The following piece is an excerpt from my book Walking the Walk by Faith. I decided to post the chapter titled “Idolatry of the Heart” today because of some very uncomfortable blogosphere discussions I have been involved in over the last few weeks. There seems to be a great deal of confusion rooted in pride in many well-intentioned Christians who are passionately doing battle to defend their “beliefs” who end up after a many skirmishes feeling somewhat ashamed of themselves. They end up asking for forgiveness from the very people they have been battling. Of course that “shame” is coming from the conviction of the Holy Spirit into their consciences. When I wrote this chapter over a year and a half ago I was trying to explain the greatest obstacle Christians have in becoming Spirit-led. That obstacle is pride which builds idols in our hearts with the biggest most grand idol being Idolatry of the Heart.
by Mike Ratliff
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments.” (Genesis 35:2)
Some of my earliest memories are of being in church. My parents were, and still are, very devout believers. As I grew up I found I had two sets of friends. One set were those kids whose families went to the same church we did. The other set were those kids I saw at school or elsewhere. Some of my “other” friends were Catholic, or Church of Christ, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Church of God, etc. Some never went to church because they went to the lake, or camping, or something else on weekends.
When I was sixteen, in 1967, a movie came out named “The Thomas Crowne Affair” starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. I believe it was remade a few years ago, but I haven’t seen it. The movie revolves around a very rich man (Steve McQueen) who becomes bored with his life and seeks fulfillment by stealing several million dollars from a bank in Boston then getting away with it. The plot is about an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) trying to recover the money.
The movie portrays the Steve McQueen character as “having it all”. He is rich, well educated, sophisticated, good looking and really cool (I was sixteen remember). He had everything, but he was empty. There is a scene in the movie where he is playing golf with a business partner. He hits a bunker shot which nearly goes in. The guy he was playing with says he couldn’t do that again. He says he can and bets a lot of money on it. The partner buries the ball deep into the sand and demands he try it. The next shot is okay, but it isn’t as good as the first one. The ball is on the green, but not next to the hole. He asks the partner if he is willing to go double or nothing on him sinking the putt. They bet again. The putt misses. He and his partner start discussing the recklessness of betting on things like that and as they leave the green he turns to his friend and asks, “What else do we have to do on Sunday?”
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t use this example to say he would have fulfillment if he went to church on Sunday instead of playing golf. The point I am trying to make is we are all desperate for fulfillment. God designed us so we have to be fulfilled with His presence. Nothing else will do it. However, at the fall, man became corrupt and an enemy of God because of sin. Man is born Soul-led with a deadened Spirit. No contact with God is possible. So what does man do for fulfillment? Man seeks fulfillment in religion, work, money, sex, love, relationships, possessions, entertainment, you name it. Nothing works.
You noticed I put religion on the list didn’t you? Religion is not necessarily based on a relationship with God. Religion not based on a relationship to God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and savior is a false religion. It does not matter how sincere a religion is, if it is not based on this then it is false and will not fulfill. In fact, they are idolatrous because they teach a false concept of God based on what man wants instead of who God is. Any act of attempted fulfillment not based on a correct relationship with God through Jesus Christ is idolatrous. Any religious activity based upon self-gratification is idolatrous.
The history of the Christianity is full of heretical beliefs. All are idolatrous because they teach a false view of God, Jesus and salvation. Man naturally falls for “works” salvation. “Works” salvation teaches that salvation is earned by working hard and keeping rules. This places our salvation in our hands rather than in God’s. The reason we fall so easily for this heresy is our huge inner drive to be gods ourselves.
The only religious activity which is not idolatrous is based upon a relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. This is called Lordship salvation. One false understanding of salvation says true salvation is based solely on accepting Christ as savior. This error leaves out our submission to Christ as our Lord. Lordship Salvation is what Jesus Himself taught while in His ministry on Earth.
‘And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”‘ (Luke 9:23-24)
These two verses teach all who desire to be Jesus’ disciple must start with Him then surrender to His will. The true disciple remains and continues this life of subjection to the Lord’s will.
Those who object to Lordship salvation as being “works” are not listening to what our Lord says. Many also teach, at salvation, we must make Jesus our Lord and Savior. While this is a better understanding of salvation it still comes up short. Jesus Christ is Lord! We do not make Him Lord. We either submit to His Lordship or we don’t. Salvation comes to those who believe on Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. With this in mind, it should be obvious heretical views of salvation are idolatrous. The false view of salvation will either pile “works” onto the believer or take away Lordship so the believer falsely believes they have a free ticket to heaven via cheap grace.
What is cheap grace? It is the opposite of costly grace. Cheap grace is prevalently taught in the churches that lure people to adhere to the false gospel of “Health, Wealth and Prosperity.” This heresy says it’s okay to seek self-gratification rather than obey Jesus. It teaches salvation by grace, but without adherence to the Lordship of Christ. It also teaches the believer decides to be saved then he or she accepts salvation rather than it coming completely by God’s grace through faith.
Adherents to cheap grace are deceived and are participating in idolatry and a false gospel which can not save. The believer who has believed on Jesus as Lord and Savior has taken on costly grace. Yes, it costs them all, but it gains them all.
Any attempt to find fulfillment in non-religious things, as a substitute for a right relationship with God, is idolatrous. Those friends who went to the lake, or fishing or whatever on weekends instead of seeking God were worshipping themselves by seeking fulfillment in those activities.
As I said earlier, Man tries all sorts of things to try to find fulfillment. Look at the list again. I’m sure you can add some other things to it. This may sound a little radical, but even those activities like charity can be attempts to feel better about ourselves. Any activities, no matter how good they appear to be, if used to feel better about ourselves, are idolatrous. That includes going to church. These are activities which serve the biggest idol man has. That idol is Idolatry of the Heart. This is the idol designed to serve self.
The scripture at the beginning of this chapter is from the book of Genesis. Jacob is preparing his family to go to Bethel to worship God. He tells everyone to put away the strange gods they had, then clean up themselves and change their garments. What he was telling them was, to approach God, they had to get rid of their idols then clean up their lives and put on their salvation clothes.
Take this forward to our lives in the 21st Century. If you have made it this far in this book I have to assume you are a believer. If you are then you are saved and have everything you need to pray and have a relationship with God. However, some of you are more mature than others. Some of you are very new believers and need to be discipled. Some of you have been saved for awhile, but haven’t grown much and need disciplining. Some of you have surrendered to God’s call to draw close to Him so He can perform that wonderful work in your Heart which will bring maturity. At each step in this progression God has revealed to you activities, attitudes and behaviors which need to be changed. You may be going through constant aggravation in some areas which reveal you may not be as mature as you thought you were. Each of these is designed by God to show us the idols we have in our Hearts. He is showing us what is standing between us and that next big step in faith. Our part is learning how to get rid of these idols through the Lord’s cleansing. As we submit to this cleansing we will start to behave differently as we show our salvation clothes.
Idols are built and maintained by the Heart. All worship and service to these idols takes place at the altar each has. The service is worship of a false god. That false god is self. Do you always have to have your way? How do you react when you are cheated or lied to? Or, are you the one cheating or lying? Even if you are right, how do you treat those who have offended you? How far do you let your anger take you in this? Do you get jealous or envious of other’s spiritual growth? How do you react when an attractive person of the opposite sex (who is not your spouse) pays attention to you? I know I’m stepping on some toes with these questions. Some of them are mine.
So how is this Idolatry of the Heart to be dealt with? Trying to act Christ-like through will power is a waste of time. It is doomed to failure. The only way for Idolatry of the Heart to be dealt with is through total surrender to the Lordship of Christ. This defeats our pride which is the foundation if Idolatry of the Heart.
During the American Civil War, in the 1860’s, the Union had a General named Ulysses S. Grant. He later became President of the United States. He became Abraham Lincoln’s top General after his victories in the West. His battle style was different than all those who came before him. Lincoln replaced all of the Generals before Grant as he tried to find a leader who would get results. Lincoln liked Grant’s attitude toward the enemy. His nickname became “Unconditional Surrender Grant”. When the Confederate leaders sought surrender terms from Grant his response was always the same. He would simply send back a message that made it clear that there would be no terms of surrender. The enemy would have to surrender unconditionally and immediately, that is, total surrender.
Total surrender brings down Idolatry of the Heart because it is dying to self with nothing held back. Self is what is worshipped with our idolatrous behavior. Remember from the last chapter, as we mature we become more and more Spirit-led and less and less Soul-led. All idolatrous behavior comes from the Heart, which is made up of the Soul and the conscience. The conscience is constantly working at getting the Soul to find fulfillment. It condemns the Soul when it can’t, but the Soul can’t, no matter what it does.
The conscience is part of the Spirit. If the conscience is part of the Spirit and our goal should be to become Spirit-led then why is the conscience pressuring the Soul to find fulfillment from somewhere other than God? The problem is Idolatry of the Heart which is simply a very bad habit. We have learned to live this way from birth. Our Hearts are desperate for lasting fulfillment, but can’t figure out how to get it.
At salvation the Holy Spirit washes our conscience with the blood of Jesus. This causes the Spirit to “wake up” and start contacting God as it was designed. The path to lasting fulfillment is now open, but we still don’t pursue it. Why? We still habitually go after our idols for fulfillment. So how do we turn to God for fulfillment? We have to replace our bad spiritual habits with good spiritual habits.
The best way to get this picture is from an example or illustration. I’ll use myself in this one. I have a problem with getting angry when people are inconsiderate or try to take advantage of me. Yes, I know that’s a function of pride. Pride is not of God. Pride is of the flesh. Pride is how we serve at the altar which stands before our Idol of the Heart. When you look at it that way it looks pretty ugly doesn’t it? Pride is not only ugly; it’s rebellion against the Lordship of Christ.
Okay, I’m driving to work. Just a few minutes ago I had completed a very intimate quiet time with God as I prayed deeply. I am approaching a stop light. Most of the people who come to this light turn right, but there isn’t a right turn lane. I’m going on straight for another mile or so. I am listening to some very uplifting Christian music. I am content. I am focusing on God and am very grateful. Then I see the light is red and no one is in the left lane. I pull over there so people in the right lane can turn right on red.
Then, someone comes up behind me and pulls into the right lane even though they are going straight. For some reason this really steams me. Suddenly I realize I have left God’s presence and am angry. I want to make sure they won’t get their way. Now, if I respond along these lines it could get pretty ugly. I have a choice to make, don’t I? Why did this happen? Do you think perhaps God has set this up to test me? Of course He did. He is showing me what my problem is. He is giving me a chance to do things His way, by faith, making the correct decision by reacting the way Jesus would. Would He get angry over this? Of course not! He would simply turn the other cheek and move on with God.
I don’t know about you, but turning the other cheek does not come naturally to me. When I try to do it myself I fail. When I try to be humble I fail. When I think I am humble I take pride in doing that. All I am doing is worshipping that stinking idol again. Do you see how insidious this is? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to do it this way? Yes, and I will show you how I do it. This process is called Repentance with Joy.
Repentance means to turn with regret. In this context it means to turn away from sin and turn to God. For the Spirit-led believer this process is a way of life. It has become the way of self-denial which keeps the Soul denied as they walk in Spirit.
Okay, I’m back in my pickup and I am at that stop light. The person in a hurry to pass me on the right has pulled in next to me and is blocking everyone from turning right on red. I see it. I am immediately tempted to react in the flesh and become angry. Now, if I have matured sufficiently and have developed my Spirit-led habits well then this is what I will do. I will detect the movement of my Heart seeking to get gratification through this prideful anger (because I’m monitoring it) and I will capture that thought. I will turn immediately to God and ask His forgiveness for participating in this even for a second. The captured thought will dissolve. The enemy, who is tempting me, will flee because I resisted him. No anger happens. I turn the other cheek. I pay no attention to the person in the other lane at all. I rejoice in the victory. I give God all the credit. I thank Him continuously. I am filled with Joy. This is Repentance with Joy. God’s grace makes all this possible.
When we walk this way the Idol which is served by pride is nullified. The altar which serves it crumbles a little more. The Idol is developing a lot of cracks. Walking the Spirit-led life is the demolition process which is tearing down the whole worthless mess through denial.
Your failures are probably bound to totally different idols than mine. It doesn’t matter. There is a way to victory no matter which idols are involved. There is a way to defeat Idolatry of the Heart. We can’t do it outside of God’s grace. It takes self-denial through Repentance with Joy, empowered by God’s grace, to bring down those idols. He gives us the faith to embrace sorrow and suffering and to turn the other cheek. The Soul sees self-denial as costly because it nullifies pride.
As this habit is developed we find we stay in God’s presence more and more. In fact, we find we can stay all day. God wants us there. The more we stay in His presence the more He changes us.
Steps for Repentance with Joy
Take every thought capture – 2 Corinthians 10:5
Humbly turn to God / Confess and Repent – 1 John 1:9
Turn the other cheek – Present your bodies as a living sacrifice – Romans 12:1
Walk in the Spirit – Be transformed by the renewing of your mind – Romans 12:2
I have good days and bad days. I suspect most of my bad days are actually very fruitful for God on my behalf. On those days I fail or stumble when I don’t detect the movement of my Heart towards the flesh for fulfillment. On those days I get ambushed by issues and react fleshly and serve those idols. I regret it, of course. I repent. I get cleaned up. I diligently seek His face and presence. When we have days like that we shouldn’t get frustrated and give up. We must fall down before Him, in all humility seek His face and let Him raise us up. When we come to Him broken, with a tender Heart then He will do His good work in us.
How about you? How hooked are you to your favorite activities? Do you spend several hours everyday watching TV or surfing the internet. How about sports? There is a family in my neighborhood that has a huge boat, all sorts of dirt bikes and an RV. They spend every weekend pursuing fun. They work very hard at having fun. I am sure, by now, you understand that is idolatrous behavior. For believers, it just isn’t right. Yes, it is okay to have recreation and hobbies. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if the pursuit of either causes you to neglect your relationship with God then it has become an idol. Idolatry is simply putting self interests ahead of your relationship with God.
As I grew in Christ I could not help but take notice of the direct correlation between my spiritual growth and the increased time I gave God. At first I thought it was my doing that that caused my revival. It was later I realized God had drawn me into all of those activities by His grace. As a result my desire is to be all God wants me to be. That desire grew as I spent more and more time communing with Him. God has also given me a Heart that deeply desires to see all believers lay aside their carnal, fleshly, time wasting pursuits and learn to walk the Walk by Faith.
Jesus died on the cross so all who come to know Him as Lord and savior can have eternal life via costly grace. Jesus bought us all for the price of His blood. All in Christ are His to do with as He wills. He is calling each and every one of us to step up to the plate and dedicate our lives to the glorification of Jesus Christ. If we refuse to live lives of purification (idol destruction) then we are wasting our lives. If we refuse to give up our soft lifestyles to take on self denial called for in Romans 12:1-2 then we are wasting our lives. All believers are called to extend the Kingdom by valuing Christ so much the World takes notice and is called to repentance. If we don’t do this then we are wasting our lives. If we are wasting our lives it is because we are serving our Idolatry of the Heart.
Idolatry of the Heart is our biggest problem after salvation. It is one of the main tools our Enemy uses to attempt to defeat us. He will try to use it to convince us the life we live here in the physical world is vital and far more important than the spiritual. He will do everything he can do distract us from submitting to Jesus as Lord. A close study of the Gospels, however, reveals true life is found in the denial of self in this present life as we take on costly grace.
If we take on this attitude then our road to becoming Spirit-led believers opens up. We become one of those who walk the Walk by Faith. We see things from God’s perspective, not ours. We will gladly submit to God’s cleansing fire as he burns away our idols and teaches us His ways. He gives us our true purpose for being here. He gives us a life which has meaning. He gives us fulfillment which lasts and is not subject to circumstances.
Are you hungry for this type of walk? If you are, thank God because He gave you that hunger. Respond to it by going hard after God. When you do, He will also come hard after you. He will cause cleansing and refinement in you to remove your idols. It might be painful. However, as you surrender to God and come to understand the eternal significance of the following scripture then you will have begun your Walk by Faith.
“for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
This attitude is one of total surrender to the will of God, to the Lordship of Christ and costly grace. If you take on this attitude then you will see you are His to do with as He pleases, but it will always be for the best. It may cost you your life. It may cost you your health. It may cost you your possessions. It may cost you your freedom. But, for those in total surrender to the will of God, it is understood, the eternal is the real reality. This is living Lordship Salvation via costly grace.
Dealing with Idolatry of the Heart is not something we can do ourselves. I struggled for years with self-denial. I tried hard to be Christ-like. I tried hard to be Spirit-led. I tried hard, but it never worked for long. In fact, it seemed my Idolatry of the Heart became even more solid and in control.
As I learned to direct my Heart toward God as a way of life I soon realized how to get victory over self. I doesn’t matter how hard we try to be godly we can’t do it for long. If we are Spirit-led then we are godly. I know that may sound trite or simplistic, but it is the reality of the Spirit-led life. The Spirit-led life does not seek its own. It puts everyone ahead of self. It puts God ahead of all. The Spirit-led life can do this because the one living it is walking with the Soul denied and the Spirit in control. The Holy Spirit resides in the Spirit of the believer. He is empowering, directing and leading the believer through each step of the walk.
Walking the Spirit-led life causes the idols in the Heart to come crashing down because they aren’t being served or maintained. The Heart does all of the idol and altar building. If the believer is Spirit-led then the Heart is directed toward God for fulfillment not toward the flesh. If the believer is Soul-led then the Heart is directed toward the flesh for fulfillment. Each attempt for fulfillment from the flesh results in servitude to idols in the Heart. The believer who walks this way is defeated and powerless. The believer who walks the Spirit-led life is victorious and powerful in the Lord.
Which way do you want to walk? Do you want victory? Victory over self comes only to the Spirit-led. To become Spirit-led the believer must learn to get control over their Heart. Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit who leads and empowers us through it all. However, part of the responsibility in becoming Spirit-led is ours. What is our part? It is learning to walk through each day in Repentance with Joy. How do we do that? That is what the next chapter is all about.
Walking the Walk by Faith
Copyright © 2005 by Johnny Michael Ratliff
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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