How to Know When Idolatry is Affecting Your Sense of Identity
Identity is who you are. It tells you what you are worth, why you are here, and how you should live. It provides roles and boundaries for your relationships; it provides goals and parameters for your lifestyle; it gives significance to your thoughts, desires, and behavior. Identity is something that can and should be ascribed to each of us by God alone, and the identity He has given us is image-bearers. We bear God’s image, which means we are His designated representatives to the rest of creation and to each other. We were created to know Him and, knowing Him, to help others know Him by relating to them in such a way that we show them a little bit of what God is like. Our painful experience, however, is quite opposite of this edenic view of humanity. Most people we know are, by nature, nothing like God as He says He is or as we need Him to be. In general, people are callous, selfish, hurtful. Rather than nurturing the things and people God created (Gen 2:15), we use them. Rather than demonstrating a loving commitment to the good of others, we demonstrate a loving commitment to ourselves. This is the unraveling of humanity described by Paul in Romans 1:18-33. What makes us so divergent? How do we become so anti-God and anti-others? How are we getting our identity so wrong?
As Paul explains in Romans, the pattern we’ve been following since Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden is a pattern of idolatry. We “[exchange] the truth of God for a lie, and [worship] and [serve] something created instead of the Creator…” (Rom 1:25 – see Romans 6 for a similar dynamic of submitting ourselves to an authority other than God). When we take God’s proper place in our hearts and give it to something else, we give that other thing the power to identify us. Thus, we give it the power to tell us who we are, what we are worth, why we are here, and how we should live. Mark Driscoll addresses this issue of idolatry-based identity in his book, Who Do You Think You Are?, and provides us with some helpful categories for understanding the way various forms of idolatry override our sense of God-given identity as image-bearers. Through the acronym I.D.O.L.S., Driscoll provides 5 types of identity-shaping idols, and I expand on his terms below:
• I – Items With Items, Driscoll points out that since products carry meaning and communicate image, our identity can get caught up in what we have or don’t have.
• D – Duties With Duties, he notes that our obligations and disciplines, which are means of worship (such as prayer, study, spouse-hood, vocation, etc.), can become objects of worship. Thus, what we do or are obligated to do comes to define us.
• O – Others Driscoll reminds us with Others that our relationships and associations (e.g. family, friendships, work relationships, and the like) can become identity-makers. Relationships, which are meant to be a means of expressing God’s image, become a means of making our own image.
• L – Longings With Longings, Driscoll shows that a more subtle form of idolatry is when our desires and cravings – our wants – become inordinate. We may want marriage, financial security, obedient children, a particular career or level of success, or any number of things so much that obtaining or maintaining these things becomes the defining pursuit of our lives. Additionally, we may want to prevent certain events (sickness, loss, failure, shame, a child’s rebellion, etc.) so much that preventing these things becomes the defining pursuit of our lives. We normally treat fears differently than desires, but it is helpful to realize that fear is simply the other side of desire. Instead of wanting to experience something, we want to prevent it. Instead of seeking to have, we seek to avoid. It is a desire not to have or experience something.
• S – Sufferings Lastly, with Sufferings, Driscoll shows that we can become named by our pain when experiences of suffering become the defining aspect of our lives. Whether we view ourselves as hopelessly wounded and broken, entitled to some rest and relief, cheated out of the life we wanted/deserved, unloved by God, or deserving of the pity and compassion of all, when we form our sense of who we are around what we’ve been through, everything we do becomes a pain-based response to a life we wish hadn’t happened to us.
When there are so many options for God-replacements, it is easy to understand why it can be so unclear when we have a mistaken sense of identity. How can we tell when we are naming ourselves and others based on the Items we or they have or don’t have? How can we know when we’re living to fulfill our Longings or defining ourselves by our Duties? Where can we look to discern when Others are saying more to us about ourselves than God is? What can tell us when our Sufferings have become more than painful experiences and now serve as identity-markers? And just as importantly, what can we do about it? Are we stuck, or can we be set free? Is this truly just who we are, or is there something better?
A Two-Part Answer: Reflection and Redemption
The answer to the “How can you tell?” question is thankfully straightforward, though your path to apply it personally may have its own complexities. The short version is sin. If you consider the sin – especially the patternistic sin – in your life and follow it all the way backwards through your thoughts and motives, you will surely find an idol in the driver’s seat of your heart. This means looking for judgments, fears, angry responses, obsessive preoccupations, escapist behaviors, and so on, and then taking the time to ask “Why?” Why does this scare or anger you? Why do you retreat or lash out when certain subjects come up? Why do your thoughts so frequently go there and when exactly do they go there? It also means being patient with yourself and others. You probably won’t find answers right away, but God is with you, and He is jealous for your heart (James 4:5). He isn’t interested in sharing it with any of these I.D.O.L.S.
This brings us to redemption. If God is jealous for your heart, then you are not stuck. You are not just this way. Rather, you are in process. You are in transition. You are perpetually being pulled between flesh and Spirit, carnal world and Creator God, enslavement to sin and freedom in Christ. Something else is always trying to name you and make you its own, but God has already named you and already made you His own. And the God who spoke the world into existence with a word is the same God who spoke an eternal word that defines you now and will continue to be the authoritative declaration of who you are until all that shames, all that enslaves, all that frightens, and all that hurts, finally fades away (1 Peter 1:23-25).