God First: Discerning Where Idols Are in Our Lives

Golden calf standing on a rockface.In my 20s and 30s, I gradually went from being hopeful about getting married, to despairing over finding the right guy, and finally to bitterness about the whole thing. How did an innocent desire turn so ugly? 

I grew up seeing strong marriages and watching romantic comedies, so I assumed one day I would fall in love and get married. I trusted that God had the perfect partner for me, I just had to meet him. 

But I dated, or tried to, and it never worked out — just a series of disappointments and mistakes. I watched as my friends got married, and perhaps I grew envious. I started beating myself up over even wanting a husband. I don’t know how or when it happened, but it slowly became the thing that I wanted so badly yet couldn’t have — and that I couldn’t control. 

Over time, the ideal — of a romantic relationship, of falling in love, of married life — had turned into an idol. 

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When we hear the word “idol” or idolatry, we may think of the Israelites’ golden calf, the gods of other religions, or even how celebrities are viewed nowadays. Yet idols aren’t always so obvious or flagrant. An idol can be anything that replaces God at the center of our lives. 

We all have idols, whether we know it or not. We all worship something. For some, it is money, power, and material things. For others, it is addictions to drugs, pornography, or social media. Some are controlled by deep fears or unmet desires, and still others by political ideology or blind religious fanaticism. It can be anything that takes over and drives our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, relationships and choices. Whatever masters you — that is your god. 

The most insidious idols may start out as “good” things. After all, Satan tempted Eve with the fruit of a tree that was “good for food and pleasing to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6). Of course the apple had to be attractive. She wouldn’t have taken it if it grossed her out.

The idea of marriage is attractive; the desire for it is pure, but it can be a slippery slope from a healthy longing to idolizing that longing. Satan will use literally anything to turn us away from God. How do we know when we’re on dangerous ground? 

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I knew when I realized that my longing made me feel resentful, helpless, and filled with self-doubt. I knew when I tried to ignore it, but instead thought about it all the time. 

1 Thessalonians 5:12 tells us “Test everything. Retain what is good.” It doesn’t get more straightforward than that! Here’s what I’ve learned about discerning idols: 

  • Pay attention to what is taking up your time, thoughts, and devotion, but especially to the good or bad fruit it is producing both inwardly and in relationships. These could be the best warning signs if something is going awry. 
  • Ask yourself if your desires and pleasures are God-centered. Reflect on the “why” behind them. We are meant to enjoy good things, but setting boundaries may be necessary, especially if it’s around things you know are a temptation.
  • Hold that space for God as your first love, with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind. Every other love should rank after him. I remind myself that everything that God created is good, but that I must not love the creations above the Creator. 

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By the grace of God, I came out of the darkness of my idolatry. He opened my eyes to the negative way I was dealing with this unmet desire and how much it was consuming me. 

God healed my poor, withered heart and brought it back to life. I still have the desire to get married one day, but he brought me to a place of acceptance and contentment in my vocation as a single woman.

I can’t stress enough that my “Aha!” moment didn’t follow a trauma or turning point. It happened during regular ol’ prayer. We must give ourselves the space and silence to let the Spirit work. Listen! Discern! That is the first step in identifying any idol in your life. That is how we test everything.

Originally published June 14, 2021.