Four Root Idols

Last week I was honored to spend a day with the team at Austin Stone Church. I preached there two years ago for their summer preaching series, but this time I was blessed to speak to the staff and then teach a systematic theology session at Austin Stone Institute. Each week 300 plus men and women gather to study together. It is pretty incredible. After the general session, men and women break into different groups for men and women’s development. During the session with the men, I was asked to teach on the “four root idols” that often drive our sinful behavior. Austin Stone, and other churches, utilizes the framework as a tool to help men and women repent more specifically of our heart’s motivations.

Martin Luther believed that every violation of the Ten Commandments was first a violation of the first commandment, putting another god besides Him in my life. If I give false testimony, it is because I have set something else in my heart above God that is worth lying for. If I steal, it is because I have first set up something else in my life that is cherished above Him. Or stated succinctly, “Under every behavioral sin is the sin of idolatry.”

Christian leaders Tim Keller, David Powlison, and Dick Keyes have written much more extensively and eloquently on the idols beneath the surface, but here is a snapshot of four root idols that drive our behavior.

  1. Power: a longing for influence or recognition
  2. Control: a longing to have everything go according to my plan
  3. Comfort: a longing for pleasure
  4. Approval: a longing to be accepted or desired

Someone may long for a promotion and the accompanying salary. There is nothing wrong with either; the intensity of the desire is what makes it sinful. Or as Calvin stated, “The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much.”

The person’s root idol could be different from someone else longing for the same promotion. A person with a power idol wants the bigger salary, not because of the money, but because of the status the money can offer. A person with control as an idol wants the bigger salary to save more money to eliminate uncertainty and gain more assurance for the future. A person with the comfort idol wants the new “whatever,” and the person with approval idol wants to use the new “whatever” to win friends.

So how do I repent of the idol beneath the surface? How do we keep ourselves from idols, as the apostle John instructed (I John 5:21)? Thomas Chalmers said, “The best way to overcome the world is not with morality or self-discipline. Christians overcome the world by seeing the beauty and excellence of Christ. They overcome the world by seeing something more attractive than the world: Christ.”

I repent of my idolatry not by looking myself in the mirror and telling myself I can displace it in my energy, might, or goodness. I repent of my lesser gods by remembering the Great God who is above all gods. We can repent of our longing for:

  • power by submitting to His greater power within me [Ephesians 5:18]
  • control by surrendering to His ultimate control [Ecclesiastes 3:12-14]
  • comfort by remembering He is the greater comfort [II Corinthians 1:3-4]
  • approval by rejoicing in His gracious approval [Galatians 3:13; Numbers 6:24-26]

His power is greater. His control is perfect. His comfort is satisfying. And His approval is eternal. There is no god like our God.