Basically, most of us think of idols and idolatry as ideas that are kind of out there—concepts that don’t have any application to our everyday lives. Unfortunately, we’re wrong. That’s because the definition of idolatry isn’t limited to worshiping a physical idol.
Rather, a more comprehensive definition of idolatry is pursuing anything more than you pursue God. It’s worshiping or desiring anything more than you worship and desire God.
Idolatry is a major problem in today’s society. It’s a major problem even within the church and among those of us attempting to follow Jesus. Why? Because it’s so easy for us to drift into pursuing our own definitions of success or our own desires more than we pursue God and what He’s planned for us.
And when that happens—when idolatry takes up residence in our hearts—it becomes more destructive to our souls than we can possibly imagine. If you don’t believe us about that, look back at what King Solomon had to say in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Solomon was the wisest and most successful man of his day. He had everything: money, power, fame, and respect. He ate the best foods, drank the best wine, wore the best clothes, and listened to the best music. He even had a harem filled with hundreds of the most beautiful women in the land. He literally became the most powerful man in the world, and he was denied nothing he desired.
Here’s what he ultimately concluded about the whole situation:
I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. - Ecclesiastes 1:12-14
You’d think a man who had it all would be supremely happy—that he’d feel content, satisfied, and respected, as if he had it all together. But in the end Solomon determined that all he had accumulated and experienced was worth nothing and meaningless.
Later in Ecclesiastes Solomon explained why none of his pursuits and achievements could bring satisfaction:
I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. - Ecclesiastes 3:10-11
That word eternity is the key to this verse. Solomon realized that God has placed in every human heart a longing for something that really matters—something that’s eternal. And who or what is eternal? God.
Whether or not we realize it, all of us are fueled by a built-in longing for eternity—for God. And for that reason we won’t be satisfied by anything that isn’t eternal. We can’t find fulfillment or purpose in anything that isn’t God Himself.
That’s why idolatry is so destructive. It pushes us to pursue noneternal things more than we pursue God. It drives us to spend our lives striving for people, possessions, or accomplishments that can’t ever fill the deepest needs of our hearts.
Matt Carter serves as Lead Pastor at Sagemont Church in Houston, Texas. Matt previously served as pastor of The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. He and his wife Jennifer planted The Austin Stone in 2002, and it grew to include six campuses and 7,500 attendees every Sunday morning. Matt has co-authored multiple books including Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in John and Steal Away Home. Matt holds an M.Div. from Southwestern Seminary and a Doctorate in Expositional Preaching from Southeastern Seminary. He and Jennifer have been married for more than 20 years, and they have three children.