Why do we chase after false gods? Indulge in idolatrous lusts? Overindulge in non-sinful activities? (An idol can be even a non-sinful activity that becomes equal to or more important than God in our attention, desire, devotion, and choices.) Why do we habitually engage in overtly sinful ones? It must be the case that we believe we receive some personal benefit from it and that the benefit outweighs any trouble that may arise.
This belief - that idolatry can do us good - is itself an effect of idolatrous lust. Last week, we began to consider the influence of idolatrous lusts, particularly how they affect our thinking. Today we consider how they confuse us regarding the sources of both blessing and trouble in our lives.
The Lord told His people that if they were faithful to Him, worshiping Him alone, they would be blessed; if they were unfaithful, engaging in idolatry, they would be cursed (Deut 11:26-32; 29:1-30:20). Joy and freedom come from worshiping Jesus alone (Psa 16:1-3; 5-11). Trouble and sorrow inevitably find those who chase false gods (Psa 16:4).
Idolatrous lust blinds us to these truths. In fact, idolatrous lust flips these truths on their heads so that we believe the opposite of what the Bible teaches regarding worship and the source of blessing and joy, calamity and sorrow. Consequently, we may view our idols as the source of our blessings, when in reality they are the reason for our calamity.
Just a couple of examples from the prophets. Hosea wrote of Israel: For she said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ (Hos. 2:5b)
Israel engaged in the false worship of the nations around her so that the false gods would give rain, bless the crops, grow the herds, increase the vineyards, etc. When these blessings happened, the Israelites attributed it to the power of the false gods, who they themselves had made (14:3).
But where did these blessings actually come from? The One from whom all good things come: she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hos. 2:8) God graciously gave what Israel did not deserve - land and the fruit of the land. But because Israel was blinded to the source, she was also prevented from enjoying the greatest blessing of all, knowing God (2:20; 4:1, 6; 6:3).
That was Israel. A theme of Hosea is the exhortation for the Southern kingdom, Judah, to learn from her obstinate Northern sister, Israel. Did she learn? Not according to Jeremiah.
When Jeremiah called the people of Judah to return to monogamous worship of the Lord, they replied, "As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jer. 44:16-18)
Important to note is that this is during the exile. In other words, Judah interpreted the exile and its aftermath to be a result of failing to continue in their false worship! “Everything was great for us when we worshiped the queen of heaven. Since we stopped, all this bad stuff has happened to us. So we’re going to go back to worshiping her instead of Yahweh.” Astounding.
But Jeremiah set them straight: "As for the offerings that you offered in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, you and your fathers, your kings and your officials, and the people of the land, did not the LORD remember them? Did it not come into his mind? The LORD could no longer bear your evil deeds and the abominations that you committed. Therefore your land has become a desolation and a waste and a curse, without inhabitant, as it is this day. It is because you made offerings and because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey the voice of the LORD or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his testimonies that this disaster has happened to you, as at this day.” (Jer. 44:21-23)
Judah’s idolatry led to their purging from the land. Yet, she was so blinded by idolatrous lust that she thought the opposite - worship of Yahweh alone led to her losing the land. In reality, her idolatry brought judgment upon her. Had she remained faith to the Lord, she would have remained in the land forever, enjoying all the blessings promised.
It’s tempting to relegate these things to the ancient past and to limit the application to false worship of little statues, but this is pertinent to us. So writes Paul, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come…Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:11,14).
We, too, become convinced that good things happen to us when we engage in false worship. These “good things” can be the idols themselves - material things, money, position, entertainment. Or they could be the immediate endorphin rush of sensual pleasures associated with a particular idol - the thrill of looking at explicit images, the warmth of a gluttonous binge, or the buzz that comes with a certain quantity of an alcoholic beverage.
Think about how these “good things” may convince us that they are improving our lives. When we indulge in them, our problems seem smaller, our self-perception improves, we “enjoy” life more, and anxiety fades. But when we try to be faithful to the Lord in these areas, abstaining from sinful activities and enjoying lawful activities only in moderation, these “benefits” seem to fade. Worse, when these things become so essential to our temporal happiness, we may even begin to see God as an enemy of sorts, trying to take our good things away.
The truth is that every truly good thing is a gift from God (James 1:17) and the highest pleasure comes from fellowship with Him (Psa 16:10-11).
Additionally, the false worship that we believe is improving our lives will actually ruin them. Isaiah warns us, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isa. 5:20). Sin destroys. Idolatrous lust sears the conscience, leading us further and further away from the Lord. If you find yourself attributing benefits to something you know to be sinful, you are already showing signs that it has effected your thinking. It has sold you a lie. This shouldn’t surprise us - the enemy is the father of lies (John 8:44) and repeatedly idols themselves are called “lies” (Psa 40:4; Isa 28:15, 17; 44:20; Jer 13:25; 16:19-20; Amos 2:4; Rom 1:25).
We must remain firmly attached to the truth, by: (1) renewing our minds daily by the Word of God (Rom 12:2; Heb 4:12); (2) submitting to close relationships with other believers who may be much better able to discern the lies we are believing (Eccl 4:12; 2 Tim 2:22); and (3) praying for discernment: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:23-24).
Know for certain that when you flirt with idolatrous lusts, you take in lies. They will typically include lies intended to lead you closer to darkness and away from light, closer to misery and away from joy, further into idolatry and away from the Lord.