An individual poses for a selfie on main campus in March. Students said they see students consumed by self-idolatry at Pepperdine. Photos by Lucian Himes
Individuals can make idols out of several different things — money, fame, love, work, school or friends. Or, individuals can simply view themselves as their own idol — using all their time and effort to better themselves until the desire to succeed is all-consuming, rather than using that time to strengthen their faith in something larger than themselves.
Religion Professor Stanley Talbert said whatever one thinks about the most is an idol — and where one gets their sense of identity.
“Whenever people are more concerned about their own image, as opposed to appreciating being created in the image of God, that’s kind of where we can see some forms of idolatry,” Talbert said.
While the word “idolatry” typically refers to religious practices and morals, it can also be applicable in an individual’s everyday life as it speaks to what is most important in their life, whether it is God, a higher power, family, friends, career or self.
In “Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters,” Tim Keller wrote idolatry is defined as “anything more important to you than God,” or “anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God.”
Individuals can gradually fall into self-idolatry, and it can also be something people have to be aware of every day, Stacy Reaoch wrote in an article on theologian John Piper’s blog “Desiring God.”
Religion Professor Cari Myers said she defines idolatry in a similar way — if one does not love God with all that they are, then they are loving an idol.
“There’s three directions for your love to be pointed at — toward God and God alone, toward other people and toward yourself,” Myers said. “I feel like idolatry is when we stumble with the first one.”
Idolatry can also be noticeable in the form of dedication when individuals prioritize something over their faith, Myers said.
“It’s when we begin to expend more of our energy seeking love and seeking relationships with something outside of God,” Myers said.
Junior Julie Tingleff identified idolatry as a form of time commitment and said it is focusing on other activities besides faith — whether that is academics, sports or extracurricular activities.
“Idolatry is giving value or time or attention or devotion to something that you should be giving that time and value and attention and devotion to God,” Tingleff said.
Junior Madison Smith, a spiritual life adviser, said she sees idolatry as giving something the top priority in life.
“[Idolatry is] putting something or someone or something on a pedestal,” Smith said.
Idolatry of self
In society, Talbert said many individuals subconsciously make themselves idols — spending the majority of their time working on and thinking about themselves, rather than God.
Talbert emphasized two ways self-idolatry can get in the way of worshiping God: the promotion of self and the love of self.
Promotion of self comes when individuals put all their time, money and attention toward growing their followers, getting a new promotion or competing with their peers to get the highest grade, Talbert said.
Idolatry can look like individuals idolizing themselves, Talbert said, or their personal gain through working to gain followers, likes or shares.
Approximately 50 million people around the world have gained a following simply from social media platforms and are now considered “influencers,” according to Forbes.
Myers said social media can be a “threat” to what individuals worship and a way for them to compare their achievements or looks with others’.
“One thing I worry about with that huge influence of social media are the ways that we view ourselves and the metric that we use to value our own self-identity,” Myers said.
Senior Jack Holcombe said he sees people not just idolizing themselves, but idolizing influencers — and particularly Christian ones — whose platforms are built on self-betterment through religion.
“I look at the world as enabling that kind of problem — the issue of idolizing humans in place of God,” Holcombe said.
Myers said idolatry of self can also come in the form of achievement — when individuals spend their time and energy focused on success for themselves.
“What is it that makes my life successful or that makes my life impactful? Or gives it meaning or gives it direction or like, motorized as my life forward?” Myers said. “That might be your idol.”
Smith, who is the incoming president of Delta Delta Delta, said she is involved with many activities on campus. To combat self-idolatry, she said she surrenders her achievements in all her activities to God.
“It’s very easy when given power, when given opportunities, when given XYZ, to put that sense of power or worth and make it about yourself, like ‘Oh, I got this position’ or ‘Oh, I accomplished this,’” Smith said.
Rather than this mindset, Smith said she tries to use her achievements to serve others and serve God instead.
“I don’t view my achievements as my own because without the Lord providing these opportunities and giving me these experiences, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am,” Smith said.
While self-care and wanting to succeed aren’t necessarily bad things, Myers said when they replace the priority of God in one’s life it becomes concerning.
Self-idolatry is something everyone struggles with in some way, Talbert said, but it becomes a problem when it hurts people around the individual.
Talbert said when someone is inwardly focused, their priorities shift away from loving others — affecting school, work, family and friends in a negative way.
“If there’s a lack of loyalty and devotion to God, then it can show up in how we treat other people or our classmates or the institutions that we’re in relationship with,” Talbert said.
If an individual’s identity becomes too focused on themselves, Myers said it can be helpful to have trusted friends and family intervene to encourage individuals to shift their focus outward rather than inward.
“What are the things in my life that threaten God’s place — that’s when it is really helpful to have people in your life that can tell you the truth,” Myers said.
Holcombe said he continuously serves the people around him, even amid busy seasons of life to focus outward, rather than inward.
“The most practical aspect of faith is service and volunteering,” Holcombe said. “I think really making your faith practical goes beyond just showing up to church on Sunday.”
While in the midst of other activities, Smith said she prays continually to practically give her time to God.
“It just recenters my mind that He’s having a hand in everything that’s going on in my day,” Smith said. “He’s not just a God who I worship in the morning before my day starts, but He’s one that I can continuously go to throughout my day.”
Tingleff said she strives to prioritize God first thing in the morning to combat self-idolatry.
“I love to get up and read my Bible in the morning,” Tingleff said. “It starts my day out right.”
Tingleff also said she tries to remember that the material things in the world that she can often idolize, including money, achievements or school, are gifts from God.
“I just remember that the material things I have, I don’t have them because of me,” Tingleff said. “I have them because God has blessed me with them.”
While self-idolatry may be a common concept that affects every individual in different ways, Myers said inward focus is not God’s plan or will; God made humans in His image and for His purpose.
“It [idolatry] goes against the very intention of God for humanity,” Myers said.
Email Abby Wilt: email@example.com.