We know that idols still exist today, but spotting them in western culture is trickier than it was 3,000 years ago when they sat on altars in the center of a family home.
An idol is anything that we look to for the security and significance that we should only find in God. And if this is the case, well, then, the sky’s the limit on what can actually be an idol. My job can be an idol, my spouse, my car, my children, etc.
And yet it’s the idol of money that Jesus speaks to so clearly in Matthew 6:24…
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (ESV)
Of course money can be an idol, because it is so very easy to find self-worth (significance) and security in a large bank account.
But how do you really tell if your money is an idol to you, or if anything else you have falls into that category? Tim Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods has been a help to me in discernment, but reading in Proverbs the other day, I found another sign: Idols make you “calculate inwardly” and keep you from focusing on what really matters.
In Proverbs 23, our writer has just finished warning us not to “toil to acquire wealth”, to be “discerning enough to desist”, for money disappears easily, or as he says, it “suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
And then he says this…
Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;
do not desire his delicacies,
for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.
“Eat and drink!” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
and waste your pleasant words. Proverbs 23:6-8 (ESV)
When something is an idol, you must constantly inwardly calculate whether you will lose it; in other words, you can never rest your mind. This is why, when you are eating dinner with a “stingy” person, someone who serves and worships money as an idol, you can never really have a true conversation with him – he is always “inwardly calculating”, thinking about his money and what he can do to keep it from “sprouting wings.”
As the writer puts it, “his heart is not with you.” In contemporary idiom, “his mind is somewhere else.” Therefore, you “waste your pleasant words.” Idolaters make lousy conversationalists.
And such is what idols do to us again and again. Whether it is money or a girlfriend or a job, if the particular object has become an idol, we lose ourselves in it and are always “inwardly calculating” what we can do to keep it from going away. Idols keep our minds from rest.
In fact, many people, understanding salvation incorrectly, relate to the true God incorrectly as a idol. They believe that they are saved by works and not by grace through faith, and therefore they are always inwardly calculating: “Have I done enough? Does God love me yet? What can I yet do to prove my sincerity? Have I earned my way into God’s acceptance?”
But in a relationship with Jesus Christ, when God becomes my Father and will never “sprout wings” and abandon me, I need never calculate again. As a result I find myself loving Him in return, and the only “calculation” I do is relaxed and joyful, centering around this question: “How can I take everything I have, my money, my relationships, my work, etc., and use it all in passionate service of this good and gracious God who has freed my heart and soul?”
He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5 (ESV)