As I turned 40, I began to realize that it is not in preaching or leading that I needed to grow the most, but in seeing and understanding my own heart.
To see my heart is to also see my heart’s idolatries. This is a crucial aspect of self-awareness.
What makes one so angry? What makes it difficult for someone to say sorry? Why do we spend sleepless nights? Why do we work so much? Why do we feel inexplicably sad sometimes? What keeps us from being generous and kind? Why do we judge so much or struggle with certain habits? This self-evaluation can (and should) go on and on.
I would suggest that the answer to most, if not all of this, has something to do with our heart idolatries. We love something too much or we have made something ultimate apart from Jesus that makes us react in sinful ways.
An idol is anything—an idea, person, or thing—that we hold too tightly, from which we find our meaning and identity.
Idols evoke strong emotions and fuel unhealthy motivations. They make us swell with pride or cower in shame. An idol is anything that rules us, anything that captures our affections. An idol is anything in which we find our security, significance, and worth. It is what we love too much. Honestly, it is what we love more than God himself.
What would be the completion of this statement for you?
‘Without ___________ my life has no meaning or purpose’? That is a clue into your heart idolatry.
The Bible refers to idolatry in Exodus 20:2-3: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
Idols are not necessarily physical things. It has to do with what we love, what we worship. This is what John warns the church about in 1 John 5:21: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
To experience deep change, I had to become aware of my heart idolatry. I needed to know the invisible sin beneath my observable, external sins.
One area in which I have gained insight into my idolatry is my marriage. I began to see how my heart idolatry affected my marriage.
My wife and I would have the same arguments again and again. It was about keeping the home organised and clean or having a home that is quiet and calm. This was an unreasonable expectation with three “energetic” children.
I used to be the instigator in this, demanding my way. My wife always felt the burden of this expectation and felt hurt and judged. The cycle continued.
Why was this? Why could we not resolve this? We felt powerless to overcome this unhealthy conflict cycle. Then I realised it had to do with my idol of control and comfort.
Desiring control and comfort is not always a bad thing. To want a clean, organised, calm and quiet home is not bad at all. But when it becomes an ultimate thing, it rules our hearts and ruins relationships. I realised that I wanted things to be a certain way and would try to do anything to keep my life this way.
Having a quiet and clean home became more important than being a loving and understanding husband. Anytime my idol was rocked or its expectations were unmet, I reacted in unloving and unkind ways.
The only way to overcome this vicious cycle was for my heart to be overcome with greater love—the love of Christ. I began to understand and repent of the heart idol making me powerless to obey God and love my wife.
I reminded myself of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, no time to eat, and no rest for his body. Christ joyfully and voluntarily gave up his comfort all his life and in his death on the cross. This was the only way I could be saved.
As I began to marvel at God’s grace through Christ, my heart was slowly but surely set free from the bondage of my own idols. My life began to change from the inside out.
Here are ways to deal with your heart idolatry.
1. Discern Your Idols
Firstly, emotions are a window into our hearts. The greater the emotion, the greater we value something or someone. When you find yourself experiencing emotions in a heightened manner namely, anger, sadness, disappointment, worry, fear or any other emotion, ask yourself, “Why?”
What is making you so angry or so anxious? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer can reveal something other than Jesus that we love as ultimate.
Secondly, look for heightened motivation. What keeps you awake at night or makes you wake up in the morning? What drives you to achieve anything? Your heightened motivation can reveal something you love too much. The next time you want to succeed in a project or want to win in certain areas or impress someone, ask yourself, “Why?”
It may reveal a deep love of power or success or fear of failure or a need for approval.
2. Dismantle Your Idols
We cannot dismantle our idols with our own effort or willpower. It needs nothing less than repenting and believing the power of the gospel.
Repent the fact that you love something so much that it seems to control your emotions, actions and attitude. Repent the fact that you have forgotten Christ but have made something else your saviour, identity and significance.
As you repent, look intently at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how he gave up his power, comfort, approval and control for your sake so you can be saved.
3. Desire Christ Above All
Heart idolatry is a spiritual issue. It has to do with my true love and who I worship ultimately.
The extent to which we delight in the grace and love of God in Christ is the extent to which we will overcome our idolatries.
Turn your eyes on Christ and let your heart rest in his salvation. May Jesus comfort you, may Jesus be the object of your true affection. May Jesus be your true treasure, the one you rejoice in. May Jesus be the one you adore and worship.
The antidote to overcoming our powerlessness to our heart idols is to find Jesus wholly satisfying. He is truly better than life itself.
In my next blog, I hope to talk about how rhythms and habits can help us move from self-awareness into spiritual growth.