From Good to Idol

My early 20’s was a very overwhelming time. I was in my final year of university and didn’t know what life would hold after graduation. I had always been a very disciplined and motivated person and had never thought past university graduation, as that had always been my goal. But with my goal in site, and my future uncertain, I began to be very disciplined with things that I could control. Namely eating and exercise.

At first it was no big deal. I began to exercise, which was a good thing, and started eating healthier, which was also a good thing. I lost a bit of weight, which truthfully, I needed to. I then headed to the southeast US for a semester of university. I had graduated at the University of Manitoba, but wanted to try something new and take some courses just for fun.

While there, I continued to run, my exercise of choice, and be disciplined with what I ate. When I came home, my friends and family were very alarmed at how much weight I had lost. I didn’t see it as a problem (anorexia) because I didn’t think I was fat, so I wasn’t dealing with body dysmorphia. I thought I was just disciplined. But the combination of over-discipline with running and eating, meant I got way too thin in a very short amount of time (probably anorexia).

This went on for about two years. Then one day I was doing my devotions and reading Matthew 6. When I got to verse 24 I read: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and your body.” Hold up. I read it again and again because I knew that ‘your body’ usually said ‘money.’

That’s when God spoke to me and said, “Susan, your eating and exercise has become an idol. You have to decide who you want to serve – me or your body.” I took a few minutes to reflect on this. I knew God was asking me to give up control and I didn’t want to say some flippant “okay.” This was serious. I knew things would have to change.

I said, “I choose you.” And that was that. In one moment I was freed.

Overnight I started eating normally again. I remember going to work the next day and cracking open a box of chocolate covered almonds while my colleagues just stared at me with jaws dropped. I polished that whole thing off in one sitting, something I never would have done the day before.

I continued to exercise, but I tried to be conscious to do it because it was good for me, not because it controlled me. I had been training for the Manitoba Marathon at the time and I had run 17 miles one Friday night. The race was only a few weeks away. While I was running, I started asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t discern the reason – whether I enjoyed it or whether it was a remnant of my idol. So I stopped in the middle of my run and said “I’m done.” It was a huge sacrifice for me to not run the marathon because I was so close to being ready. But at the same time, I wanted to show God that I was serious about breaking my idolatry.

It’s 20 years later and I still often reflect on that short, but important time. I wonder at point did I go from having a healthy lifestyle to unhealthy discipline? When did I cross the line into idolatry under the pretext of being healthy? I had a strong devotional life through the whole time, so how did it get too far?

Obviously it’s important to eat healthy, exercise and take care of our ourselves. But when does our health, our appearance, our weight, our diet go from being healthy to being an idol?

When does anything become an idol?

A few years ago, I again found myself in a situation that overwhelmed me. But instead of finding something to control, I wanted to find a way to escape. So I started to read. And read. And read. I read three or four books a week for a year. At least 175 books that year. Like being healthy, reading is good. So I loaded up my Kindle and read during every spare minute, late into the night, and whenever else I had a chance. And again, God confronted me and said reading had become an idol.

Although I was conscious to not let things control me like food and exercise had in my early 20’s, I was caught off guard about the way another seemingly harmless idol had crept into my life – as a means of escape. I could not deal with the pain of the situation, so I tried to escape.

“Good” idols are many - like health, exercise, reading, shopping, work, travel, entertainment, sports, video games, even our children. All good things in and of themselves, but not when they become a means of control or escape. Not when our devotion to them is stronger than our devotion to God. Not when they enslave us.

In my case, I wasn’t trusting God with the circumstances and situations that were happening, so I turned to other things to try and fill the void.

I have come to realize that this is a spiritual battle. We need to be on guard because we have an enemy who is constantly trying to deceive us into thinking that because our idol is “good,” it is not a problem. In 2 Corinthians 11:3 it says: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotions to Christ.” Satan makes it so easy to justify the very thing that is taking our eyes off the only one who can really fill us and give us peace, Jesus.

What’s interesting is that those two idol experiences comprised a total of only three of my 43 years of life. Yet they were some of the most impacting in terms of my spiritual walk. When God revealed my idols, He was revealing that I ultimately did not trust Him.

It’s something I still struggle with.

In fact, in some ways it’s harder now because I have to deal head-on with the very things an idol would allow me to avoid. I am forced to dig deep in Bible reading and prayer to work through the things I would prefer not to deal with.

But I have begun to see the beauty in the struggle. The freedom that comes from trusting God. The hope in knowing that all this is temporary. In the meantime, I can see that God has been at work in me.

"And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns." Philippians 1:6 NLT

Note: If you are struggling to break free from an idol or addiction, please get help. We are not meant to walk alone.

-Susan Penner