Whether or not you have a golden calf hanging out in your backyard, you are an idolater. So am I. Pastor Brad Bigney defines an idol this way: “An idol is anything or anyone that begins to capture our hearts and minds and affections more than God.” This means that a pagan deity, a number on the bathroom scale, or a baseball team could equally be defined as an idol, depending on a person’s heart.
Perhaps you’ve heard the famous Calvinism that our hearts are a “factory of idols.” While I understand what John Calvin means, I believe that he might be giving our hearts credit for being more creative than they are. I have written before about the unholy trinity of Idolatry, in which I propose that at the most fundamental level, our hearts worship only three idols: approval, comfort, and control. Every idolatrous act, affection, and attitude—of which the list is endless—stems from one (or more) of these root loves. Therefore, if we really want to defeat the idols of our heart, we must drill all the way down and deal with the most rudimentary issue.
For each of these three main idols, we’ve been considering a sampling of the myriad ways they may manifest themselves and then attempting to renew our minds with truth by thinking through what God-worshiping attitudes and actions we need to put on (Eph. 4:22–24).
Up to bat today is approval.
You Might Be an Approval Junkie If . . .
One of the root idols that our hearts worship is the approval or praise of other people.Simply put, we want to be worshiped; thus, we clamor after glory that belongs only to God. What may seem innocuous, trivial, or respectable may just be treasonous glory-robbing. As with all of the three main idols, the root of approval may blossom into many different types of fruit:
- Refusing to reach out to others
- Living like a chameleon—always taking on the attributes of the environment you’re in
- Compulsive (and cranky) house-cleaning before company arrives
- A lack of boldness to share the gospel
- Replaying a conversation in your head, looking for how you could have and should have performed better and wondering what the other person is thinking about you
- Assuming every whispered conversation is about you
- A need for the latest, trendiest clothes
- Compulsive dieting
- Social media/phone addiction
- Refusing to try something new
- Being hurt when congratulations or praise isn’t given
- Expecting recognition for all your work
- Dominating conversations
- Desiring to be noticed
- Habitually degrading yourself
- A tendency to compare yourself to other people
Ouch. As an approval junkie, I must admit that list hurts. A lot.
It’s important to note that although, in most cases, the root idol of these thought or behavior patterns is approval, it’s entirely possible that another idol could be rearing its head as well. We’ve dealt with those idols in other articles here and here in case you missed them.
If you found yourself in the list above (and I’m assuming you did), what now? It’s pretty hard to just stop thinking about what other people think of you. (How I wish it were that easy!) The answer may involve a “radical amputation” of something that you’re currently doing. Maybe a fast from social media is in order. Or perhaps you need to repent of your jealousy, or go share the gospel with your neighbor.
However, if that’s as far as you go, this sneaky idol will just grow fruit in another area of your life. No Instagram? No problem. How about that desire for recognition of your newfound commitment to kicking the approval habit? No, what we must do (and it’s a lifelong, continuous process) is put off what’s wrong, while also renewing our minds and putting on what’s Christlike.
Rewiring the Mind
As an approval worshiper myself, I understand that this idol worms its way into every crevice of our being. It can stain nearly every thought we have. Thankfully, the power of the gospel is greater than this pseudo-god! We can have victory over this wily adversary. The solution, while not easy, is simple. Go back to the two great commandments:
[Jesus] said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matt. 22:37–40)
The first key in rewiring our brains may seem like a kid’s Sunday school answer; but we must learn to love God supremely. As Ed Welch has famously put it, the problem with the idol of approval is that people are big and God is small.1 We’ll talk about what to do with people in just a moment, but we must correct our small view of God.
The answer is not to meditate on the approval we have from God. Yes, our acceptance in the Beloved is a wonderful and glorious truth, but it’s not an end in itself. We must lift our eyes to the Giver of that gift! Our acceptance should fill us with wonder at the holy, transcendent God who heard our cry and redeemed us from hell, setting His never ending affection on us before the foundation of the world.
We must set our gaze at the truly Beautiful One. If we obsess over Him, we will never run out of wonders to worship or attributes to adore. Our desire for approval will begin to fade as our minds are renewed by the constant intake of the glory of the eternal, immutable, Almighty God.
How do you do this? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Read God’s Word looking for God. We’re far too prone to look for ourselves in every story. Begin by asking what a given verse or passage teaches about God. Keep a list and take time to adore God for each one.
- Experience your world looking for God. Where can you see His attributes in your everyday life? Outside your window? Inside your home? On your drive to work? Or while you’re making supper? Praise Him for what you notice.
- Spend time exploring His attributes. Don’t settle for the toddler-sized definition. Overwhelm your brain by picking one attribute and drilling down into it as far as you can.
Wearing New Clothes
The god of approval teaches us to use other people in unbiblical ways. We make our lives about getting worship from them when we’re commanded to be loving them. To put it another way, if I’m busy loving my neighbor 1 Corinthians 13-style, I will not be able to also manipulate them into giving me approval. The two simply cannot coexist. Of course, our slippery hearts can very easily twist what begins with a good motive into an idol serving, glory robbing act. For this reason, we must be vigilant in prayer, constantly seeking our Father’s help in keeping our motives pure and our hearts from being divided.
Though we are prone to wander, we still must love our neighbors well. That might look something like this:
- Bless those who have no way of blessing you back.
- Serve/give anonymously.
- Fast from social media—send a card to someone instead.
- Reach out to a new person at church. Have them over for supper or take them out after the service.
- Be hospitable. Make your house, in whatever condition it may be, a platform for ministry not a hotbed of idolatry.
- Make prayer a primary ministry.
- Work at the art of asking questions. Intentionally make conversations about the other person.
- Have your unsaved neighbor over for coffee.
- Say thank you.
Make this verse the prayer for your own heart:
May the Lord make [me] increase and abound in love for one another and for all. (1Thess. 3:12 ESV)
Fellow approval junkies, we must smash this idol at its root.
Gaze long at God.
Love others well.
1Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 1997).