In a shocking turn of the tables, Paul equates idolatry with works righteousness that came from adhering to the Torah. In Galatians in 4:8-11 it sounds like Paul is rebuking them for paganism, but the context of Galatians suggests otherwise…
(ESV) Gal 4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
We run to idols and become enslaved because we are not satisfied with God. Idolatry becomes a work-salvation system for us because it’s where we’re looking for life. However if we were secure in the gospel we wouldn’t desire idols. Tim Keller has a great Galatians small group study guide (buy it here), and in the study guide has a great exercise (exercise 8) that helps you identify the idols in your life. I’ll summarize some of his thoughts from the exercise mixed in with my reactions. I found this exercise to be extremely beneficial in identifying idols in my own life.
Definition: Romans 1:25 tells us that idols are not sinful things, but good and basic things elevated into being ultimate things…Each person acts as if God could not make him happy without the addition of something else.
The effects of idols:
1. Distorted thinking – Creates a delusional field, a whole set of assumptions and false definitions of success and failure which are distortions of reality.
2. Emotional bondage – Whatever we worship we serve. The way the idol enslaves is that it creates over-desires, inordinate longings.
3. It is the sin under every sin. We never break commandments 3-10 without breaking commandments 1-2.
1. Identify your own values
2. Ask whether you can receive life joyfully without it. One has a god when a finite value is viewed as that without which one cannot receive life joyfully.
3. Look for Symptoms
– Anxiety: When my idol is under genuine threat, then I feel myself shaken to the depths
– Guilt/bitterness: Suppose I value my ability to teach/communicate clearly and I fail, I am stricken with guilt and regret.
– Bitterness/anger becomes intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value.
Answer the following…
If you’re angry ask: Is there something too important to me? Something I’m telling myself I have to have? Is that why I’m angry, because I’m blocked from it?
If you’re fearful/worried ask: Is there something too important to me? Something I’m telling myself I have to have? Is that why I’m so scared, because something is being threatened which I think is a necessity when it is not?
If you’re despondent/hating yourself ask: Is there something too important to me? Something I’m telling myself I have to have? Is that why I’m so down because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?
What’s your greatest nightmare? What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel like I did not want to live? What do I rely on or comfort myself with in difficulty? What do I easily think most about? What would cause me to turn away from God? What makes me feel the most self-worth? What do I really want and expect out of life?
Don’t run to moralism, saying “you’re committing this sin, repent and try harder!”. Neither should you just say, “God loves you, believe that and you’ll rejoice.” Instead adopt the “Gospel” Approach…
Your problem is that you are looking to something besides Christ for your happiness. Repent and rejoice! It’s not about just trying harder, or loving yourself more. This confronts a person with the real sin under the sins and behind the bad feelings. Our problem is that we have given ourselves over to idols. Every idol-system is a way of our-works-salvation, and thus it keeps us “under the law.” Paul tells us that the bondage of sin is broken when we come out from under the law — when we begin to believe the gospel of Christ’s-work- salvation. Only when we realize in a new way that we are righteous in Christ will the idol’s power over us broken. “Sin shall not be your master for you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom.6:14). You will only be “under grace” and free from the controlling effects of idols to the degree that you have both repented for your idols and rested and rejoiced in the saving work and love of Christ instead. You’re not justified by your level of sanctification!