When Self Becomes an Idol

WE EACH HAVE AT some point in our lives made decisions while thinking only about our own interests. Not every selfish decision is equally damaging, but a pattern can develop that is quite difficult to recognize. I have been talking with people about this subject since my hiatus on December 22, 2022. As a result, I came face-to-face with my idol of self, and I was not pleased with what I found. A whole barrage of emotions cut loose as I considered the damage I have caused over many years by my “worship” of self. Frankly, this is the last thing I wanted to confront, and I tended to keep putting it off. As a Christian in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, I know this is not a smart approach to step work! (Recovery requires, among other things, making a searching, fearless, and honest inventory of one’s shortcomings.) Following meditation and prayer, and speaking with my pastor and a few friends, I saw how the need to be “king” of my life and “captain” of my soul was cutting me off from the manifest presence of God, stunting my spiritual maturity, and damaging interpersonal relationships.

What Does “Idol of Self” Look Like?

Imagine if you will a large ornate chair covered in ruby-red velvet with giant armrests and a high back—basically an oversized Queen Ann-style wingback armchair. It is bejeweled around the armrests, sides, and up over the back. Its cabriole legs, mimicking the natural curvature of an animal’s leg, are carved from the finest mahogany wood. The chair rests upon a daїs of marble and is flanked by gorgeous stone carvings. A considerable distance separates you from the daїs. A person of vague features sits up straight in the chair, head poised as if for a photo shoot. As you slowly approach, familiar features reveal themselves. Surely, I know this person, you think. Suddenly, in a dizzying moment of clarity, you realize the person sitting on the chair is you.

Octavius Winslow wrote, “The worship of SELF is a natural and fearful form of idolatry. It is an innate and never entirely eradicated principle of our nature but clings to us to the very last of life. Alas! the holiest and the best of us want to be something, and to do something, when in reality we are nothing, and can do nothing. We walk in our religious life, for the most part, upon stilts; always appearing in the eyes of others taller than we really are! But real greatness and true humility [always require the] entire abnegation of SELF.”1 Wow, what a profound and sobering description. It seems to me that self-worship is the very currency of self-worship. Octavius concluded, “Beware of SELF idolatry! It is the most insidious, hateful, and degrading form of idolism to which the soul can be subjected!”

It is only with empty hands and a complete surrender of self that we can truly and effectively worship our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. So, abnegate the throne, step down in resignation, and kneel. Drop your scepter, and raise your open arms toward the throne, inviting Him to ascend and take your place!

The Bible and Self-Worship

According to Merriam-Webster, large-G God is defined as “the supreme or ultimate reality: such as a being who is perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness; one who is worshiped (as in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) as creator and ruler of the universe” [italics mine]. Less common, little-g god is defined as “a being or object that is worshiped as having more than natural attributes and powers; a person or thing of supreme value.” The idea of “creator and ruler” is also implicated as part of little-g god and this is why: When “self” is on the throne, the subject is self-governed and his or her kingdom or reality is at best a fabrication, and at worst a delusion. The self-ruler falsely creates a reality or worldview to suit his or her own will. Self, then, becomes a compelling tyrant that arises from a deep-seated desire to control the will of others. Self as “god” presents itself in pride, defiance, disobedience, intolerance, impatience, anger, and manipulation.

This idea of deciding for ourselves the meaning of life and the definition of morality is at the root of man’s first sin: pride and disobedience. When the serpent convinced Eve to disobey God, he appealed to her god of self. The serpent said to her, “God knows that when you eat of [the fruit from the tree of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5) [italics mine]. Some might say Adam and Eve were merely guilty of ambition. Still, I believe this moment in time reflects man’s nearly unimpeachable desire to be “god.” To want more than natural attributes and powers; to be a person or thing of supreme value. Of course, this indicates wanting to be even higher than the level of privilege established by God. He said, ‘Let us make man[fn1] in our image after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26a). The high point of chapter one in Genesis is mankind being made in God’s image. As God’s image-bearers, man is a symbol of God in the world.

Our God is a jealous God. As Creator, He holds the inalienable right to demand that we have no other gods before Him. Anything that comes between us and God is idolatry. Even us. Miriam-Webster defines self-worship as “extravagant admiration for or devotion to oneself.” Self-worshipers, also called hedonists, pursue physical and emotional pleasure, but Paul tells us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions (Tit. 2:12). Ryan French says, “Becoming a god unto ourselves has always been the greatest temptation that Satan lays before humankind. He subtly emboldens us to take the authority that belongs to God into our own hands.”2 Thaddeus Williams calls self-worship “…the world’s fastest-growing religion.”3

We are somebody. We are important. We are valuable. But we owe all that we are to God. As God’s “created,” we have no right to be worshiped as if we are equal to the Creator.

God’s providence as “uncreated” Creator is pervasive, established as “biblical reality” throughout the entirety of Scripture, and asserted (made real) by His own decree. Further, we know that He is God by His general revelation.[fn2] Paul writes, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). God is infinite and we are finite. Any attempt to worship or place self before God would be futile—the epitome of misplaced worship. God is eternal, unchangeable, and omnipresent. He is self-existent. Theologians sometimes call this “aseity” (Latin a se, which means “from himself”). Isaiah wrote, “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isa. 40:13-14).

Our New Nature

We are afforded a new nature when we accept Christ. Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). The source of this transformation is the Spirit of Christ. The Amplified Bible expands 2 Corinthians 3:18 in this manner: “And we all, with unveiled face, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed into His image from [one degree of] glory to [even more] glory, which comes from the Lord, [who is] the Spirit.” The First Adam tried to be “like God,” causing mankind to fall from grace. Through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, we are re-formed, re-constructed, bringing our fallen nature into line with that of Jesus Christ. As new believers, we are to be His lampstand in the world.

Honestly, what part of ourselves could be worthy of worship? Our old sinful self has been crucified and buried. We are not “improved” or “remodeled;” we are born again, a brand new creation. We owe this new nature to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The psalmist wrote, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice” (Psa. 49:7-8). Paul wrote, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Our circumstances, if you will, were that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. It is only by grace that we have been saved through faith in Christ, who has made us alive in Him through the Resurrection. No amount of good works can tip the scale of God’s justice in our favor. (see Eph. 2:1-9).

Concluding Thoughts

Who is man that he is worthy of worship? Who am I that I should worship myself? I came face-to-face with my idol of self over the past few weeks. Actually, I’ve been wrestling with this issue for several months. No doubt I was in denial. I mean, who cares to admit they worship themselves? Certainly, I am no narcissist! Yet, my priorities were askew in a way that was stopping me from serving others; from truly worshiping Jesus Christ as Lord of my life. Instead, I was walking around taller than I really am, looking down on others. Frankly, I can be quite arrogant—little-g god, self-governed, worthy of recognition. Large and in charge.

I came away with a few thoughts on how we can defeat self-pride and “right-size” our egos. First, always give God all the credit. No matter the triumph, it belongs to Him. He is good no matter what, and that’s enough. We don’t need all the answers. Second, don’t boast about your gifts as if you did not receive them from God. He spoke to me in my heart a few months ago about this in a personal Word while I was journaling and I just started writing. He said, “I did not give you your intelligence to quantify it and flaunt it. It is yours through my grace.” Also, as I wrote, I heard in my heart, “Your sense of superiority is your idol and it must go.” Third, learn to depend on God in humility. Fourth, serve others as Jesus served. Fifth, acknowledge true greatness. Learn to be last, not first. Do not compare yourself to others; rather, compare yourself to Christ and strive to emulate Him. Sixth, remember always to love the gospel and be prepared to defend your faith to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you.

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references contained in this article are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

1 Octavius Winslow, “Christ and the Christian in Temptation,” 1877, accessed Jan. 10, 2023, https://www.gracegems.org/03/idol.html
2 Ryan A. French, “10 Signs You Might Be Guilty of Self-Idolatry,” Apostolic Voice With Ryan French, a blog, Mar. 5, 2019, accessed Jan. 16, 2023, https://ryanafrench.com/10-signs-you-might-be-guilty-of-self-idolatry/
3 Thaddeus Williams, “Self-Worship is the World’s Fastest Growing Religion,” The Gospel Coalition, a blog, Nov. 10, 2021, accessed Jan. 17, 2023, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/self-worship-booms/

[fn1] The Hebrew word for man (adam) is the generic term for mankind and becomes the proper name “Adam.”
[fn2] Knowledge of God’s existence through experience or records of history, creation, and innate conscience.

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