Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something besides God.
It is impossible to understand your heart or your culture if you do not discern the counterfeit gods that influence them. In Romans 1:21-25 St Paul shows that idolatry is not only one sin among many, but what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him … .They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:21, 25)
Paul goes on to make a long list of sins that create misery and evil in the world, but they all find their roots in this soil, the inexorable human drive for “god-making.” In other words, idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. No one grasped this better than Martin Luther. In his Larger Catechism (1528) and also his Treatise on Good Works he wrote that the Ten Commandments begin with a commandment against idolatry. Why does this come first in the order? Because, he argued, the fundamental motivation behind law-breaking is idolatry. We never break the other commandments without breaking the first one. Why do we ever fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is “because we are weak and sinful”, but the specific answer in any actual circumstance is that there is something you feel you must have to be happy, that is more important to your heart than God himself. We would not lie unless first we had made something—human approval, reputation, power over others, financial advantage—more important and valuable to our hearts than the grace and favor of God. The secret to change is always to identify and dismantle the basic idols of the heart.
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