All of us who study the Bible are keenly aware of the fact that on more than one occasion the nation of Israel, which had been chosen before the world began to be the people through whom God would bring his son, followed the heathen people around them and began to worship idols. Sometimes they became so brazen in doing this that they had the audacity to bring various idols right into the Temple of the Living God. When they did this, although they sometimes retained God as one of their deities, God rejected their worship and called upon them to change their hearts before he would accept their worship. It was not that God did not want their worship and devotion, but he did not want it as long as their hearts were, in whole or in part, given to other gods. So again and again, God would plead for them to come back to him with all their hearts and give up their devotions to the dead gods around them.
These incidences in history teach us as clearly as anything can be taught that it is possible for one to give up worshiping God and begin to worship idols. But the question with which we hope to deal today is: "Can one when he thinks he is worshiping the one True God, actually be engaged in a form of idolatry?" We answer that question in the affirmative, and will through the rest of this brief article show how that can be done.
Let us begin by pointing out that as far as God is concerned, anything that takes his place in our lives is idolatry. If we accept the teaching of the Muslims, and worship according to their traditions, then we are engaging in a form of idolatry. The same would be true of the Buddhists, the Hindus or any other religion that calls us away from Jehovah God. Furthermore, to bring the gods of the heathens up on a par with the God of the universe is also idolatry because God wants all out true and sincere worship, and if our worship is not true and sincere, then God will accept no part of it.
But, idolatry is not just the worship of false gods; it is also the false worship of the True God, or at least what one thinks is worship of the True God. Why do we make such a point as this? -- because Christian worship is totally God-centered, and in no way does it center upon man. "True worship subordinates our hearts and minds, our feelings and concerns, to the reality of God and his claims upon our lives." If we turn away from God-centeredness in worship to fulfill the desires of our own hearts, we have turned worship into idolatry. Why? Because the object of my worship would be my own desires rather than the desires of the God of heaven and earth. Worship like that is human-centered, and if I worship for what I can get out of that worship it is not only human-centered, but it is self-centered as well. So, the question is not what can I get out of worship, the question is: "How may I give God the homage and adoration that he deserves by virtue of the fact that he has saved me from my sins?" Worship that is directed anywhere other than to the God of life and death is worship that is idolatrous in its nature. In engaging in any kind of worship in which we do not lean forward to kiss the hand of God, that is, give him the homage and adoration of our souls without thinking of ourselves positively or negatively, is not true worship but idolatry.
When we attempt to worship in such a way as to manipulate God into giving us personal benefits, financial benefits or political benefits, we have the wrong motive and God will not accept our worship any more than he would accept the worship of the ancient Israelites when their allegiance was divided between Jehovah God and the gods of the Amorites whom the land had vomited out due to their idolatry.
Another way in which worship may be corrupted into idolatry comes about when we confuse seeking God during worship with seeking an experience from God during worship. Although we are singing hymns of praise to God, praying to him and eating the Lord's Supper in memory of Christ, if we are doing all of this because we want to get some kind of a "high" out of worship, then we have not worshiped at all, but have merely gone through the motions of worshiping God while we are hoping to get something for ourselves. This is self-centered and selfish, and the being with whom we are really concerned is not God at all, it is ourselves because we are inevitably drawing our own attention back to ourselves and our perceived or felt needs. To evaluate worship by what happens in the experience of the worshiper, which is the way all charismatics evaluate worship, is to make men, not God, the center of the worship. Worship then becomes a tool to use God for human ends rather than to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Since the purpose of worship, that is, the focus of worship, is to give honor, glory, adoration and homage to God, we should enter the corporate worship of the church, and the private devotions of our own lives, asking not what we can get from God upon this occasion, but purposing to give God our hearts upon this occasion.