The danger of the subtle idol

You would think that a Christian shouldn’t struggle with idol worship, but the battle with the desires in my own heart tells me otherwise. The Bible describes the heart as the dwelling of our thoughts, emotions, and choices. There is a daily battle there, as to whether we will worship the true and living God or the gods of our making.

In his book Worship Matters Bob Kauflin explains,

Throughout the Scripture, idolatry is the greatest snare the people of God encounter. God condemns idolatry repeatedly in his Word. He hates it when we pursue, serve, or are emotionally drawn to other gods, which are not really gods at all. Idols enslave us and put us to shame (Isaiah 45:16; Psalm 106:36). Idols are powerless to help us and end up making us into their image (Psalm 115:8).

When some of us hear the word idolatry, we picture primitive tribesman bowing down to statues of wood, metal or stone. . . But idol worship is a daily ritual in America. too. Only it’s more subtle and therefore more dangerous. Idols are all around us. Can you spot them? They come in different forms. Material comforts. Financial security. Sensual pleasures. . . Things like reputation, power, and control.

As Christians we’re sometimes like the people described in 2 Kings 17:33: “they feared the Lord but also served other gods.” We fear the Lord externally, doing all the right things on Sunday morning–singing, strumming a guitar, lifting our hands–yet actively serve false gods throughout the week. We profess to love the true God but actually love false idols. It’s a condition that God, in his mercy, is committed to changing (p. 21,22).

The subtle idols are often invisible to the human eye, but the worship of them is not. When you feel your anger rising because you didn’t get what you wanted, you are worshipping the idol of your expectations. If you can’t exercise Spirit-given self-control over your sexual desires, you are worshipping at the idol of your sensual pleasures. If you are characterized by worry and anxiety, you are worshipping at the altar of your security.

The heart is the alarm mechanism for keeping God worshippers from becoming idol worshippers. Whenever you are willing to sin in order to get something you want you are worshipping an idol.

Analyzing your temptation

I learned a helpful poem when I was younger. But only recently did I begin to use it as an instrument to analyze personal temptations.

I had six faithful friends,
They taught me all I knew
Their names were: how and what and why
When and where and who.

Next time you find yourself falling to a particularly stubborn temptation, analyze the conditions surrounding the temptation to more effectively prepare yourself.

How. What events further your weakness in this area? Do you feel a certain way before you give into the temptation (discouraged, unappreciated, a sense of injustice, etc.). Cain had those kinds of feelings before he killed his brother Abel (Gen. 4:6). God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door. He was to rule over the desire that had awakened in his heart. Cain never asked the question, “How can I please God?” He simply followed his desires.

What. Have you ever considered the kinds of temptations to which you are most susceptible? Hebrews 12:1 makes a point of saying that each of us should avoid the sin (singular) which so easily entangles. While all temptations are common to man (1 Cor. 10:13), each of us has different temptations that seem especially appealing to our flesh. Categorize your own. Then find the specific Scriptures that combat those temptations.

Why. Understanding your motive for sinning is critical to victory. This is perhaps the most basic question to address, yet the one most often overlooked. Is this pleasing to God or is this pleasing to self? Eve made the choice in the garden to please herself, and so did Adam. He would rather die to be with his wife than live without her (Gen. 3:6). He chose to please himself rather than to please God. A friend of mine captured it this way:

There are only two choices on the shelf: loving God or loving self (Ken Collier).

When. Bruce Wilkerson surveyed men who struggled with internet pornography. Their answers were anonymous and nearly unanimous. His study revealed that most men struggled with internet pornography late on Friday and Saturday nights. With the work behind them and a free weekend ahead of them, they filled their imagined free time with a costly sinful addiction.  Knowing the most likely time for temptation allows you to prepare spiritually for the battle.

Where. I once helped a man who struggled with drunkenness. I grew accustomed to receiving a call at about 4:30 Monday through Friday. He not only knew the time of his temptation, but he knew where it was most likely to occur: A traffic circle north of his home. That’s where the bar was. He would call my cell phone and I would pray with him. One day he remarked, “It’s amazing how that temptation weakens when I get on the other side of the traffic circle.” Do you know where you are tempted? In our home we have a family policy that the family computer is in the kitchen with the monitor facing the door. Even with accountability software on our computers, location matters. Private locations intensify temptation.  

Who. Who’s with you when you’re tempted? Are they a help or a stumbling block? Do they draw you closer to Christ or away from him? Are they the one’s you most admire? (See Phil. 4:9). Who are you following—both literally and on twitter? The Scripture says,

Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor. 15:33)

These are the six key questions that help us analyze stubborn temptations, develop a plan by God’s grace, and realize our need for total dependence upon the Lord (Phil. 4:13).

Help for those struggling with sexual sins: Running with resources

Just because you have established the need for running from the temptation does not mean you are prepared to run or that you will run when you face strong desires. While the key resources are prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and the use of memorized Scripture, there are other ancillary resources that are helpful as well. These include internet accountability, various media, and the accountability of friends.

I prefer to think of these resources as scaffolding around a building project. They are necessary for the rebuilding of a weakened wall, but they are not the wall. The wall is composed of the key resources from this week’s study: prayer, the Spirit, and the Scripture. 

Satan is strategic in his temptation. For instance if you provide accountability on your home internet, that doesn’t mean your temptation will be any less strong when you are on the internet elsewhere. While you may have developed a strong and necessary accountability with other Godly friends, they will not be with you when you are wide awake at two o’clock in the morning battling your desires. Hence these are helpful and necessary resources, but are not meant to be a replacement for the three mentioned earlier.

Resources to protect from internet pornography:

Resources to read and study:

  • The Way of Purity  by Mike Cleveland
  • Sex is not the Problem Lust is by Joshua Harris
  • Sexual Addiction by David Powlison
  • Homosexuality by Ed Welch
  • It’s all about Me: The Problem with masturbation by Winston Smith
  • Lies Young Women Believe by Nancy Leigh Demoss
  • Every Young Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn
  • The Purity Principle by Randy Alcorn
  • Sexual Sin by Jeffrey Black
  • The War Within by Robert Daniels 
  • Marital Intimacy by Rob Green. Lafayette, IN: Faith Resources.
  • Restoring Your Broken Marriage: Healing After Adultery by Robert Jones. Greensboro, NC:  New Growth Press.
  • Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God by C.J. Mahaney
  • Sexual Addiction: Freedom from Compulsive Behavior by David Powlison  Greensboro, NC:  New Growth Press.
  • Biblical Principles of Sex by Bob Smith  Stanley, NC: Timeless Texts.
  • “Helping Men Overcome by Life Dominating Lust”  by John Street. Workshop presented at the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors 1995 Annual Conference.
  • Additional help available in the Philadelphia area at

Help for those struggling with sexual sins–Step3: Prepare for the battle by running

Run! Run! Run! Anyone who ever thought they could stand against the onslaught of sexual temptation was mistaken. The Biblical mandate is not to think you can stand (1 Cor. 10:12), but to run (1 Tim. 5:11). We don’t have a good track record with temptation when we linger. When it comes to sexual temptation keep your running shoes on, and laced up. Be ready at all times to use them.

You’ve got to run before the pulse quickens and the desires intensify. You’ve got to run before you ask any of the “what if” questions in your mind. Like what if  I can keep this a secret? or what if  this relationship is better than the one I have in my marriage? or (and I’ve heard this one before) what if this relationship (even though it’s immoral) is God’s will for me?  This is how humility works. It runs before any of that happens. Don’t linger. Run.

Joseph, of Egyptian fame, teaches us that humility is a great deterrent to sin. He saw temptation and set the land speed record for leaving the bed room (Gen. 39:12). In his humility he knew he couldn’t stand against temptation.

11  But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house (Genesis 39:11-2)

On the other hand, King David teaches us that if we think we can linger at temptation’s door without sinning we are gravely mistaken (2 Sam. 11:2-3). His pride led to his lingering, his lingering left him vulnerable to sin, and his sin brought tremendous destruction to his family.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. 3 And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”  4 So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her (2 Samuel 11:2-3).

Think accurately about the long-term consequence of succumbing to sexual temptation. That’s an encouragement to run even faster.

The Scripture says,

For lust is a shameful sin. A crime that should be punished. It is a devastating fire that destroys to hell. It will wipe out everything I own (Job 31:11-12, NLT)

If we linger we fall to temptation, if we run there’s hope.

Help for those struggling with sexual sins–Step3: Prepare for the battle with Scripture

Whenever I counsel people who are struggling with lustful thoughts, I will ask the question, “What Biblical passages have you memorized to help you with the temptation?” In 20 years of speaking to men about this struggle I have yet to meet the man who has pulled from his spiritual arsenal even one memorized verse on sexual temptation.

While it is true that the temptations to sexual immorality are more readily available than ever before, it is equally true that we are not effectively using God’s Word to parry the lies that our fleshly desires speak to us about this sin.

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. He repeatedly answered with God’s Word. He had the right verse, and he applied it at the right time (

One of the most helpful truths for me personally has been to memorize verses that combat the lie of the temptation with truth. For example, one of the reoccurring lies with sexual sins of the 21st century is, No one will ever know what you are about to do. Go ahead—No one is watching.

But the truth is found in Hebrews 4:13, 

And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

When I hear temptation’s lie in my head, I answer with the memorized portion of Scripture. Sometimes there is a mental argument or two taking place in my mind, but the Scripture brings clarity to the deceitfulness of the temptation, and clears my head to make the right choice.

If you would like to get started with developing your scriptural arsenal, we have developed a lie/truth memory verse pack ( BHSS – All Cards on one Sheet). Learn these verses. They are your lifeline to clear thinking when it comes to sexual temptation.

Help for those struggling with sexual sins–Step3: Prepare for the battle through prayer

Your phone rings. You don’t recognize the number, but you pick it up anyway. The voice on the other end of the line is a five-star general. He’s calling to inform you that you have just been selected to serve in Afghanistan. You have 48 hours to get ready. “Wait” you respond, “I’ve never served in the military. I’m not a young man. You must have the wrong number.” The general interrupts you in mid sentence. “Son (even though you’re about his age), you better stop your yappin’ and prepare for battle. Where you’re headed is not a safe place.”

The apostle Paul writes, 

11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:11-12).

Elsewhere he adds,

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:14).

The Holy Spirit has Paul warn us to be battle ready. No where is this so necessary as with the sexual sins. Because this is not a battle of flesh and blood the battle plan is different. It includes these essentials: (1) Praying on purpose, (2) Clinging to Scripture, (3) Running from temptation. 

Praying on Purpose is a Must (Mk. 14:38).

Have you ever wondered why, when Jesus had warned them to watch and pray, the disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane? If you always thought it’s because they were really tired. I would offer another cause of their failure to pray. Hours earlier they had been arguing with one another, and with Jesus. They promised him they would never deny him, even though Jesus insisted they would. It’s not their weariness that interrupts their need for prayer. It’s their arrogance. They chose sleep over prayer, because in their pride they didn’t sense the urgency to pray. 

Prayer sensitizes our spirit. It makes us watchful, and dependent. Two essential qualities when it comes to battling sexual sins. Again and again the Bible makes the case that it’s not the lust that’s too strong, it’s the pride (1 Cor. 10:12). Pride gives us as sense of entitlement (we think we deserve something). Pride pushes us ever closer to temptations that we cannot stand against. 

Prayer does the opposite, and that’s why its essential in the spiritual battle against sexual sin.

Perhaps you might say, but having committed sexual sins I feel shame. I don’t feel worthy of coming to God in prayer. You would do well to remember Frederick Buechner’s words,

To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them they become the bridge (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 15)

So an essential step in getting ready for the battle with sexual sin is to “watch and pray that you enter not into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

If you have been battling sexual sins without a consistent and focused time in prayer there’s a good chance you’re slipping back into the sin repeatedly. Start by praying. And don’t think it won’t make a difference when you speak to God, and plead with him to strengthen you against the temptation.

Karl Barth wrote,

He is not deaf, He listens: more than that, He acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action…this is what the word ‘answer’ means (Prayer, p. 63).

God is listening. Are you praying?

Tomorrow: Preparing for the Battle by clinging to the Scriptures.

Help for those struggling with sexual sins–Step 1: Admit the reality of the temptation.

While all sinful choices bring addictive like habits none seem to be quite so enslaving as the sexual sins. Perhaps that’s why Jesus addresses these sins as first taking place in the heart. 
27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell  (Matthew 5:27-30).
 Jesus recommends a radical amputation to avoid such sins. It’s important to remember that he is still speaking about sins of the heart.  This is a radical surgery to desires, not a mutilation of the body. To be victorious, Jesus says,  You have to keep your eyes on the eternal destiny not the temporal pleasure.
I have found that there are three steps to doing business with these kinds of temptations.  (1) Admit the reality of the temptation, (2) Repent where sin has been committed, (3) Prepare for battle with the enemy.
When we admit the reality of the temptation we will walk in humility and we will seek accountability (1 Corinthians 10:12-14).
Steve Farrar reminds us of the importance of taking the temptation seriously.
We are in the greatest danger of all when we think we are safe. When a guy begins to think that this could never happen to him, then he needs to think again. I once heard Joe Aldrich, president of Multonomah School of the Bible, make a statement that sent a literal chill down my spine. Aldrich said, “Have you ever noticed how many men in the Bible failed in the second half of life? Our enemy is so cunning that he will wait forty or even fifty years to set a trap.” That’s precisely what happened to King David.
That’s why we can never deceive ourselves into thinking we are somehow “above” sexual sin. The moment you begin to view yourself in that light, you can be sure that your carcass will one day be hanging in cold storage (Steve Farrar, Point Man, p. 66)
Take seriously the temptation. No one is above it.
 This week: Help for those facing sexual temptation.