We all believe lies about God that have caused us to mistrust him and therefore to look elsewhere for life. This is what an idol is. It’s anything we try to use to fill what only God can fill.
God never intended anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ to meet our core need for unsurpassable worth and absolute security. So when we try to meet these most central needs with something-or-someone other than God, that something-or-someone becomes an idol.
Idols always fail. They leave us with profound experiences of disappointment, frustration, hopelessness, and a host of other painful emotions. We try a wide variety of tactics to numb these painful emotions (alcohol, drugs, pornography, food, etc), or we distract ourselves from them (work, television, movies, sports, politics, etc). But distractions are only momentary and the Novocain of the idols eventually wears off.
A common idol we face today is related to “the American Dream.” Many ‘get life’ from what they achieve, what they possess, or whom they impress, which leads them to work eighty hours per week, sacrificing family and friends in the process of climbing arbitrary ladders.
Others chase peak experiences, believing that the next risk-taking adventure, the next experience of falling in love, the next lurid sexual experience, or the next drug-induced high will make them feel fully alive.
Christians tend to have a distinct set of religious idols. By this I don’t mean golden calves, statues, or shrines. Instead, some religious people have tried to find their ultimate worth and security in special rituals. Others have adopted righteous behaviors as a way to try and feel loved by God. And still others make an idol out of their tribe, making it superior to others because of their distinctive beliefs.
These are all forms of idolatry. God has established our worth, has accepted us into his family, and has secured us in his great love. Yet many fail to dwell in that love, fail to experience that security, and struggle to believe the worth they genuinely have. So with great hustle, and futility, they try to establish all of these things on their own.
—Adapted from Benefit of the Doubt, pages 63-65