Concern for idolatry permeates the Scriptures. If idolatry is understood as turning away from God and placing one’s trust in someone or something else, it appears as early as Gen 3. John Wesley addresses it in many sermons and essays, but perhaps nowhere more directly than his 1781 sermon “Spiritual Idolatry.”
Taking as his text 1 John 5:21 (“Little children, keep yourselves from idols”), Wesley says the idols in question were not those of the pagans. Neither Jews nor Gentile Christians would have been tempted to worship them. These idols are more subtle, and in that way more dangerous. They are also the same idols that draw us away from God today.
To offer a concrete example of what he is referring to, he describes a wealthy businessman now seeking to enjoy his retirement. He does this through elegant dining and enlarging and redecorating his home and estate. “But in the meantime,” Wesley asks, “where does God come in? He did not think about him. He no more thought of the King of heaven than of the King of France. God is not in his plan. The knowledge and love of God are entirely out of the question. Therefore this whole scheme of happiness in retirement is idolatry from beginning to end” (§I.4)
To provide a more thorough analysis of the various ways we all can be drawn away from God he turns to 1 John 2:16, which identifies three “species” of spiritual idolatry.
The first is “the desire of the flesh,” a seeking of happiness through pleasing the senses. This can be through intemperance, gluttony, or through a kind of “genteel sensuality” and self-indulgence, as in his opening example. But this type of idolatry is not only the province of the wealthy. “Thousands in low as well as in high life sacrifice to this idol; seeking their happiness (though in a more humble manner) in gratifying their outward senses” (§ I.5–6).
We can only imagine what Wesley would make of our contemporary consumer-driven culture in America. Shopping malls are its temples, advertising its call to worship. We can now worship this consumerist idol online from the comfort of home. What was a concern of 1 John in the first century and of Wesley in the eighteenth is idolatry on steroids in our day.
The second species of idolatry is “the desire of the eye,” our “seeking happiness in gratifying the imagination,” through “such objects as are either grand, or beautiful, or uncommon” (§I.7). The scope of this form of idolatry is wide. It includes art, nature, architecture, clothes, furniture, music, and such academic disciplines as history, philosophy, and science. These are not bad in themselves, but when they become the center of our happiness, they become idols.
Wesley notes that among “grand objects, it seems they do not please any longer than they are new.” If you lived in Egypt near the pyramids, or where you daily saw the ocean, their magnificence would soon wear off (§I.7). Our quest for novelty is also found in our seeking “diversions and amusements” as well as “collecting curiosities” (§I. 10). The siren call to have new experiences and acquire new things is endemic in American culture today.
The third species of idolatry is “the pride of life,” which is seeking the esteem of others. Certainly, we should value a good reputation only a little less than a good conscience, Wesley says, but if we look for happiness in the opinion of others rather than that of God we have fallen into idolatry (I.16)
To this trio of temptations, Wesley adds two other forms of idolatry that either overlap or do not fit into the categories. The first is the love of money as a means to procure any of the three forms of gratification. But money can also be pursued as an end in itself. This Wesley says, is “the lowest, basest idolatry of which the human soul is capable” (§I.17). It too is prevalent in our contemporary culture in America.
The final category of idolatry is “the idolizing any human creature.” We are called to love one another. But we are “neither commanded nor permitted to love one another idolatrously!” “How frequently,” Wesley asks, “is a husband, a wife, a child, put in the place of God? How many that are accounted good Christians fix their affections on each other so as to leave no place for God!” (§I.18).
This is the most subtle form of idolatry, and it is not limited to family. There are so many other good things Wesley could have listed that we put in place of God, including the church. With God at the center, all these can be loved deeply and appropriately, but if they move to the center in place of God our love for them becomes not only disproportionate but harmful to us and them.
How do we keep from idols? Wesley says, first, to “be deeply convinced that none of them bring happiness” (§II.1). Second, “come to your senses,” and “break loose from this miserable idolatry.” “Steadily resolve to seek happiness where it may be found—where it cannot be sought in vain. Resolve to seek it in the true God, the fountain of all blessedness” (§II.3).
We cannot do this on our own strength. Cry out, Wesley urges, to God for strength. Cry out for repentance. Cry out for a “thorough knowledge of yourself” (§II.4). And then cry out for faith in Jesus Christ who enables us to know the inexpressible love of God. “And as the shadows flee before the sun so let all my idols vanish as thy presence!” (§II.5).