When we talk about idolatry, it’s usually in terms of worship or love. You’re either committing idolatry by worshiping what isn’t God, or (more controversially) loving someone or something more than God, or (yet more controversially) by loving someone or something more than you ought. But there’s another way of looking at idolatry, one that is deeply rooted in Scripture: idolatry as a kind of distrust, an insufficient trust in God. That’s how God describes it, for example, in Jeremiah 13:24-25,
I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert. This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, says the Lord, because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies.
Historically, that’s just what idolatry looked like. Often, this idolatry didn’t deny the existence of God: the Israelites didn’t stop believing in God altogether. What they denied wasn’t God’s existence, but His sufficiency and sovereignty. Their approach was a sort of “God-plus.” They needed God plus Baal, because God was good, but not good enough (or strong enough, etc.). You see this in the cry of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 18:21:
And Eli′jah came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba′al, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.
The Israelites wanted to be “safe” by clinging to both God and Baal, and that kind of lukewarmness is repeatedly condemned in Scripture.
The “God-plus” nature of this kind idolatry is also why the Bible can refer to unusual things like covetousness as idolatry (Colossians 3:5): “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
How is covetousness idolatry? Because it’s putting your trust in something other than God: in financial security, or material possession, or simply the prestige that comes from having money. If the idea that if I just had that one thing, then I would have enough, then I would be comfortable, then I would be safe. Whatever that thing is (unless it’s “right relationship with God”), that’s your idol. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve got your idol plus God, or instead of God, it’s still idolatry.
The flip side to this sort of idolatry is anxiety. If our trust is in something other than God, we both covet the thing, and feel anxious if we don’t have it. I don’t mean unchosen anxiety, like involuntary anxious feelings, or psychological conditions. Actual sin is an act of the will, and takes some sort of consent. Rather, I mean the kind of controllable anxiety that Jesus condemns in Matthew 6:24-33,
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
Now, most Bibles present these as two distinct teachings: one on not having two Masters (God and mammon, that is, money), and one on the need for trust instead of anxiety. But Jesus presents them as one teaching: He says we can’t have two Masters and therefore we need to trust in Him instead of being anxious. Why’s that? Because this anxiety is a sign of our lack of faith, and our living and thinking like pagans. The anxiety is us saying to God, “I don’t trust that you’re going to take care of me!”
That’s why it’s impossible (not just wrong) to serve God and mammon. You can’t both trust in God and place your trust in created things for security. That’s not how it works. God’s demand is simple: you give Him all of you, and He gives you all of Him. It’s an amazing deal, but you have to give Him all of you. You can’t go halfway. If you don’t believe me, believe Jesus, who says in Luke 14:25-33,
Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Half-hearted discipleship is presented as worse than not following Christ. It’s like taking half of your regimen of antibiotics, or throwing half of your money away on a project you’re not going to see to completion. You invest so much and you get nothing out of it. It’s all or nothing. That’s why Jesus says to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-16), “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
So if we’re guilty of this, what should we do? The short answer is: trust God more. Reflect on His omnipotence, His omniscience, and His love for you. He can do anything that needs doing, He knows what needs doing, and He loves you enough to do it. You’ll note that this is the exact remedy that Jesus employs in Matthew 6: He reminds us of God’s tender care for even the lilies of the field, and of how much more He loves us than those lilies.
But “trust more” is easier said than done, so what’s a concrete way of increasing that trust? Pray more. Follow Jesus’ practice in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-39):
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsem′ane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zeb′edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Faced with the imminence of the Cross, Jesus’ response is to pray, to once more place Himself in the hands of the Father. When we’re faced with life’s troubles, that’s what we need to be doing.
The promise here isn’t that if we just pray and trust that nothing bad will happen. That’s a form of the false prosperity gospel. Rather, the promise is that, even when bad things happen, God’s still in control. St. Paul says it best (Romans 9:31-39):
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul doesn’t say that we won’t face trials: in fact, he points out that, for Christ’s sake, “we are being killed all the day long.” Instead, he says that through it all, Christ’s love for us remains constant, and so we have nothing to worry about. None of the bad things in life can separate us from the love of Christ. That’s what trust looks like. And that surety is the best preservative against the idolatry of covetousness and anxiety.