"An idol is any thing which usurps the place of God in the hearts of his rational creatures." -Webster's 1828 dictionary
We think of many things when we think of an idol. We think of statues made to be worshipped as gods. We think of things in our lives that perhaps we have too much affection for, or that we spend too much time on. We think of people that we hold in too high of a position in our lives, rather than God. But the surprising thing I had to learn in my own early walk with God was that my greatest idol, which had to go, in order for God's Spirit to have His way in me, was my own religious, self-righteous flesh. I was given to morbid introspection. I thought it necessary in fact, in order to live a holy life. I looked inward constantly to examine myself and was always finding things to "give up" that I thought would make me holier to God. I found something wrong with everything. I was continually miserable and never had assurance in my heart that I was ever pleasing to God. How could I be? The more inward I looked, the more sin I saw. I began to think anything I enjoyed was an "idol" and God didn't want me to have it. The funny thing was, the more I gave up, the more those things preoccupied my mind and heart.
Morbid introspection is nothing more than our flesh trying to improve itself, or trying to clean itself up and make itself righteous. I was trying always to "crucify" my own flesh instead of "reckoning myself dead with Christ to sin and alive with Him" (Rom. 6:11). I was trying hard to do what God had already done! Of course my attention then was always on me. It couldn't be on God because I was preoccupied with improving myself, with making myself holy, with performing in a way I thought God expected me to, and with how I was doing. I sought to have more faith, but with eyes on myself, my faith was only in my faith, rather than in His faithfulness. I became an idol to myself. I looked to myself for what I should have looked to God for. Self-introspection usurped the place of the Holy Spirit in my heart.
It is impossible for our sinful fleshly nature to improve itself or to keep itself (Rom. 7:18). If that were possible the law would have been sufficient. It is impossible for anything holy to come out of any action of my flesh, no matter how religious it appears. It is impossible for me to live up to the standard of God's righteousness which is absolutely perfect, not breaking one jot or tittle of the law. If I am looking to myself, my introspection, or my works to do that, I have become an idol to myself.
For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Romans 7:2-4)
When we live under a "law principle" we are actually guilty of spiritual adultery, since we have been married to another...dead to the law, we are married to Christ, and He alone now is our righteousness. We live under a new law - the law of "the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus." Living under constant introspection, trying to "die" to self, was only another way of living unto a "law principle" in myself, by my own righteousness, rather than living in complete trust in His righteousness alone in me to do all. The Lord so clearly convicted me of this and made me see that rather than looking to myself, I was to look to Him, not only as my righteousness but that I could trust Him to reveal true sin in my heart, and cleanse me and keep me. I did not have to do that by always introspecting and giving up things. In fact when I gave up the introspection, I was able finally to see things from God's perspective and that those things that I thought I had to give up in order to be more pure and holy were not important to God at all. They produced no righteousness in my heart, nor did they truly subdue the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23). In fact He began showing me things in my flesh I had no idea were there. Truly, the more I was introspective, the less I truly saw myself, and my self-centeredness. Now, I began to truly see. We can't truly see ourselves by looking inward. But as we come to God's Word, the mirror of our soul, daily, presenting ourselves to Him, His Spirit pierces our hearts. We need not introspect, but we do need to let God inspect. He does that by His Word. He does the changing in our hearts by His Spirit indwelling us as we continue to learn of Him and abide in Him.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)
It is only as we come before God, eyes on Him and allow Him to search our hearts that we can see. In light of His holiness, we see our own "undoneness" (Isaiah 6:5). It's only then, as we take His side against our flesh, agree with Him, and trust Him to enable us to walk in the righteousness of Christ that is now in us, that we are truly able to overcome and subdue, by the Spirit, the deeds of the flesh. First we have to understand that we already have that righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21), if we are in Christ, and now we must "put it on" by faith. We must let Christ live in and through us as our life.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20)
I had no assurance in my heart before God while introspecting, but always a fear of condemnation and failure to "measure up." Once I realized I did have assurance in the finished work of Christ and His righteousness, I was free to truly live in His love and for His love, and that is what filled my heart. My mind was now on Him, not me. My motives were led by His Spirit and His love in me, not a fear of judgment anymore. Not a fear of never being able to measure up and having to do more and more to be pleasing to Him. I found rest in His finished work. I want to please Him now more than anything because of my delight in Him, and His wonderful salvation and grace! Once He was in the right place in my heart and mind, as my only righteousness, other things in my life had more pleasure. I was able to enjoy God's creation because I saw His glory in it. I was able to enjoy the pleasures of life because it caused me to rejoice in Him and His love revealed in them, and give Him glory for them (James 1:17). They were in their rightful place. No longer did they have a hold on my heart as though I needed them, nor were they idols in my heart, but they were instruments of God's glory. Morbid introspection causes us to deceive ourselves because we find loop-holes in our thinking to set up a law to follow, but making sure we give up something and hold on to something else. The flesh can never please God because it is always trying to please itself, even while it tells itself it is seeking to please God.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:5-8)
Paul, though he attained a level of righteousness according to the law that probably few others had, thought it nothing at all in comparison to gaining Christ. How much more should we consider our own "holiness" nothing but dung and rather have the true righteousness of Christ.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (not faith in my faith, but trust in His faithfulness)—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, (Philippians 3:7-10).
Religious flesh though appearing to try to please God, will always only please itself. Morbid introspection is religious flesh. It is self. It is usurping the place of the Holy Spirit in our lives and hearts and minds so that it can never please God. It must be brought to the cross and done away with, just as every other deed of the flesh, by God's Spirit.
Father, open our eyes to see our flesh, even our religious flesh, and enable us to be free of it, trusting in Your righteousness alone, and Your life in us alone to be our life.
If you are not sure you have eternal life, if you want to know more about salvation through Jesus Christ, and how you can be sure, you can read more about it here.