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5 Things I Can Do to Break Free from an Idol

Mark 10:17-22 is a true story about a guy who had everything.

He is known today as “the rich young ruler.” He was respected. Important. And he liked it that way.

Then he encountered Jesus and realized that maybe he didn’t have everything after all. Apparently, he had heard Jesus speaking about eternal life, which if you think about it, is an obsession among us moderns.

Anti-aging creams. Cosmetic surgery. Herbal supplements. Cryogenic preservation.

We will do just about anything to avoid death. To put it in the converse, like the rich young ruler, we want to live forever.

Jesus shows us that, what we long for at the deepest recesses of our soul, is possible.

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

The Gospel of Mark 10:17-22

Part of me pities the young man. Part of me is furious.

Are you crazy, man?! Consider the deal and the literally out of this world exchange rate you are being offered!

Then it dawns. He is me.

What Would I Do?

While I’m not known for being a rich, nor am I young anymore, nor would I claim to have kept the law from my youth, I probably would have had the same reaction when it came to Jesus’s demand for discipleship.

Sell everything and give it all away to the poor. In other words, take your righteousness off and give it to someone else.  

His righteousness was not the love of money as much as the image his money gave him–the righteous reputation of an important, rich man. He was being asked to exchange his very identity from a respected important man to an impoverished devotee of a traveling peasant rabbi.

I would have walked away, too. Seriously. Who can be expected to go to such extremes? 


The Jesus who was willing to do exactly what he was asking of the rich young man. “Take off your righteousness and give it to the poor.”

Jesus knows that would feel like death — like dying to self. Which is exactly what he did at the cross. 

It is the cross that proves how Jesus was not teaching salvation by law-righteousness, but showing the young man that his heart actually was ruled by an idol. His affections were set on his wealth and the image that gave him. He didn’t love God at all. His wealth had a stranglehold on his true affections. The fact that he walked away proved the point.

What are My Idols?

What is it that has a stranglehold on my heart… and yours? How can I know that my heart is in the grip of an idol? Consider these options.

  • Love of money. Why do I give as little as I can vs as much as I can?
  • Approval. Why do I find my identity in the approval of other people and allow their approval to dictate what I do?
  • Comfort and security. Why does my need for comfort and security prevent me from taking risks?
  • Addiction. Why do I continue to seek joy and relief in the pigstye over and over again?
  • Fear. Why do I resist personal vulnerability and the fear of exposure? Why am I so prayerless when it comes to uncertainty.
  • Control. Why do I get anxious when I’m not in control? As if I am ever in control?
  • Rightness. Why do I feel such a strong need to be right or respected and get so angry when I’m not?

Really, anything can become an idol if it operates as a functional god that promises life and joy… and righteousness.

Here is the real danger.

Just like the rich young man’s idol (i.e., his functional god) was not his friend, neither do my soul-destroying idols have my best interest in mind. Their aim is to pull me away from Jesus’ offer of genuine life. Instead of life, I slowly die the more and more the idol consumes my heart. As the Psalms remind us, false gods steal joy.

We need to break free. But how?

How Can I Break Free?

How can I break free of the soul-destroying influence of impostor gods? How can I restore my joy and experience spiritual renewal from the inside out?

What can I do?

I suggest starting with these five things.

  1. I can be honest. I am an idolater. Okay, not in the ancient sense of bowing down to a wooden or stone statue. But the concept of functional idolatry is the same. Something is standing in the place of Jesus in my life as the pearl of great price.
  2. I can name the idol. Look at the list above. Do any resonate? You may need to go back to step 1 — “I can be honest.”
  3. I can confess the idol to Jesus. Own it in the presence of Jesus. Can you imagine how the rich young man’s story would have been different–radically different–if he had broken down before Jesus, fallen on his knees and confessed that he couldn’t sell it all. It had too much of a grip on his heart. But he really wanted to follow Jesus. “Help me, Jesus. Crush my idol and set my heart free!”
  4. I can watch Jesus crush the idol at the cross. When we finally see the stronghold our idolatry has on us after we process through denial to own it, the first feeling is often guilt. I think it was one of the Puritans who said that the only way we will have power over an idol is if we believe that it no longer has condeming power over us. Our idolatry has been forgiven. We have been reconciled to God. There is no more penalty for sin. When I believe that, the idol begins to lose its grip on my heart.
  5. I can continue to subdue my idols with ongoing repentance and faith. While the condemning penalty of idolatry is no more, the presence of the flesh monster continues to rebel from within against the new life of grace implanted by God by the Holy Spirit. Idolatry is not a one time fight. It is the daily struggle within the human heart. As Paul says in Galatians 5:16ff, this is where the ongoing battle takes place as we continue to crucify the desires of the flesh with ongoing repentance (moral and spiritual honesty before Jesus) and faith (trusting that Jesus’s righteousness really is now mine).

This is what the rich young ruler needed to know and what you and I need to embrace with our whole hearts. It is expressed in an easy to overlook detail in the Mark 10 account.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him.” 

He looked at this young man in his hardened, sinful, idolatrous condition… and loved him. He does the same for us, with a love that was expressed in full measure through his crucifixion. As Hebrews says, “It was for his joy” that he endured the cross.

Jesus fulfilled his own demand by giving it all away to spiritually poor, needy, helpless sinners like us.

In view of the cross, we really are forgiven.

We are his beloved.

We really are free.

So let’s look to Jesus and believe, being renewed like the eagle, lifted on the wings of God’s immeasurable grace to soar with joy for his glory.

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