Idolatry – Counterfeit Gods (Tim Keller)


Taking an incomplete joy of this world and building your entire life upon it.

Is there a specific “thing” that would drain your life of significance and value if it was no longer in or had a place in your life?  This is an idol.

Idol:  Anything more fundamental than God, that you love more than God, that you give your heart to more than God.  A counterfeit god

  • Fuels your happiness
  • Absorbs your heart and imagination
  • Defines your meaning in life
  • Establishes your identity

We rely on an idol (a created thing) to give us things that only God can give.  Idols can be considered “good” things that become elevated above God.  Desiring and delighting in idols, more than God, is committing spiritual adultery.


St. Augustine and “Disordered Love”:  This is the essence of sin.  Loving something out of order.  Ex: loving career over family.  An idol will always break your heart because no created thing can satisfy or fulfill the longings that come from your deepest hopes.

Romans 1:18-32 – When people pursue an idolatrous lifestyle this is the outcome:

  • The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
  • God showed them His nature and characteristics in creation and He made these things evident within them yet they reject Him.
  • They don’t thank God, therefore becoming foolish in their thinking and their hearts become darkened.
  • Thinking they are wise, they are actually fools.
  • Man was made in the image of God in a high moral order. In rejecting God, he instead “sinks” to a lower level and instead worships counterfeit gods.
  • Due to man’s choice, God abandons him to the lust of his heart, to uncleanness, to worship the creature rather than the creator and to dishonor their bodies in sexual sin (adultery, fornication, prostitution, etc….)


In this passage, God abandoned them because they rejected the truth about Him and embraced idolatry.  This is insulting and dishonoring to God.  Verse 26 says that God gave them up to vile passions and that even the women exchanged the nature use (what God intended) for what is against nature.  Verse 27 says that men burned in their lust for one another committing what is shameful.


  • Those that pursue this idolatrous life also reject God in their minds therefore God gives them over to a debased mind (lower in character and thinking) to do the things which are not fitting.
  • Other characteristics include, unrighteousness, sexual immorality of all kinds, general wickedness, covetousness (greed), maliciousness (generally bad character), envy, murder, strife, deceit, haters of God, violent, proud, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving and unmerciful.
  • People that do this also approve of those who practice them which both are deserving of death according to God’s righteous judgement.


When people decide they want to spend their lives primarily focused on career, spouse, anything that is an idol and therefore insulting and dishonoring God, the worst thing that God could do is give them what they want.  This isn’t in order with His created intent and will lead them to death.  It does not give what they expect.


David Foster Wallace – novelist & agnostic.  Excerpt from commencement address:

You get to decide what to worship.  Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.  Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.  They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.  And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.  That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Highlights from Counterfeit Gods Book

Sorrow vs Despair:  Sorrow is a pain that can be consoled.  Despair is not consolable because it is comes from the loss of something that has ultimate standing in life.  When it (the idol) is lost, then all meaning and hope is lost.

Vertical vs Horizontal Relationships:  Vertical is improving your rank or standing with mentors or bosses where horizontal social skills are for genuine bonding with your spouse, family and friends.  The idol of success focuses on vertical while sacrificing the horizontal.

Ezekial 14:3 -  "Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity. Should I let Myself be inquired of at all by them?

The human heart is an idol factory, it takes good things like career, love, possessions and family and turns them into ultimate things.  We rely on them to give us significance, security, safety and fulfillment.

What makes us angry, anxious or depressed or produces a heavy guilt within us.  This is likely an idol that has control.  Psychological problems are often issues of idolatry:  perfectionist, work-a-holic, indecisive, control freak, etc….

Should we get the desires of our hearts?  Romans 1:24 -Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves.

Isaac had become the desire and center of Abraham’s heart….an idol to him.  In ancient times, a man and families sense of worth rested upon the firstborn son.  God did not ask Abraham to murder Isaac but to make him a burnt offering – calling in Abraham’s debt to pay for the sins of the family.  Now…to fear God means that we love Him more than anything else.  If God hadn’t intervened in Abraham’s growing idolatry for Isaac then this would’ve ultimately destroyed Abraham for all idolatry is destructive.

How can we ultimately, truly trust God instead of our idols?

We must have faith and assurance, deep within, that God loves and delights in us.  So we can rest our hearts in Him.  Our very identity is in Him and He is truly our security.  When Abraham was willing to offer Isaac, God knew that Abraham’s love was all in.  How much more is God all in with us?  He did not even withhold His only Son.

Consider Isaac and his sons, Esau and Jacob.  Like Abraham, Isaac preferred Esau over Jacob and that grew into idolatry in Isaac’s life as well.  Jacob in turn grew up to idolize Rachel over her sister Leah.  This caused Leah to set her heart upon gaining Jacob’s love.  This ongoing cycle is why idolatry is so destructive.

CS Lewis:  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. [something supernatural and eternal]


Counterfeit Gods come in clusters

Surface Idols and Deep Idols

Deep Idols: 

  1. Influence   Emotional comfort
  2. Power   Physical comfort
  3. Approval   Security & Control
  4. Appreciation

Surface Idols:  Money, spouse, children etc… is often used to fulfill deep idols.  People often use money to control (deep idol) the environment of their life.  Spending money to gain attractiveness for example is an idol and not spending money to feel secure and protected is also an idol.

Deep idols have to be dealt with at the heart level – through faith in Jesus Christ.  Trying to control surface idols by eliminating them won’t work.  It will produce superficial change that won’t last.

Consider the story of Naaman and his issue of leprosy.  He had prominence and success and these were idols in his life.  He went to Elisha with money and possessions seeking to “buy” a cure.  God doesn’t work that way.  What we bring is not what He wants.  1 Corinthians 1:27-29 - But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.

What is the Main Problem?

Sin is the problem and God’s grace is the solution.  The world’s view is to say something else is the problem and the remedy is an answer besides God.  This makes that “answer” an idol.  Politics, romantic love / sex, money etc….all fall into this trap.

1 Corinthians 4:6-7 - Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.

For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?

Genetics, environment (family) and personal choices determine our success and standing.  We have no power over genetics and environment.  As the scripture above says, we should not be puffed up or think we are better than others.  Verse 5 says that each one’s praise will come from God [not from ourselves].

Religious Idolatry

Trusting in the accuracy of your theology can lead to the belief of superiority over another.  Idolizing doctrinal accuracy, success in ministry or morals leads to conflict, arrogance, self righteousness and oppression towards those who disagree.

Jonah and Ninevah – Jonah had several idols working in his life.  He wanted ministry success (personal idol) more than he wanted to obey God.  His desire for the national interests of Israel over the call of God and the spiritual needs of the Ninevites was a cultural idol.  He also had a religious idol of moral self righteousness as he felt superior to the wicked Ninevites.  All of these idols merged together and made it very difficult to see and deal with.  This often happens in our own lives as well.

As Jonah prayed in the fish, he said that salvation comes only from the Lord.  Grace means no one is worthy or deserving and all are equal.  Clinging to idols blocks God’s grace from coming into a life.

Consider Peter in Galatians 2:12 when he refused to eat with the Gentile Christians because he feared the Jews.  Paul argued that if we are saved by grace alone how could Peter feel superior to anyone?

Human hearts don’t change quickly or easily.  Consider Jonah’s prayer in chapter 4:  So he prayed to the LORD, and said, "Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.  Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!" Then the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

In this prayer, Jonah’s heart is revealed.  He is basically telling God, “I knew I couldn’t trust you!”  He didn’t want to see the Ninevites forgiven.  His idolatry was on full display before God!  Jonah’s idol focused on the power and status of his people caused him to view God’s love, patience and compassion as a bad thing because he wanted to see the Ninevites destroyed for the sake of his own people.

Under stress is when the true nature of our hearts is revealed.  Jonah shows us it is one thing to believe the gospel with our minds but another to work it deep into our spirit man.  We can pinpoint our idols intellectually, but until we worship and “pray the truth into” our hearts we will not be transformed.

Idolatry distorts our feelings.  Good things are turned into ultimate things so the desires they generate become overwhelming and paralyzing.

When an idol gets a grip on your heart, it causes your belief and life actions to be based upon false definitions of success and failure, happiness and sadness.

We need a living encounter with God

We prefer our own wisdom over God’s wisdom, our own desires over His will and our own reputation to God’s honor.

  • What do we enjoy daydreaming about? Habitually thinking about?
  • What are our uncontrollable emotions?
  • What does the pattern of our spending look like?
  • What is creating stability, security and acceptance in our lives?
  • What would really make us happy?

Colossians 3:1-3 - If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.  For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Is Jesus more beautiful to the imagination and more attractive to the heart than an idol?  Uprooting the idol without planting the love and life of Christ in its place will just allow the idol to grow back.

Rejoicing and repentance -  Repentance without rejoicing will lead to despair and rejoicing without repentance is shallow and will only provide passing inspiration instead of deep change.  To rejoice is to treasure!

We must reflect on the beauty and value of Christ until our hearts rest in Him and then we will taste the sweetness of our Savior.  It is here that we will relax our grip upon anything that is not Him, fully embrace Him and find our complete identity in Him.

Idolatry, Emotions and our Will

  • Our Will says, “Just pull yourself up, dust yourself off and get on with it.”
  • Our Emotions desire sympathy from others so we feel validated and justified.
  • The gospel hits our idols directly. “What is operating as Savior in the place of Jesus Christ and His gift of salvation?