Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:22-23)
Paul describes in verse 23 what this looks like. The result of believing yourself to be wise in your own right is exchanging the glory of God for the glory of some lesser thing—that is, something created. Here, we see the first dark exchange that man has made for worship of his Creator. Paul writes, “And [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” People have exchanged the worship of God for idols. Futility of mind and foolishness ultimately leads to idolatry. Every person was created for worship. People either worship God as Creator, Author, and Sustainer of life, or something that is created and, by definition, finite, dependent, and frail. Paul said that people have exchanged the glory of God for images. What kind of images? He points to man, birds, animals, and reptiles. In essence, every created animate object on earth.
Paul does not have in mind the Israelites of the OT or pagan Gentiles, but rather the entirety of mankind (Moo, Epistle to the Romans, p. 110). It is natural for people to worship and in our foolishness and unrighteousness, we suppress God’s truth and worship we can see and touch. So this passage applies to the one who worships sex, money, fame, food, friends, or technology just as much as it does to the one who makes a statue out of gold or stone.
The question we must ask ourselves is: “What am I exchanging for the glory of the immortal God?” In other words, what is it that we want to glorify and exalt and take true satisfaction in? Tim Keller has said that nearly every idol is a “good thing.” Think about the things that we worship. None of them are inherently bad—money, sex, food, spouse, children, work, friends, computers, communication, etc. However, when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, Keller says, that thing becomes a god thing, an idol. We must get to the root of our desires and discern what those things are that we consider ultimate things.
Keller said one way of identifying those things would be to pose this statement to yourself: “If I lost _______, I would want to die.” If we examine our lives closely, we can ask ourselves, what takes up our time, energy, and resources. Is it the one who is “blessed forever,” the one who is “immortal, invisible, the only God” who has “honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Tim. 1:17)? Or is it something that is finite, dependent, and frail? And if this other “god” were to die, would it rise from the dead like Jesus did? The answer is a resounding no.