:1).
  • If your love for created things competes with God, so that respect and love to the world shuffles out your duty to God, as it did with Demas.
  • If love to the world undermines your zeal in doing your duty towards God. This was the case with Eli (1 Samuel 2:24). Eli honoured and loved his children above God (1 Samuel 2:29). Not that he tolerated their wicked wrongdoing entirely, but because he did not intervene as sharply as he should have (and likely would have, if they had not been his own sons). By contrast, Abraham is commended for showing his love for God, because he did not hold back his only son when God called for him.

3. WHAT DO YOU PUT CONFIDENCE IN?

Putting our confidence in humans or human thing is idolatry. If we place our protection in humans, even in princes (Psalm 146:3) or in crowds, or in horses and armies, we are idolising them. Rich people may “make gold their confidence and fine gold their hope” (Job 31:24). They regard themselves as safe, not because God has a providence, but because they have these resources. Asa trusted doctors and not God for the cure of his disease (2 Chronicles 16:12). The rich man based his rest for his soul on his full barns (Luke 12:19).

You tell that some people’s confidence is misplaced because of the course of action they take when trouble comes. Some people do not hesitate to make use of sinful means to get things sorted. Or, because of the fuss they make when disappointment comes. Or, because they rely on their resources in a way that spoils their resting in God and his providence.

4. WHAT DO YOU FEAR?

We may fear people, or events, more than we fear God. Fear can make us sin, or at least keep us back from doing what we should, either in little things or important things. Some, for fear of the Jews, did not confess Christ (John 12:42). This makes an idol of our actual enemies! We have more fear for “the one who can kill the body”, than for “him who can destroy both soul and body”! In this way great and important men in the world are idolised. In fact, the same thing can happen to good and well-qualified individuals, if we become addicted to them and their words and opinions, not so much because of the truth or reasonableness of what they say, but because of the personalities themselves.

5. WHAT DO YOU SERVE

When we are brought under the power of any thing, to serve it, that is idolatry. Every person or every whim that we set out to please is in this sense an idol. We cannot serve two masters, both God and mammon, and if we “serve men”, we are not “the servants of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

You can identify this kind of idolatry by seeing, for example, what people are most excessively taken up with, and most careful to accomplish. Or, by looking at what people will go to greatest lengths to attain. Or, by what gets most of their time and energies. Or, by what most sways, and overcomes, and overawes them most, so that they cannot resist it, even supposing they have to thrust aside a duty to God, or it puts them out of sorts for duties of worship.

WHAT KIND OF IDOLS CAPTURE OUR HEARTS?

It would be hard to speak of all the various different idols which may be loved, feared, and rested on too much, and so put in God’s place. Let us look at only a few.

1. THE WORLD

The world is the great clay idol that both covetous and hedonistic people hunt after, calling, “Who will show us any good?” (Psalm 4:6). This idol keeps thousands in bondage. An excessive desire to have the world’s goods, and so to have a prestigious reputation in the world, is the idol of many.

2. THE BELLY

The belly is a shameful god (Philippians 3:19), yet one worshipped by the majority of people, who labour for nothing more than for enough in this life to fill the belly (Psalm 17:14). They only want to earn their living and provide for their families. The fear of want captivates and enslaves many.

3. THE SELF

In some ways, the self includes every kind of idol. Your self, your reputation, your good name, people’s approval–your own will, opinions, beliefs, and conclusions. People are said to “live to themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15), in contrast to living to God, when respect to self influences them to be “lovers of themselves” (2 Timothy 3:2, 4), and “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (Titus 1:7) and “self-willed” (2 Peter 2:10).

4. INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE

Gifted or influential people, who have the power to do us considerable good or evil, are often made into idols when people put too much fear, love, or trust in them.

5. THE COMFORTS OF LIFE

Things which can lawfully be used as comforts and contentments–such as houses, spouses, and children–we can be too much addicted to. We can become absorbed in these things–even though they are in themselves very little–and so they turn out to be our idols.

6. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS

Our prayers, repentances, blameless living, and so on, are often invested with more of our confidence than they should be. We rely too much on them for our salvation and eternal peace (Romans 10:3).

7. CHURCH

The purity of our worship, the forms of our worship, our church membership, can become idols. When we rest on these forms of godliness, and do not press on towards the power of godliness, they become our idols. This was the problem with the Jews, who appealed to the temple of the Lord and the covenant between him and them, and their external relationship to him (Jeremiah 7:4).

8. GIFTS FROM GOD

When we lay too much weight on God’s gifts (such as beauty, strength, intelligence, learning), or think too much of them, we make them into idols. In fact, we may put grace itself, and the sense of God’s love, and inward peace, into Christ’s place. We may sometimes seek for these things more than for Christ himself. When things like these are rested on, and delighted in, and Christ is slighted, or when we miss them and do not delight in him, then they are idols.

9. AN EASY LIFE

Ease, quietness, and our own contentment, can often be a great idol. This is how it was with the rich man, who told his soul to take ease (Luke 12:19). His ease was his idol, seeing how he rested on it, and made it the chief end of all his buildings and the goods he had to store. But his riches were his idol, seeing how he grounded his expectation of rest on what he possessed. Similarly, many idle people, who frame their life so that they will have no trouble, even though they are not being or doing anything profitable, make this the drift of all they do–to have an easy life. If this was not their chief end, it would be profitable, but when they neglect many necessary duties, only to avoid hassle, it is their idol.

10. ESCAPISM

Sometimes our minds please themselves with things which never exist except in their own imagination. Solomon calls this “the wandering of the desire”, as opposed to “the sight of the eyes” which others delight in (Ecclesiastes 6:9). Some people spend their gifts and skills on writing novels, romances, stage plays, and comedies. Even more subtly, yet perhaps even more commonly, people concoct imaginary and fictious scenarios where they get the revenge, delights, or prominence they desire.

11. PROFESSIONALS AND EXPERTS

The means which God normally works by, are often trusted in and relied on to such an extent that they become idols. These could be doctors, armies, or ministers–or inanimate natural causes. Worse than that, astrology and palm-reading are much prized but the Scriptures treated as antiquated and largely discarded.

CONCLUSION–THE REMEDY FOR HEART IDOLATRY

In order to honour God truly and have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:3) we need a right response to Him. God must be esteemed, loved, trusted, feared, hoped in adored, honoured, served and obeyed above all else. In a word, He must be the supreme purpose of all our actions.

We must also depend on God and submit to Him. We must rest believingly on Him and express our faith and repentance in prayer.  There must be delight in Him and constant fellowship. We must also meditate on God and diligently use all of the means He has appointed for us to deepen our response to Him,.

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God is Still a Consuming Fire

God is Still a Consuming Fire

God is Still a Consuming Fire
The Covenanters were a group of faithful ministers and Christians in Scotland who worked to uphold the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 in order to establish and defend Presbyterianism against the imposition of Episcopacy by the state. They suffered severe persecution through imprisonment, fines and execution rather than abandon their principles.
25 Jan, 2019

Many people are ready to embrace the idea that God is love, if they themselves can define what that means. Perhaps they want it to mean that God affirms them no matter who they are and what they do. Or that God is there for us when we need Him. It fits in well with a therapeutic culture that focuses everything on the self. But it doesn’t fit with the biblical view of God as transcendent and glorious in holiness. It is true that God is love and He is good but God is also holy. He is a God of both mercy and justice. He is described as a consuming fire in the New Testament as well as the Old.

​What does this mean? In both Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29 it speaks of God’s holiness, justice and jealousy for His worship. We ought to worship Him with a deep, spiritual sense of His holiness and greatness. We need grace to approach His worship in the right way. The particular grace mentioned is fear, a spiritual awe and reverence. As is clear in both Deuteronomy 4 and Hebrews 12, this also includes a loving carefulness in relation to God’s worship. We must confine ourselves to the ways He has appointed for us to worship Him (Deuteronomy 4:2; Leviticus 10:1-3; Exodus 20:5). Taking Hebrews 12:29 seriously means recognising both that God is still a consuming fire and that this still requires of us the same reverence and fear.

Robert Traill notes that the Bible frequently says that true religion begins with and is summed up by the fear of God. In this updated extract he draws out the implications of Hebrews 12:29. In the first place he deals with common objections to the idea of fearing God.

 

1. Should We Really Fear God?

There are various false objections against this precious and necessary grace.

(a) Isn’t God All Mercy and Goodness?

The first carries away thousands to destruction; it is the idea that God is all mercy and goodness. It is true that His mercy and goodness are infinite; yet, so is His justice. We will not stop to show why this is mistaken or discuss it further. It is enough that the Holy Spirit declares the awesome majesty of God, in this figurative expression “our God is a consuming fire”.

(b) Isn’t This Just an Old Testament Idea?

Some think that the New Testament does not require the fear and dread of God in the way that the Old Testament did. They draw a contrast between law and love and punishment and mercy. The apostle clearly corrects this mistake in Hebrews 12:18-29. He both compares and identifies the differences between the two eras.  In verse 28 he concludes that all the love and mercy revealed in the gospel must produce worship with fear. He supports this in verse 29.

(c) Doesn’t Salvation Remove Fear?

Others acknowledge that God is still holy and just in Himself. Yet they say that when we are saved and in Christ all such dread and fear is removed. Salvation requires nothing but love, and delight, and familiarity. The Holy Spirit corrects this mistake by declaring, that even “our God,” our covenanted God, is a “consuming fire.” As consuming fire is a dreadful thing, so when God is described in this way we are to take account of His dreadful nature and majesty.

(d) Isn’t this Legalistic?

Some are ready to object that serving God with fear is inconsistent with the boldness in approaching God that His people are privileged to have. Deep heart-reverence and holy awe is not legalistic or the opposite of faith and love. Serving God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear because He is a consuming fire does not imply unbelieving fear.

Sometimes is difficult to be filled with joy and holy fear together; this is due to our weakness. But this does not mean that the two graces are opposed to each other. Sometimes we are indeed called to exercise either reverence or love more than the other. A despondent soul should meditate more on the mercy and love of God to stir itself to faith and love. But a backslidden believer should meditate on God’s holiness, majesty and hatred of sin to stir themselves up to repentance and returning to God. 

 

2. God is a Consuming Fire in Himself

(a) There is an infinite distance between Him and us and every soul that truly considers this must be filled with dread. No one can see God and live.

(b) God is holy in His nature (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). Only God is holy (Revelation 15:4). He is of purer eyes than that He can behold iniquity. How then can a sinner not fear?

(c) God is just. He sits on His throne judging right (Psalm 9:4). We are breakers of His law from the womb to the grave. How dreadful is this attribute of God!

(d) God is infinitely faithful and irresistibly powerful in exercising justice. No creature can either by subtlety or strength escape His hand.

 

3. God is a Consuming Fire in His Works

The way that God orders and maintains all creation, and how He accomplishes all His purposes according to His wise decrees should make us tremble. Heaven and hell are fearful things, and should awaken our hearts to greater fear.

Yet how much of His fearful glory is to be seen in His church and ordinances. He is terrible out of His holy places (Psalm 68:35; Genesis 28:17). In His ordinances this consuming fire draws near to us and we to him, though with offers of mercy and salvation. Yet to those who abuse them there is a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which will devour the adversaries. In prayer, we speak to Him. What fear Abraham, Moses and Jacob express in prayer!

 

4. God is a Consuming Fire in Covenant

Even God in covenant with His own is to be feared (Deuteronomy 28:58). Why is this?

(a) Because they know Him, and none can know Him without fearing Him. It is natural to have a holy fear when God is revealed to us (Job 37:24). Lack of fear shows lack of knowledge.

(b) Because He is still the same God. It is true that His justice satisfied in Christ will never break out against them to destroy them. They can consider all the attributes of God (even the most terrifying) with comfort and delight. Yet all those things in Him which produce fear and reverence are still in our covenanted God.

(c) Because we still have unholiness within us. It is true that there is a change in the state of believers in justification and adoption. A change in their natures has begun through sanctification; yet still they are creatures. And there is still much unholiness in their hearts and lives. All sin in itself is equally hateful to God and contrary to His holy nature. They are still under His holy law and bound to obey it not as the way to life but as a rule of life. They will still be chastised for disobedience.

(d) Because we have experience of being chastised. This was so eminently with David, (Psalm 51:5). The saints fear God’s goodness, love, pardoning and healing mercy (Hosea 3:5, Psalm 130:4).

 

5. We Should Serve Our God with Fear

(a) In Our Lives

Careful walking with God, keeping a watch over the heart and edifying conversation are only theoretical to most Christians. This comes from an ignorance of Him with whom we have to do? How rarely does the power of religion shine in the lives of Christians.

(b) In Our Worship

When many come to pray, they rush into it irreverently as though they were coming to talk to someone just like themselves. How rarely are hearts deeply impressed with the sense of the majesty of the one whom they address. Many listen to sermons as if the purpose was to weigh up the gifts of the speaker or to get more brain-knowledge. Few take heed how they hear. Few come to get a message delivered to them from the living God, and tremble at the Word.  This is due to the lack of a proper fear of God. Many approach the Lord’s Table without proper preparation and so eat unworthily. They do not consider that it is one of the most solemn approaches that the Lord makes to us, and that we make to Him. We would prepare far differently if we feared to take His name in vain in that ordinance.

(c) In Our Hearts

Are you careful to maintain constant communion with God. Do you live as though you were in His sight? Do you take His law for your rule in all your ways? Is godliness no more than being outwardly respectable and attending church? This is a serious mistake. What do you with the convictions of your conscience? Do you quench them or consider them? What do you give your affections to throughout the day? What do you think about first in the morning and last at night? Is it God? How can the fear of God be in us?

 

Conclusion

We must seek to know God more and have deeper views of His majesty. We need to maintain our sense of both His holiness and love together without losing either. Let us meditate on Him more and pray that He will manifest more of His glory to us. This will help stir up this holy fear and reverence within us.

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