Idolatry Begins When Truth about God Is Exchanged for a Lie

Last week I wrote on the danger of false ideas about God. More specifically, I highlighted a powerful warning from A.W. Tozer. Simply stated: Wrong thinking about God leads to worshiping the wrong god—idol worship.

An idol is anything that replaces the one, true God, while idolatry is giving worship or devotion to that thing that replaces God. Significantly, this is the first commandment by God to Israel in the famous Ten Commandments.

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…. (Exodus 20:3–5)

This command seems clear enough, but there are many people hearing these words who wonder how this commandment applies to them. After all, they aren’t bowing down to carved images.

Consider the warning from A.W. Tozer, “Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it.”

Idolatry isn’t limited to pagans bowing down to idols. That’s just one manifestation of idolatry. It often looks much more subtle than that. In fact, there are all kinds of modern-day idols that attempt to displace God from His rightful place. Sports. School. Jobs. Family. Kids. A boyfriend. A girlfriend. Personal pleasure. A hobby. Our reputation. Our stuff. The list goes on and on.

So, we know what idolatry is. But how does idolatry start? What is the root cause? Fortunately, we are not left guessing. Paul tells us in his letter to the Christians in Rome.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 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.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom. 1:21–25)

Long before anyone bows down and worships an idol, Paul tells us that something happens in their mind. Paul says an exchange takes place. People will “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” They begin to accept a lie about God—a false idea.

Let me summarize Paul’s words as best as I can: Behind every act of false worship, there is a false idea about God.

Tozer states, “The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place.” That’s it exactly. Wrong ideas about God don’t just lead to idolatry; they are idolatry. And what begins as idolatrous thoughts leads to idolatrous actions. This is demonstrable from both Scripture and our own lives.

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Tim Barnett

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