Recognizing Idolatry

By Mike Shamy

In April, the International Executive Team met with our Asian leaders in Nepal. It had been a year since a catastrophic earthquake devastated much of the nation, including Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square (shown in the photo).

Standing among the ruins, I saw a small building that, apart from a few cracks, somehow survived the earthquake. I found out that the building is the home of Nepal’s Living Child Goddess.

The current goddess is 9-years old. She was chosen when she was even younger. Her life is isolated and secretive. She makes rare public appearances. Before Nepal’s monarchy was abolished in 2008, kings would seek her blessing. Now the president comes yearly to bow before her and seek her favor.

Standing in the small courtyard looking up at her second-story living room, I felt a deep sadness—a sadness for her and all those who look to her for happiness and meaning in life.

This is an obvious form of idolatry. But what about the less obvious idols in our lives? Every day these subtle idols seek to shape our actions and choices. Unless we recognize and resist them, we will not live distinctively or reveal God to the nations.

Navigators are deeply committed to seeing spiritual generations of laborers who live and disciple among those without Christ. The word “among” reminds us that laborers are to be fully present and relationally connected within our cultures. As our vision statement says, we seek to be “workers for the Kingdom next door to everywhere.”

Laborers are not only to live among the lost; they are also called to be holy (distinct). From the earliest days, God’s people were commanded to have no other gods. We are to follow and obey the true God alone. We are called to live distinctively in every aspect of social, personal, and public life. Our values, choices, and actions should reflect the character and commandments of God. Jesus used metaphors of salt and light to describe this calling.

“Among” and yet “distinct”: both callings have always been crucial for God’s people as we seek to reach the nations. This means it is vital for laborers living among those without Christ to recognize and resist idolatry (1 John 5:19-21).

Author and pastor Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power and the Only Hope that Matters, writes: “An idol 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 have value.’ When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an idol, something you are actually worshiping.”

Marriage is good, work is good, family is good, love of country is good, and health is good. But if any of these become supreme in our lives, then for us they have become idols. We become enslaved to them and our distinctiveness as Christ followers is dissolved.

How might we know this is happening in our lives? I find the following questions helpful in recognizing idols in my own life.

1. When I am alone, what do I find myself thinking about?
2. How do I spend money? Matthew 6:21 says that money flows toward what we love.
3. What about my emotions? Anger or depression might indicate I have an idol when my longings are unfulfilled. The anxieties I experience when something important in my life is being threatened might point to idolatry.
4. Am I overworking and driven? If so, what am I striving to attain through my work?
5. Whose approval am I seeking? Is it anyone other than God?

As we seek to live holy and distinct lives “next door to everywhere,” the Scriptures call us to worship God alone. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the LORD your God has forbidden (Deuteronomy 4:23).     

Mike Shamy was born in New Zealand. Mike and his wife, Audrey, became Navigator staff in 1980. From 1989 to 1996 Mike led and coached ministries in New Zealand. In 1999 he led the U.S. Metro Mission. Mike joined the International Executive Team in 2004 and is co-author of The Insider.