Why You Do What You Do: How to Identify Idols

by Kristyn Perez

Why do you do what you do? What drives or motivates you throughout the day? Do you feel like something is out of sync with your priorities, but you can’t figure out what it is? Are there sins you keep going back to, but can’t figure out why? You want to stop, but feel powerless to do so?

As Christians, we want our lives to be marked by a love for God and others, but often we find ourselves acting in seemingly unpredictable ways. We don’t know why we keep sinning or why we’re stuck in cycles of anxiety, anger, or despair. We’re frustrated that we can’t seem to change, and we feel stuck in our Christian growth. Below is a “how-to” for evaluating your motives and heart idols.Beneath each point, you will find a set of diagnostic questions. Take some time to think through these questions and prayerfully evaluate your deepest motives:

  1. Look to Scripture

Diagnostic Questions: What does Scripture say about motives and idolatry? What do you elevate above God or claim as “essential” in your life?

As we learn to identify idols, we first look to God’s Word. Scripture uses the word “idols” to describe anything that we place above God. In modern times, idols are usually not “bad” things in themselves. These days, we typically don’t set up statues to worship Baal as they did in the Old Testament. Instead, we take God’s blessings and elevate them above Him (Romans 1:25). We elevate motherhood, marriage, or money and make them ultimate in our lives. We sacrifice our convictions, health, or families to obtain them. We look to these idols to fulfill us and give our lives meaning, purpose, righteousness, or worth.Scripture, on the other hand, tells us that we were made to know God and enjoy Him forever. God promises to provide all that we need and to fulfill our deepest desires in Himself.

  1. Look at Patterns of Sin in Your Life

Diagnostic Questions: When do you yell? When do you get angry? When do you lie, cheat, or steal? What’s your greatest fear?

Can you identify patterns of sin in your life? Maybe you want peace and quiet at the end of a long day, and your kids constantly interfere with your blissful dreams of bubble baths and Netflix. You regularly finish the night with bursts of anger, yelling at your kids and anxiously attempting to get them in bed faster so you can rest.

While evening rest is not inherently wrong (after all, God created the Sabbath, and Scripture doesn’t forbid bubble baths or TV), our sinful anger reveals our motives. We don’t trust that God will give us rest as we faithfully parent our children. We want our rest, and we want it now. We’re even willing to sin to get the quiet, alone time that we think we need.

Or maybe your desire for success or money leads you to cycles of anger and fear as you constantly strive to do better, be better. You want the stability, prestige, and success of a large bank account, and this has become your primary desire. You’ve sacrificed time, relationships, and even your health to get what you want. You become most anxious when thinking about the new girl at work who is smarter, younger, and advancing at an increasingly frustrating pace. That promotion was supposed to be yours, and you’ve struggled not to gossip or become bitter toward her. Your sin reveals the idolatry of money and success, and you’d be willing to sin against the new girl in order to succeed.

Tim Keller says that “idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong.” We want something else more than we want Jesus, and we’re willing to sin to get it. Or, we sin when we don’t get it. As you seek to identify idols in your life, look to patterns of sin and ask: is there something that’s too important to me? Is that why I’m angry, anxious, bitter, empty, or depressed—because something is being threatened, which I think is necessary when it’s actually not?

  1. Evaluate Your Thoughts and Emotions

Diagnostic Questions: When do you feel that your life has meaning? What would make you an acceptable person? Complete this sentence: Life has meaning when _____.

You look in the mirror in disgust. You can’t believe the donut around your hips won’t go away despite your constant dieting. You look at your roommate, and she doesn’t even need to try. She eats Cheetos at midnight and is still as thin as a stick. You feel disgust and envy, and consistently think about those 5-10 pounds you’d like to lose. Then life would be good. (Idol of image/beauty.)

Or maybe you criticize every mistake you’ve made as a wife or a mom. You’re not good enough. You don’t have the best organic snacks, or you can’t seem to bond with your baby. The house is always a disaster. You’re exhausted and devastated that you can’t be the dream woman you thought you would be. (Idol of being the perfect wife/mom.)

Or maybe you keep criticizing your husband. He’s so lazy. He always forgets to take out the trash, but Sally’s husband? He seems perfect. He’s so attentive and helpful. He listens and complements her. Wouldn’t it be great to be married to someone like that? You feel envy, lust, disappointment, and shame. (Idol of companionship/marriage.)

Each of these scenarios reveal a good desire that has become idolatrous. One wants to be a great wife and mom, another to be beautiful. Another woman wants to have a loving husband. None of these are bad desires. The problem is that these women have looked to something other than God to bring their life ultimate meaning and purpose.

In Christ, we can be happy even when we don’t have the perfect husband or exemplify the newest beauty trend. God has given our life purpose as His children, and we don’t need any external accomplishment to feel worthy, happy, or content. We don’t need our kids to be successful or for other people to need us. We have Christ, and He is enough for us. We can rest secure, even when we don’t get what we want, and we can bring all our desires to Him in prayer. We know that God will use even our unfulfilled desires for His glory and our good and to increase our longing for Him.

As a disclaimer, this doesn’t mean that we never want life to get better. Every issue suggested here is complex and layered. It’s not wrong to work hard for your goals, to expect good things in life, or to be happy in relationships. Being content in the Lord doesn’t mean that you stay with an abusive husband or ignore your child’s addiction. Rather, finding fulfillment in Christ alone means that we can have peace in the midst of difficult situations and as we make hard decisions. These questions are tips of the iceberg that can often lead to helpful conversations with your local pastor, trusted friend, or biblical counselor.

  1. Ask a friend

Diagnostic Questions: What do those closest to you say that you value? What would your kids, spouse, or roommate say is the most important thing in your life?

Sometimes we can be blind to our sin and can benefit from the loving words of a friend. Ask a trusted, honest friend what they think about your life. Ask what they think you value most in life and for areas you can grow as a Christian. When they respond with suggestions for growth, and everyone can grow because no one is perfect, listen. Don’t talk back or defend yourself. Even if you disagree, take the time to prayerfully examine your heart based on the words of your friend.

  1. Pray

Diagnostic Questions: What do you look to for stability, safety, or happiness in life?

Last on this list, but not last in importance, pray. Ask the Lord to reveal idols in your life and help you trust Him above all else. God desires to be first in your life. He promises to provide all that we need. He is our rest, our hope, and our stability.

As we evaluate our motives, we look to Christ, who forgave us of all sin and made us right with God through His perfect record. He has made a way for us to be at peace, to find rest, and to feel secure. Whenever we let go of our idols, we find a better, more lasting satisfaction in God. We discover lasting joy, stability, rest, and happiness. Because He is worthy of all worship, we joyfully repent of our idols and find ultimate satisfaction in Christ.

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