Idol Factory Quality Control

“The human heart is a factory of idols… Every one of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”

John Calvin

It’s far easier to confess sinful behavior than it is to repent from a sinful heart.

I see this often in conversation with Christians. We recognize our anxiety, impatience, busyness, insecurity, lack of prayer… but we end up religiously trying to fix our behavior rather than attacking the source of our sin, which is idolatry.

Idolatry is extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone. An idol is anything that ranks higher than God in our affections, priorities, thoughts, and desires. An idol can be a good thing (i.e. friends, work, health) that we turn into a “god” thing (an idol)–in which case, it becomes a bad thing (sin).

The depraved human heart is like a factory machine that produces broken products.

In order to fix the products (your fruit), you’ll need to fix the machine (your heart). But first, you need to figure out what your machine is producing.

1. Identify the product: Name your sin.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
– Galatians 5:22-23

Fruit grows holistically. No one eats a blueberry and thinks, “The color, size, and firmness of this blueberry are perfect, but it’s more sour than a lemon. What a great blueberry.”

Reflect on a period of your life, whether it be the last 24 hours or last 24 years. What is your sin? How do you sin? Name your sin. Confess your sin.

Biblical fruit equals spiritual maturity. You’re only as mature as your weakest traits.
– Darrin Patrick

2. Check the machine: Know your idols.

Your heart “machine” is broken. You bear bad fruit because it’s a result of your broken heart. You need to know how your machine is broken before you can treat it.

Assess your sin to find your idols. When do you sin? Why do you sin? With whom do you sin? Against whom do you sin? In what circumstances are you most tempted to sin?

Surface idols are observable idols. The following list (not exhaustive) contains examples of surface idols:

  • Image idolatry – “I must look certain way.”
  • Helping idolatry – “People need to depend on me.”
  • Work idolatry – “I find worth in productivity.”
  • Materialism idolatry – “I must have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and possessions.”
  • Inner Ring idolatry – “I must be a part of a particular social or professional group.”
  • Family idolatry – “I must have a spouse/family/children.”

Surface idols can likely be identified through the symptoms: if you’re a self-proclaimed workaholic, you likely have work idolatry; if you daydream about marriage all the time, you may have marriage idolatry; etc.

All surface idols, though, are driven by source idols. Based on your personality and experiences, source idols may take more time to be identified. The following contains examples of 4 main source idols:

  • Comfort idolatry – You desire ease and pleasure. You avoid stress and demands. You find yourself bored/discontent.
  • Approval idolatry – You desire affirmation, praise, sense of worth. You fear rejection. People can feel smothered by you.
  • Control idolatry – You desire security, standards, order. You fear uncertainty. Your tendency is to worry/be anxious.
  • Power idolatry – You desire success, winning, influence. You fear humiliation and failure. People may feel used by you.

Dig deeply into your past. What motivates you? What drives you? You may find that all four apply; however, typically there is one that hits closer to home than the others.

3. Fix the machine: Believe the gospel, kill your sin.

After identifying your source idol(s), connect your behavioral sins to your source idol(s). Notice how your “bad” behavior (sour blueberries) is deeply rooted in your sinful heart (broken machine).

The better you understand how God has designed you and how your past has shaped you, the more deeply you’ll understand your heart. And as you grow in your understanding of your utterly depraved, idol-producing heart, the more clear your repentance from your idolatry will be.

And as you repent, you will bear more Christ-like fruit: fruit that is good all-around, benefits others, and honors God.

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols”
– 1 John 5:21

**For more on understanding idolatry:
That Idol That You Love, It Doesn’t Love You Back by Justin Buzzard
Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller
– Church Planter by Darrin Patrick


10 thoughts on “Idol Factory Quality Control

  1. !!!! WOW !!!! What a great article. Thank you so much for the braek down and claity of our idols. This list helps me to identify what are the different idols that can be in our lives but not sure how to define them or know what they are. You have been able to comumicate what they are clearly so they can be addressed. Thank you again.

  2. I would say this is equivalent to the old list of “mortal sins”: wrath, greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, lust, envy. Use whichever helps you focus on your own failings; these are, ultimately, just ways to help us stay on the path God has marked out for us. It’s worth noting that while you list the “need to be productive” as an idol, Christians have traditionally considered work as an offering to God. So while the work should not supplant God, neither are we called to be idle.

  3. I’m spending the first 40 days of summer reading Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit. Each day gives a task to “simplify” with and a meditation on it. As I journaled this this morning, I thought of your post. I thought I’d share the metaphor I discovered with you. :)

    Today’s task is to scrub a dirty corner. In her own journey, Huston began to wonder, “how could I obsess about surface messiness but blithely ignore concealed potential health hazards?” (6). For me this is just as true with cleaning my shower as it is with the idol-factory known as my heart. Approval is my idol, and I’ll do anything to maintain the approval of others. I keep a smile on my face, even when I’m hurting. I say yes, even when I should say no. I show up when I should, even if I don’t feel like it. But how often do I scrub the dirty corner of my heart? After all, isn’t the neglect what makes it so dirty in the first place?

    If I lightly spray and wipe down my shower every day, mold doesn’t have time to develop. However, my neglect and denial of the problem leaves me with the annoying and disgusting problem of mold, making it necessary for me to get down on my hands and knees and SCRUB. The parallels to my own heart are astounding. I like to ignore my approval idol. I close the shower curtain of my heart by putting on a smile and working my way towards approval. I pretend that the idol, like the corner of my shower, doesn’t exist. It’s not until something happens to let me know that not everyone approves of me that I look at that little corner of my heart. But by then, I’ve rooted my identity in that person’s approval and I need to spend hours, days, or weeks scrubbing that lie out of my heart.

    How much easier would it be if I addressed that idol and corner of my shower every day? What if I reentered my identity in God’s grace (he approves of me for no other reason than he created me) every day? I think it would make me more aware of the “potential health hazards” of seeking approval in anything other than Christ.

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