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Tim Keller: Identifying Idols


In our modern, American context we may assume that idols are not as prevalent as they were in the ancient world.  It is true that we don’t see temples on each street devoted to a mythological deity or communal idol, but idolatry is rampant in our world nonetheless.  Those things competing with our affections for the God and Father of Jesus Christ challenge the great command to “love the LORD with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30, et al).”

I have wondered if I would have been pulled into the obvious sin of worshiping a statue of gold, stone, or wood if that was the cultural norm.  Wouldn’t that seem clearly and obviously wrong if I knew the commandments of God?  I need to be on guard against assuming I am not allowing my heart or mind to be swayed by idolatry, statue or not.  The idolatrous spirit is alive and well today (even in America where the statues are missing) – and perhaps even more crafty because we don’t even know they are there.

Tim Keller shares 4 ways that we can identify idols in our life:

One way requires that we look at our imagination. Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” In other words, the true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention. What do you enjoy day-dreaming about? What is it that occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement? Or material goods such as a dream home? Or a relationship with a particular person? One or two day dreams do not indicate idolatry. Ask rather, what do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?

Another way to discern your heart’s true love is to look at how you spend your money. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” (Matt 6:21) Your money flows most effortlessly toward your heart’s greatest love. In fact, the mark of an idol is that you spend too much money on it, and you must try to exercise self-control constantly. As St Paul has written, if God and his grace is the thing in the world you love most, you will give your money away to ministry, charity, and the poor in astonishing amounts (2 Cor 8:7-9). For most of us, however, we tend to over spend on clothing, or on our children, or on status symbols such as homes and cars. This reveals our idols.

A third way to discern idols works best for those who have professed a faith in God. You may regularly go to a place of worship where you are a member. You may have a full, devout set of doctrinal beliefs. You may be trying very hard to believe and obey God. However, what is your real, daily functional salvation? What are you really living for, what is your real—not just your professed—God? A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. If you ask for something that you don’t get, you may become sad and disappointed. Then you go on. Hey, life’s not over. Those are not your functional masters. But when you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god. Like Jonah, you become angry enough to die.

A final test is for anyone to use. Look at your most uncontrollable emotions. Just as a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is roiling, look for your idols at the bottom of painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong. If you are angry, ask, “Is there something here too important to me, something I am telling myself I have to have at all costs?” Do the same thing about strong fear or despair and guilt. Ask yourself “Am I so scared, because something is being threatened, which I think is a necessity when it is not? Am I so down on myself because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?” If you are over-working, driving yourself into the ground with frantic activity, ask yourself, “Do I feel that I must have this thing to be fulfilled and significant?” When you ask questions like that, when you “pull your emotions up by the roots,” as it were, sometimes you will find your idols clinging to them.

An excerpt from Keller’s Book “Counterfeit Gods” and posted in Christianity Today.  Find the original article here.

23 Responses to “Tim Keller: Identifying Idols”

  1. on 03 Oct 2012 at 10:30 pmDoubting Thomas

    Thanks Tim,
    That was a good post. It forces someone to really think about their devotion to “our” Father…

  2. on 04 Oct 2012 at 12:09 amtimothy


    Thanks for a great article which has brought some current events to mind.

    I just watched a political debate between two skilled debaters. One seems to be worshiped-idolatry-for his promotion of same sex marriages and the other side steps the issue. We the bible students know how contrary this unnatural union is to GODs will for mankind.

    Right in the begin of the begin GOD commanded man to be fruitful and multiply.

    Genesis 1: (kjv)
    28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.


    I was just thinking about a verse in 1 Corinthians which confuses the same sex marriage idea too.

    1 Corinthians 11: (kjv)
    3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.



    Covertness is IDOLATRY.

    Ephesians 5:
    3 But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;

    4 Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.

    5 For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

    Covetousness is Idolatry

    Lusting/coveting to fornicate/have uncleanness with one of same sex is Idolatrous Idolatry.

    Being Kingdom Ready, is being free of Idolatry. Covetousness comes in many forms and here on this thread is a good place to reveal the many methods our spiritual adversary tricks us with.

    2 Corinthians 2:
    11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.


  3. on 04 Oct 2012 at 9:06 amTim (aka Antioch)

    the true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention.

    I think this is absolutely true (and absolutely convicting)

  4. on 04 Oct 2012 at 7:23 pmtimothy

    Tim (aka Antioch),

    I like your point and just did this search:


    And noted these verses of scripture:

    Genesis 6: (kjv)
    5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

    This above verse tells of the reason for the “FLOOD” where only seven humans survived with Noah aboard the first Ark.

    Job 42:
    2 I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.

    Yahweh knows our every thought and it is our discipline required to:

    Psalm 19:
    14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

    **{To deal with our adversary (DWA) I was taught to memorize the above verse. Scripture retemory cards are useful for retain/memorize verses. Tim, Once I quoted a scripture for you to deal with your fear of speaking up……..: For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.(power=dunamis/fearless candour}**

    2 Corinthians 10:
    3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:

    4 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)

    5 Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;

    I have the need to write this down for myself and am sharing my thoughts with you.


  5. on 05 Oct 2012 at 10:20 amSheryl

    This is such a timely and useful article, thank you for posting it. I must say that my attitude toward God changed when i discarded what was to me a stumbling block to understanding the Bible…the Trinitarian doctrine. Where my thoughts were then, my heart was also…and it wasn’t often on anything Godly. Now that the veil of confusion has been lifted I have a zeal for devoting myself to God and studying his word, and for being of some use to him. I am grateful for this site for helping me along this journey.

    Something else that came to mind in reading the article, I believe we do have “statues” of idolatry on nearly every street corner, at least here in America. Advertisements, I believe, are “statues” to entice us to worship the dollar and the “things” we exchange it for. What about TV? Who doesn’t come home from a long day at work and relax numbly in front of the TV set? Wait, that ages me…TV sets have become flat boxes the size of drive-in theater screens. 😉

    When talking about relationships I am reminded of when Paul suggested that it is better not to be married because your devotion to God will necessarily be somewhat divided. Your thoughts must go to pleasing your spouse.

    Timothy, another good website for topical and word searches is biblos.com in case you haven’t heard of it. I frequently use the interlinear feature to try to discern what the biblical writers were trying to get across.

  6. on 05 Oct 2012 at 10:44 amSarah


    I’d been on biblos.com before but for some reason never noticed their interlinear feature. Thanks for the tip.

  7. on 05 Oct 2012 at 12:57 pmtimothy


    I gave all my research books to others and only have my Youngs Analytical Concordance…which took years to learn all the tricks. It will be great to use/try out the Biblos…thanks.

    Tom shared a song on face book that is relateed to my post #2 above.
    The group was popular when I was in high school and later 60’s:



  8. on 06 Oct 2012 at 5:47 pmSheryl

    I very well remember that song! Kinda gets me teared up to hear it again, thank you for the link.

  9. on 07 Oct 2012 at 1:27 pmSheryl

    Who is “the lord” in Jude 1:5? I was reading the NET bible last night and came upon the verse which reminded us that “Jesus” lead the people out of Egypt. Other translations have The Lord (ho kyrios) and others have God. It’s no wonder people who are searching for answers are confused…that verse grabbed me and made me doubt everything I’ve just learned in the past few months. But my next reading (at random, mind you) was in James, the “do not doubt” verse. It reminds that one time in prayer I asked God to send me a word, a message. And the response was that all God’s words are already written down. Are there any lessons on the Jude passage? i tried to do a search on this blog site but didn’t find anything specific.

  10. on 07 Oct 2012 at 2:16 pmtimothy


    Notes from “lord in New Testament” class:

    Jude 1:5

    see page 24=Spanish text=Dios=GOD


  11. on 07 Oct 2012 at 3:09 pmSarah


    Great question. Probably the most important thing to note, as you pointed out, is that there are variant readings of this verse. Perhaps those more familiar with the manuscript evidence could trace the history behind this and identify the correct reading.

    But lets suppose for the sake of argument that the correct reading is “Jesus” rather than “Lord” or “God”. I would venture to say that Jude was referring same thing Paul did in 1 Cor 10:4:

    “And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”

    (1 Cor 10:2-5)

    Professor James Dunn offers a very good exegesis of this passage. He points out that typology was very often used in scripture and it in no way proved that Paul thought Jesus literally pre-eisted. I see no reason why this same explanation wouldn’t also apply to Jude 1:5. Check out this link for Prof Dunn’s comments:


  12. on 08 Oct 2012 at 7:45 pmtimothy


    GOD bless you.

    I am coming back to your post # 9. So why not refresh your memory and read it again.

    Jude 1: (kjv)
    5 I will therefore put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this, how that the Lord[YAHWEH], having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not.

    Jude 1: (nasb)
    5 Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord[YAHWEH], after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe.

    Jude 1: (Lamsa translation Aramaic Peshitta)
    5 I will, therefore, remind you, though you once knew this, that God, having redeemed and saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.

    I join the many who believe Jesus spoke Aramaic as his native tongue and the local Christian to Palistan still use the Peshitta version of NT & OT Bible today.


    Jude 1: (NET)
    5 Now I desire to remind you (even though you have been fully informed of these facts once for all) that Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe.

    WHAT? How can this be TRUTH? Jesus was not even conceived, born, crucified, resurrected, ascended and seated at GODs right hand, when the tribes of Israel fled Egypt.

    We use the KJV and NASB versions. Why, because GODs name is not LORD, Lord nor lord. In the old testament, the Hebrew, from which the KJV & NASB text are translated into English actually has GODs name YAHWEH.

    I am tired and think you would benefit listening to a teaching that covers all this stuff. The teacher, Rev Cortright also taught the session 13, “Spirit of Truth”, in the GPOTA class.

    “Seek Yahweh” Rev John Cortright…..click the speaker ikon to listen:


    agapao se’

    Timothy 🙂

  13. on 10 Oct 2012 at 6:20 pmSheryl

    Just a quick note, Timothy, to thank you for posting the link to Rev Cortright’s sermon on Yahweh. i very much enjoyed it and I can tell this is a word that will be with me for good. Really helps me a lot. Cheers, Sheryl

  14. on 11 Oct 2012 at 12:47 pmtimothy


    There is a lot more to add to our better understanding about our YAHWEH GOD and heavenly father.

    Fore now, I thought you would like more, some mores:


    Your sibling in Christ,


  15. on 11 Oct 2012 at 7:21 pmSheryl

    Thanks! That was an excellent example of how God never changes and his words are true. Our challenge is to present this evidence to our loved ones who are trusting their traditions over the word of God. It’s time to get into battle armor and rescue those who are in bondage…my sword of truth has been sharpened!!

  16. on 12 Oct 2012 at 4:22 pmtimothy


    You are welcome.

    There is an endless supply of “needed teachings” available. Here is link to the Sunday serman/teachings. Either watch for full service or listen:


    agapao se’


  17. on 13 Oct 2012 at 5:12 amtimothy

    Hello Sheryl,

    Just woke up and checked email and took a look at above link…and low and behold found this teaching which reminds me of you. I just listen to refresh my believing and thought it would give you a blessing to hear from this view point. Great notes included.


    agapao se’


  18. on 13 Oct 2012 at 1:58 pmSheryl

    Thank you again Timothy. I have been listening to several of the sermons on that website and have been much blessed.

    I must be honest…on the issue of speaking in tongues I’m afraid I fall into one of the categories of the non-practicers. I believe it is a spiritual gift and I have done it in the past at the insistent of other Christians. But it has never been edifying to me. I really don’t think it’s a gift for everyone.

    I look at it like this, and I might be wrong…. but here goes: I feel i am gifted in administrative/organizing. To someone else that probably sounds like a job of horror. But i naturally and genuinely enjoy doing “paperwork” and am good at it. What if you had no desire or talent for mundane office work and i threw you a few piles of papers and said, here, organize these…just try it, you’ll learn to love it and it will become such a joy for you! And if you have trouble, i can direct you to a class where you can be taught to do it. Well, that’s how I feel about speaking in tongues (not to say it would be a horror! but just as unnatural and uncomfortable as forcing any of the gifts on someone who doesn’t wish to practice that gift) I know that people who speak in tongues really love it and feel great about it, and just want others to share that wonderful feeling….but it doesn’t “feel” like that to me.

    Paul said to “some” are given the various gifts. And he said “I wish you all spoke with tongues” meaning that there were/are some who don’t. I think that is acceptable and there is nothing “wrong” or unspiritual for those of us who enjoy our other gifts. Believe me, I have absolutely no doubt that I am filled with the holy spirit despite not speaking in tongues. 🙂

    However, I do have a question, and this may sound silly coming from someone who’s been a Christian for 30 years. What exactly is prophesy as defined as a gift? I thought it mean prophetic, as in knowing the future. But that definition doesn’t make much sense to me.

    Thank you again…God bless you…God bless us all! Sheryl

  19. on 13 Oct 2012 at 7:00 pmtimothy


    This is going to be a long answer.

    I thought that the teaching covered all the reasons you have just mentioned.

    Yes you have your own unique place in the body. SIT is for your own personal good as well for the church body, but you benefit the most.

    ( you are talented with “administrative/organizing”. Here:

    Romans 12:
    4 For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:

    5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.

    6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;

    7 Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching;

    8 Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.

    I will try to explain prophesy as learned with the biblical meaning, but first look at the world view where it has several different spellings and meanings. Or maybe combine all and then restate our Christian view.
    I will include negative or non Judo/Christian(some are in the Bible)

    prophet= an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine, and to speak for them, serving as an intermediary. Example, Prophet of Islam known as Muhammad.

    negative prophet=false prophet

    the prophets=For the bible these are the Men who were prophets or the groupe of books they wrote.

    prophetess= A female prophet

    negative prophetess=in bible prophetess of Endor

    1 Samuel 28:
    7 Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.

    prophesy= one or more messages that have been communicated to a prophet are then communicated to others. Forth telling.

    prophesies=To predict with certainty as if by divine inspiration

    prophesies=to speak for GOD to the persons present. Forth telling.

    In Genesis 20:7 (kjv) the first use of word prophet was for Abraham.

    Exodus 7:
    1 And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.

    This verse shows Aaron speaking for Moses which indicates a prophet being one who speaks for another.

    Prophet=Judo /Christian=one speaking/fore telling/writing for GOD

    Prophesy=Judo/Christian=what was spoken/fore told/written

    forth telling=what is spoken or written

    foretelling=prediction of things to come, spoken/written

    All the bible is prophesy-GOD is the author and prophets were the writers

    2 Peter 1:
    19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

    20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

    21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

    First century prophesy example:

    Acts 11:
    28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

    What Agabus prophesied came to pass. He was not a false prophet.

    Acts 21:
    10 And as we tarried there many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus.

    11 And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.

    12 And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.

    Agabus prophetsies about what would happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem, Paul disregarded the prophesy and was arrested and the whole story is to be read in book of Acts.

    I am trying to be complete and hope you will see that our main concern is that: prophesy is either A) foretelling or B) forth telling.

    The book of Revelations is foretelling about many detail still to happen in the future. And as always I am encouraging you to take the new, just completed class “The Final Words”(meaning the last words in the bible)


    Just as speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the spirit, so is prophesy and speaking in tongues with interpretation. All(IMHO, and a complete explanation) is taught from scripture and explained in the teaching about SIT. Maybe you might listen again when you are relaxed. Link in post 17 above.

    There is so much buzz in sci-fi movies about prophesy like the Mayan calender having the world end in 2012, Da vinci code and so forth.

    Cheryl, I think you(and all Christians) are like prophets for YAHWEH when you are speaking for him and for Jesus Christ who has given you the ministry of reconciliation.



  20. on 14 Oct 2012 at 1:51 pmSheryl

    Hi Timothy, I whole-heartedly concur with everything in your post here. Thank you for the explanation of prophesy…I believe I have a clear understanding now. I had a sense that there were two meanings to the word and you explanation has firmed up what I suspected.

    With all due respect and Christian love… In regards to your suggestion that I listen again to the teaching (I thought I understood it well) do you believe that SIT is more important than other gifts of the Spirit? I got the impression from the sermon that SIT was not a mandate, but more that we are missing out on something wonderful if we don’t practice SIT. That’s what I was trying to get across in my post. All I’m trying to say is that I strongly believe my gifts are elsewhere. ….Do you feel every Christian should SIT and that it is a blessing for every Christian?

    It’s interesting to me that Paul warned the Corinthians about spiritual gifts causing a bit of disunity in the church. I want to learn and grow and in faith and wisdom, as we all do…I just don’t feel that SIT is necessary for ME….but SIT is a wonderful and great blessing to others and I rejoice for them…as I hope they rejoice for me. I just don’t want to see two camps here; I want to see us as the one body with differing purposes that we are meant to be. And so I do believe we are of the same mind. 🙂

  21. on 14 Oct 2012 at 5:09 pmtimothy


    Romans 12: (kjv)
    16 Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

    Timothy 🙂

  22. on 14 Oct 2012 at 10:12 pmSheryl

    Amen! God’s love is surely in our midst.

  23. on 30 Jan 2014 at 4:59 pmTima

    I know this is an old post, but I have this burning question.

    I love my wife. Because of my selfish ways, I hurt her and she has left for over a month. In this time, I have accepted Jesus as my savior. I have been praying for Him to fill me with His love and teachings. I read the Bible every day. I can feel His Holy Spirit in me. My wife is not a believer. I did not do a very good job at being the spiritual leader. I pray without ceasing that God continues His work with me and makes me the man and husband He wants me to be. There are times that He performs miracles in my heart. Naturally, there are other times when I am frustrated not with Him, but with myself.

    My question is… How do I know that my wife is not my idol right now? I do day dream about us getting back together. I have this vision of us worshipping the Lord. Reading the Bible. Praying together on our knees. Things that we never did, but should have been doing. I miss her so much. We will have 6 years on March 19th if she comes back. I pray for God’s will.


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