Tim Keller on Detecting and Replacing Your Idols

At my last small group we listened to a lecture by Tim Keller on counterfeit gods. It provided an interesting and thought-provoking lesson and discussion. Toward the end of the lecture, Tim says some pretty helpful insights about detecting and replacing our idols that I’ll slightly paraphrase for the sake of reading here. It’s good stuff.

At the end of this blog post, I’ll give you the link where you can download this two-part lecture for yourself or your small group. Of course, Tim Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods is a must-read, which you can buy at our bookstore.

In summary regarding idols (from the beginning of the lecture): Idols are what you love more than God. Idols are what you look to for what only Christ can truly give eternally. Idols are what you seek instead of Christ to justify your existence or give your life meaning or base your identity on or your security on. The Christian life is not about sinning or not sinning—it’s about true worship of Christ and all that he is for us.

Five approaches to detecting your idols:


1. What are your daydreams? When you don’t have to think about anything in particular, what do you just like to think about? Someone has rightly said, “Your religion is what you do in your solitude,” which means that the way you find out what your true God/god is by answering—What does your mind dwell on the most when you’re free to dwell on anything you want? What do you fantasize about? Do you think of God and his glory and his grace when you don’t have to think about anything else? Or do you think about—“What will I do if I actually make enough money?” Or, “What would happen if that person fell in love with me?” Or, “What will my children be if this or that happened?”

2. Where do your uncontrollable emotions show up? Tim’s wife says, “Pull up your uncontrollable emotions by the roots and you’ll find your idols clinging to them.” When do you get most upset? This is a great way to detect what your idols are.

3. What do you spend your money on most effortlessly? Some people spend too much money on clothes and houses and vacations because their money is serving the idol of human approval. Others sock it all away instead of giving because their money is serving their idol of security. They’re looking to money to give them their sense of security: “I can look out at the world and I know that no matter what happens, I’m secure.” Money is giving them what only God can truly give them. If you utterly love saving money, or utterly love spending money on certain things—by looking at where you put your money most effortlessly, that’s often where you see your idols.

4. What are your nightmares? What is the thing where you say, “If that ever happened, I just couldn’t go on”? Or, “If I lost that, I would lose my reason for living.” Or, “If I couldn’t have that, life would no longer be worth living for me”? That’s an idol structure.

5. What unanswered prayer has embittered you toward God? People who make a certain prayer request their basis for whether or not they will follow or obey God are actually asking God to give them their idol. If you say to God, “I will obey IF you give me this,” than whatever “this” is is really your god. Your non-negotiable prayer requests are not prayers to your God, they are your god. If your unanswered prayers have actually embittered you toward God, then your problem is not that God has let you down, but it’s that you’ve got an idol. That prayer request has taken God’s place in your heart. You love it more than God. You think you need it more than God.

How do you deal with your idols?

Idolatry is always ultimately a matter of the affections of the heart. People say, “I believe in God. I believe he loves me. I believe I’m saved by Jesus Christ,” but functionally the affections of their heart are elsewhere. The affections are set on people’s approval, or money’s security, or something else that you turn to in your life for what only Christ can give you.

Ultimately dealing with our idols is dealing with the affections of our heart. The answer to idolatry is not just a mental identification of your idols. Ultimately, you have to actually have a sense on your heart of Jesus’ love and grace to a far greater degree than you ever have before. You need the expulsive power of Christ’s love and grace to replace your heart’s affection for your idols.

It’s one thing to know that Jesus loves you, but it’s another thing to have a sense on the heart of that love so powerful that it enables you to be free from the need of others’ approval, your need for money, your need for this or that, etc. Idols are always things that promise you what only Jesus can give you. But what only Jesus can give you must, to some degree, be experienced in your heart’s affections before it will replace your idols.

There’s no way out of your idolatry by just thinking your way through it. It’s learning to experience in your heart who Jesus is and what Jesus promises to you and for you in his word. It’s bringing his promises deep into your heart’s affections. You must learn to say to your idols, “You are not my life—you are not my security—you do not justify my existence or give my life it’s meaning. Only Christ can do that—give that—be that for me.”

You have to learn how to channel and use and apply your heart’s experience of Christ’s promises of who he is at the moment that your heart is starting to go in a wrong direction. You have to learn how to do that. You have to preach the gospel to yourself.

You can download it for your self here (scroll down and look for the two-part download titled “Tim Keller Talks about Counterfeit Gods-Part 1,” and “Tim Keller Talks about Counterfeit Gods-Part 2”).

One Trackback

  • By Who or What is Your Idol? | Athletes Devotional on April 27, 2019 at 9:04 am

    […] a Christian, how do you deal with ridding your idols?  Keller suggests that this is a heart matter.  “Ultimately dealing with our idols is dealing with the affections of our heart”.  If you […]

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