by Michael Lockwood

Years ago, when I first began reflecting seriously on the idolatry of contemporary society, my goal was to understand the beliefs of those outside the church so I could bring them the gospel.

Yet the more I reflected on the idolatry of the world, the more I realised that the same idolatry had infected the church and my own heart too. Just as the ancient Israelites were tempted to worship the Lord and Baal as well, so we easily slip into thinking we can serve Christ without relinquishing the idolatrous agendas of our society.

In past ages, people worshipped gods of wood and stone. In the West today, we mostly just worship ourselves. This problem is as old as Adam and Eve, who wanted to be like God. Nevertheless, our society has sunk to new lows with its dedication to the worship of human beings, and all too often we Christians fall into the same trap. I therefore will explore three ways in which this idol is evident in us and our world and how the true and living God can set us free.


  1. Who do we love? We love ourselves.

 Our secular world can propose nothing greater to live for than individual happiness and equates happiness with the fulfilment of our desires. Thus, the goal of life is to get the world around us to give us what we want.

This idolatrous self-interest is not restricted to those outside the church. The reality is that we all love ourselves too much. We may not always like ourselves, but we are self-interested and want the world and even God to revolve around us and give us what we crave. Often, we put a religious spin on this. We slip into thinking that if we are sufficiently virtuous or pious, God and those around us should reward us by bending to our will. We are then inclined to get angry with God or lash out at others when this strategy fails.

Furthermore, the church often panders to this idolatry. Pastors become people-pleasers. Churches try to cater to people’s felt needs, hoping to be rewarded with popularity. In the process they lose sight of giving people what they really need, the Bread of Life.

Paradoxically, this pursuit of our own happiness does not bring happiness. We were not created to be at the centre of the universe, and neither God nor the world around us will allow us to pull them into our orbit. It is God’s will that will finally be done, not ours, whether we like it or not.

  1. Who do we trust? We trust ourselves.

Our society repeatedly tells us to believe in ourselves and its fundamental assumption is that there must be a human answer to every problem. This appeals to our sinful pride, which wants to be able to say, ‘We can do it’, rather than giving glory to God as the one who provides.

People in the church are not immune. All too often we say we trust in the Lord when our behaviour shows that we are really trusting in ourselves or other human beings. For example, what do we do in a crisis? Often, we call a meeting, in which we pray for two minutes and then plan and strategise for three hours. We never dream of calling on the church to pray all night as we see in Scripture, and as I have witnessed among Christians in Nepal. This pattern reveals the extent to which our faith is really in ourselves and not in the God who answers prayer.

This idolatrous self-reliance is expressed in how we relate to all three members of the Trinity. For example:

  • Our Heavenly Father promises to care for our earthly needs. Yet often our prayerlessness, workaholism and desperate groping after earthly things reveal that we are really trusting in ourselves to provide.
  • Our Lord Jesus Christ is the one who justifies us. He alone makes us acceptable in God’s sight and worthy to hold our heads up high. Yet too often we seek to justify ourselves instead and turn our own righteousness into an idol we put in his place. We make excuses, point the finger, pass the buck, exaggerate our virtues, downplay our vices, go fishing for praise and try to claim that the wrong we have done is really right, instead of confessing our sins and glorifying Christ as the one who forgives and saves us.
  • The Holy Spirit is the one who enlightens us through his word, works faith and its fruits in our hearts, and so builds God’s church. Yet all too often we seek to enlighten ourselves and turn our own wisdom into an idol. We neglect God’s word as if we are too clever to need it or set it aside for the sake of human opinions. Then we try to build the church or reform our own lives through our own efforts.

These efforts inevitably fail. Like all idols, the idol of the self demands great sacrifices from us, but then it lets us down since we have neither the strength, virtue, nor wisdom to take God’s place. Whether we like it or not, we are totally dependent on him. When we act like we do not need him, we guarantee that we will end up sinking exhausted under the weight of our foolishness, failure and sin.

  1. What do we fear? We fear everything.

Our humanistic society is an anxious place. This is the hallmark of idolatry. When we turn to idols, trusting them to provide for us and take our fears away, they inevitably fail us, so the fears remain. The same is true when we trust in ourselves or other people. The more we do so, the more anxious we will be about our performance and the things we cannot control.

The COVID crisis did not create this anxiety, but it has revealed it. In this crisis, our society has fractured into two camps, both of which are driven by fear. One side has been fearful of COVID and has trusted in human measures like masks, lockdowns, and vaccines to manage this fear. The other side is more fearful of things like censorship and creeping authoritarianism and has fought these fears with social and political activism. Both sides would be less frantic if we spent more time looking to Jesus.


The God who gives us every good thing by grace.

The good news in this situation is that the true and living God wants to give us by grace all the things we have vainly tried to supply for ourselves.

This true God has come to break us out of our narcissistic self-focus. He wants what is best for us and is able to deliver. Yet he knows that this involves us dying to our destructive self-centred desires.

True joy is not found in getting whatever we want, but in learning to want what God wants. The blessed life is one that revolves around him and his will for us, which is always gracious and good. We are free to live this way, since he has promised to give us everything we need by grace, apart from our self-centred striving.

God has got our backs, so we can forget about ourselves, and instead focus on serving him and those around us as he calls us to do.

This same God now calls to us: ‘Trust in me. I will give you by grace what you have failed to provide for yourselves. I will feed you, clothe you, protect you, heal you, forgive you, honour you, empower you, delight you, instruct you with true heavenly wisdom, and welcome you into my kingdom.’

Furthermore, this God has come to calm our fears. The most frequently repeated command in the Bible is ‘fear not’.

Fear the Lord and him alone and then you will have nothing to fear, since he is gracious and he is mighty, and he has conquered everything that can bring you harm.

When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he became afraid and started to sink.

How often have we not done the same? Yet while his eyes were on Jesus he could walk on the waves. The same is true with us.

By ourselves we can do nothing. We cannot provide for our earthly needs, save ourselves from death and hell, still our fears or fill the aching void in our souls.

Yet the true God is calling to us and saying: ‘Look to me, and me alone, in every dimension of your lives, so that your cup runs over with what my grace supplies.’

Rev Dr Michael Lockwood serves as a theological educator for LCA International Mission and has recently been called to teach in Taiwan. He is the author of The Unholy Trinity: Martin Luther Against the Idol of Me, Myself, and I.

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