What are “idols of the heart?”

Idolatry is common around the world and has been for almost all of recorded history. Most civilizations have a long history of extensive idol worship. In America and most western cultures very few people bow to idols, make offerings to statues or worship carved images. However, the absence of outward trappings of idolatry does not mean Americans do not worship idols. Theologians have long warned of a hidden idolatry, the worship of “idols of the heart”. John Calvin said, “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

An idol is something that a person devote himself to or trusts in for ultimate satisfaction, security or salvation. An idol is anything that is loved more than God. Tim Keller says, “It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. … An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”

The phrase “idols of the heart” comes from Ezekiel 14. In the third verse God says that certain elders of Israel had “set up idols in their heart.” Though they were maintaining the outward practices of true worship, in their heart they were worshiping false gods. In the next verse God warns, “Every man of the house of Israel that setteth up his idols in his heart . . . I the Lord will will answer him . . . according to the multitude of his idols.” God evaluates idolatry based upon the attitudes of the heart, not just the actions of the individual. God views heart idolatry to be as severe a sin as external idolatry.

A person can maintain all the external features of faithful worship of God while harboring in his heart a pantheon of false gods. Jesus said, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) The greatest command is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:30) Loving something more than God not only breaks the great commandment, it is idolatry. In Deuteronomy 11 God promised Israel He would bless them if they remembered His command to “to love your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.” He then warned them of judgment if they “turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them.” Breaking the great commandment breaks the first commandment. To love something more than God is to worship idols.

First John ends with the command, “Little children keep yourself from idols.” The first commandment forbids idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) Idolatry is so significant that Scripture repeatedly warns that those who practice idolatry without repentance show themselves not to be the children of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) Idolatry goes much deeper than bowing before carved statues of false gods. Idolatry is found in a heart that loves and desires something more than God.

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