The Unholy Trinity of Idolatry

Read almost any Christian living book from a Reformed perspective, and you’re almost sure to run across this line attributed to John Calvin: “Our hearts are a factory of idols.” This quotation is helpful because it tells us uncomfortable truth though an image of something familiar. Though Calvin knew nothing of conveyor belts and assembly lines, I can’t help but picture Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory trying to keep up with wrapping every chocolate speeding by[1]. Our hearts, Calvin says, are like that, spitting out idols faster than we can destroy them. On the other hand, I think we can get a wrong idea from this maxim as well. We might think that our hearts are constantly spitting out different idols; as soon as we kill one, another is coming down the chute to take its place. While that may seem to fit our experience, I believe that, in that scenario, we’re killing only fruit while leaving the idol alive and well, free to pop out different (or perhaps the same) fruit. To take down an idol, you have to chase it all the way to its source. Social media isn’t the idol. Pornography isn’t the idol. Caffeine isn’t the idol. Not even greed, lust, or anger is the idol. Those things are just fruit hanging off of the tree. But finding the root idol sounds daunting, right? You may be thinking that you don’t even know where to look. The good news is that while the fruit may come in all shapes and sizes, the roots take only three forms. I’m convinced that if we go after these idols (which is no easy task, I grant you!), we will see lasting change and genuine spiritual growth.

Idol #1: Approval

The first root idol of our hearts is approval. We’d love to believe that we left this problem back with our gawkiness and braces in junior high, but we both know that’s just not the case. Approval loves social media, telling moms and housewives that their cooking, decorating, dieting, and fashion-sense aren’t up to par; or making sure guys know that their muscles aren’t big enough, their car isn’t fast enough, and their girlfriend isn’t pretty enough. It’s the reason we panic-clean when a guest is on the way and want to crawl under the desk and die of embarrassment when we discover a piece of toilet paper stuck to our shoe. Maybe these fruits seem commonplace and trivial, but approval can play with the big boys as well. It may be the reason a man leaves his wife, a woman seeks an abortion, or a family disowns their daughter pregnant out of wedlock. A big purchase that leads to big debt, a doctored resume, and failure to share the Gospel with a friend are also on the menu for approval. This idol’s tentacles are everywhere, but beware of chopping off just its arm. Unless you go for its throat, it will not die.

So, how do you go for its throat? First, repent. That must always come first. Admit to God that you’re an approval junkie and want to turn back to Him. After repentance, recognize what you’re battling. It’s not social media. It’s the idol of approval. If all you do is fast from Facebook, this idol will pop up somewhere else. Perhaps a fast from the socials is necessary. But don’t stop there—a change of behavior is not a change of heart. Change your focus. Approval is all about the need to be satisfied and filled up. However, your life is about bringing glory to your Creator, not manipulating His creation to serve you. Take some time to study your God and behold His glory. Read Isaiah 40 or Psalm 18, and drink deeply from the well of God’s majesty, and you will find the idol of approval loosening its grip on your life. Finally, approval demands that you be served and that others affirm you, so look for ways to love and serve others rather than using them. [2]. When you stop using people as tools to serve you and start serving and loving them instead, approval will not stick around.

Idol #2: Comfort

The second idol our hearts churn out is comfort. Let’s face it. We love to be comfortable, and we hate to have our comfort jeopardized. Many of these fruits start with things that are just fine in and of themselves: a cup of coffee or a bowl of ice cream, a television show, good book, or invigorating workout session. The problem arises when these desires become inordinate: You refuse to be held responsible for anything you say to your spouse or children before you have your coffee. You can’t go to bed if you haven’t had a chance to “unwind” with Netflix a bowl of ice cream—and heaven help anyone who dares interrupt these few sacred moments of your day. You find yourself flying off the handle when your tee time gets rained out or the internet connection is down. Other fruits of this idol include laziness, selfishness, gluttony, and inhospitableness. It may even stop you from answering the call to go to the mission field or share the Gospel with a neighbor. In its more nefarious form, comfort wrecks families and marriages through pornography and infidelity. Consider the account of David’s sin with Bathsheba. Adultery (if not rape), murder, and a web of lies all spun from the idol of comfort (2 Sam. 11-12). It may seem like a tame little idol, but comfort is as cruel a master as the rest.

It’s important to note that the way to smash the idol of comfort is not through discomfort. I do not believe in a gospel of monastic asceticism. God is the Author of every good gift, and it’s right to enjoy them. The way to kill this idol is to live for a bigger Kingdom. I can’t do better than the words of Paul, writing to a group of believers being sold the lies of asceticism and legalism:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Col. 3:1-4)

Don’t live to indulge the fantasies and vagaries of your kingdom. Enjoy God’s good gifts, but keep seeking the things of His kingdom. Not sure what I mean? Again, I’ll defer to the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Col. 3:12-13)

Want to kill comfort? Repent of your idolatry, submit to the true King, and start being a merciful servant, mindful of how much you’ve been forgiven. Enjoy God’s good gifts, but don’t allow them to be your master.

Idol #3: Control

This one can get nasty, though it may also appear innocuous. Perfectionism, self-discipline, problem-solving, and plan-making can all be socially acceptable fruits of this onerous idol. However, it can also bear tragic, even violent fruit, such as anorexia, abuse, manipulation, and extortion. We’d love to think that we don’t struggle with the god of control, telling ourselves that we simply value efficiency or punctuality, that a house runs better with structure. As a control junkie, I’m familiar with all of those things. They’re true—structure is valuable—but they can also allow me to indulge my idol.  

However, it’s not just the type-A’s who bow at control’s altar. Those who love to fly by the seat of their pants may also worship here. Let me give you an example. Take the always-punctual girl and her coworker, the chronically tardy. While at opposite ends of the spectrum, they may actually serve the same god. Of course, it’s obvious how the timely girl probably worships control. She is in control of her schedule, making sure that everything aligns just perfectly to get out the door on time. The latecomer, on the other hand, may believe that she gets to set the time of arrival; she’s in control, so who cares if she’s late? Of course, this may not be at the heart of every late person—it’s not inherently sinful to be late nor intrinsically virtuous to be punctual; I’m just trying to show how two seemingly disparate fruits may actually stem from the same source.

The idol of control is everywhere, but how do we stop it? You already know the first step. Repent. Call this idol what it is, and turn from it. Have you ever wondered why we love control so much? Simply put, it’s because, like Eve in the Garden all those years ago, we want to be like God. We want to usurp His sovereignty and rule our own kingdoms as totalitarians. But I’m not God, and neither are you. We’re not potters; we’re vessels of clay, called not to tell the true Potter how to do His job, but to submit to the master Artist’s will in our lives.

There you go. Approval, comfort, and control–the three idols that our hearts mass-produce. Though it’s a little unsettling to see just how pervasive they are, it may also be helpful to realize that there aren’t as many different idols as you might have thought.

I know I’ve written boldly today, but I’ve done so to my own heart. I love my comfort, am addicted to approval, and vie vigorously for control. I need to repent and turn to God—not once but day after day—humbling myself before Him as I remember that He is God and I am not. He has promised to forgive, and, because of the blood of His Son, I know that He will again and again (1 Jn. 1:9).

 Now, in the words of the beloved disciple, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).[3]


[1] Classic TV—Don’t know it? Check it out:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkQ58I53mjk

[2] This is just a starting place. For a full and excellent treatment of this topic, check out Ed Welch’s books, When People Are Big and God is Small and What Do You Think of Me? Why Do I Care?

[3] I cannot possibly do this topic justice in so little space. For more extensive teaching on idols of the heart, I’d recommend these books: Gospel Treason by Brad Bigney, The Quest for More by Paul David Tripp,  and Idols of the Heart by Elyse Fitzpatrick.

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