by Lee Anderson Jr. —
What do you think of when you hear the word “idol”? I suspect that many of us picture some kind of statue made out of wood, stone, or metal, fashioned in the image either of a false god or a deified human leader (e.g., 1 Samuel 5:2–5; Daniel 3:1). Those are idols in the rawest sense. But the Bible speaks of idols that take other forms, and of idolatry being a sin far more nuanced that simply bowing down before statues.
More broadly understood, an idol is anything that we love more than the one true God, anything to which we are devoted above Him, or anything that occupies the place in our hearts that ought to be reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). These idols are not always obvious, and we sometimes fail to recognize them. That is often because it is possible to have a measure of outward conformity to God’s expectations and feigned worship for Him while still erecting idols of all sorts in our hearts (see especially Ezekiel 14:1–11).1
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at several questions aimed at helping us to understand better what the Bible has to say about our pursuit of hobbies. One of these was, does our hobby risk becoming an idol or a distraction? There are three main ways this can happen.
The first is when the things we accumulate in the enjoyment of our hobbies become idols in themselves. This is especially true of hobbies that focus on collecting things. Although it is not inherently sinful to appreciate the uniqueness, rarity, craftsmanship, etc. of a collectable, it does pose a problem when that thing occupies a treasured place in our heart (which is often evidenced when we start thinking of our own self-worth in terms of what we have). Very closely related is the covetous pursuit of a collectable. Again, it is not sinful to enjoy the thrill of hunting down a rare item (though, in my opinion, online auction sites have removed some of the fun of seeking out rare collectables in person). However, once that pursuit consumes us, it invariably begins to turn into covetousness and greed, which the Bible calls idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). For those of us involved in such hobbies, we must watch to avoid such pitfalls.
A second way in which idolatry crops up in our hobbies is when the hobby as a whole becomes the focal point of our existence. In this case, there is not necessarily a tangible thing we set up as an idol, but our involvement in the hobby becomes the controlling factor in how we live our lives. Our devotion to our personal interests wrapped up in the hobby directs our decisions, delineates our goals and objectives, and (all-too-often) even determines the objects and measure of our affections. When that happens, the hobby itself—abstract a concept though that may be—takes on the role of god. How do we know if our hobby has reached that point? A good gauge is to examine our lives and see if our hobby has, in the time and energy we give to it, caused us to minimize the attention we give to things that Scripture establishes as more important—especially those things directly concerning our relationship with God (such as prayer and Bible reading).
A third way in which a hobby can be a conduit for idolatry—and thereby pose a serious distraction in faithfully living out the kind of lives God calls us to as Christians—is when we, as the practitioner of the hobby, become the idol. Self-idolatry is remarkably common in American culture (just look at the celebrity magazines that line the aisle of grocery store check-outs). And, unfortunately, it is something to which Christians can succumb. How do hobbies play into this? Much of it has to do with how we allow our hobby to inflate our opinion of ourselves. This may be true especially of hobbies that involve competition. Whether that means, for the hobbyist, to have the best of something or to be the best at something, the principle is the same. If the end goal is to set ourself up on a pedestal (whether in our own eyes or in eyes of others) because of what we have or what we can do, then we risk making an idol of ourself. The Lord promises He will not share the glory that He alone deserves (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). Thus, to exalt ourselves in any way that detracts from His glory invites His discipline. Moreover, to seek to exalt ourselves in the pursuit of a hobby can turn an otherwise healthy interest into a terrible vice.
Please understand, I am not saying that we ought not to strive for excellence—even for the very best—in our hobbies. Yes, some hobbies we participate in passively. (I personally enjoy playing with a yo-yo and performing tricks while simultaneously working on other projects.) But for hobbies that we pursue committedly, it is counterintuitive to do so with the goal of anything less than achieving excellence. The problem is when that goal of excellence becomes confused with self-praise, thinking of ourselves more highly than we should.
Let me give an illustration. Years ago, a young man in my church aggressively pursued competitive swimming. It began as a hobby but, as he got better and better at it, it became an all-consuming passion. His aim was not just to be the best swimmer he could be, but rather to make sure everyone knew he was the best. His hobby had become a setup for idolatry. Eventually, he was sidelined from competition with a serious knee injury and he had the opportunity to reflect on the fact that he had put his quest for competitive success above his devotion to God. He later returned to the pool, but solely for recreation. In listening to his account of his experience, it was evident that he had learned well the distinction between pursuing a personal interest, even quite zealously, and letting it usurp God’s rightful place in his heart.
God gives us interests and hobbies to enjoy so that we may experience His kindness and provision in this world, while seeking to glorify Him in all we do (1 Corinthians 10:31). When we allow a hobby to lead us down the path of idolatry, we fail to glorify God as we should, and we invariably miss out on enjoying the hobby in the way He providentially intended. In the end, the hobby becomes a vacuous activity. But for those who pursue a hobby rightly, recognizing its place within God’s broader intent for their lives and not allowing their interest in it to usurp God from His proper position in their hearts, it can be truly rewarding.
1Commenting on this passage, Old Testament scholar Ralph H. Alexander notes, “God . . . describes the true hearts of these [Judean] leaders, who outwardly seek God’s will by coming to Ezekiel, a true spokesman for the Lord. Inwardly, however, they are exalting idols in their hearts as the real gods of their thoughts and decisions (vv. 3–4, 7). Their twofold allegiance conveys fickleness and double-mindedness. Lust for idols causes them to stumble into sin.” See “Ezekiel,” in volume 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, revised edition, edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 714.