The Apostle Paul taught in Romans that everybody—religious or irreligious, moral or immoral—is driven by worship.

To worship something is to attach ultimate value to it, to determine you have to have it to be happy. Romans 6:16 says, “Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey?” (CSB)

Note the main verb Paul uses—“offer.” This is the language of religious devotion: You “offer” your bodies to something like a person might offer an animal sacrifice in worship. You become a “slave” to it because you’ll do whatever it takes to get that thing and hold onto it.

To which you might say, “Listen, bud, when I sin, I’m doing only what I want to. I’m nobody’s slave.”

Paul would say otherwise. Here’s how it works, as described by the late Christian counselor David Powlison.

We tend to attach ultimate value to people or things in four basic categories:

  1. Power: Some people love influence and recognition. They seek that power through money or status or job success because those are reliable ways of increasing power.
  2. Control: Some people want everything to go according to their plan, and if their timetable is thrown off (even by a few minutes), they become irritable, impatient, and angry.
  3. Approval: Some people crave acceptance. They can’t be happy unless other people (at least, certain other people) are happy with them, admire them, or desire them. Criticism, not being affirmed, and being picked last are devastating experiences.
  4. Pleasure: Some people long for physical delights, be it sexual pleasure, a nice house, big vacations, a nice car, or good food.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those things in and of themselves. But when they become central in our lives—something we can’t live without, something that compels our obedience even over what God wants—that’s when they become wicked and enslaving.

False worship is when a good thing becomes a god thing.

And so turns into a bad thing.

In fact, Paul uses a very illuminating word to describe the nature of sin in Romans 6:12: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (ESV).

This word translated “passions” is epithumia. Thumia, in Greek, means “desire.” Adding epi– means that desire becomes so large that it controls you.

So, we start thinking, “If I can’t make this much money, there’s no way I can be happy”

Or, “I want a family, and if I can’t have that, well, life doesn’t even feel like it’s worth living.”

Or, “I want to be well again, and if God doesn’t do that for me, then I will be angry with him.”

Or, “I want to be noticed. I want my co-workers or my boss or my husband or my children to recognize my value and commend me. If not, I’ll nurse resentment.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a family, or good health, or recognition. The problem is the weight we give to these things. When they become our masters, they lead us toward death.

Tim Keller says that there are three sure-fire tests to show you what our spiritual masters are (and no, these are not real words; I added the “epi”):

  • Epi-anger: When something blocks us from getting a good thing, we get upset. That’s normal and fine. But if something blocks us from getting an ultimate thing, we get epi-angry. We snap. We rage.
  • Epi-worry: If something good in our lives—like our kids—is threatened, we get worried. That’s normal. But if something ultimate in our lives is threatened, we are paralyzed. Our fear becomes epi-fear. We are so anxious that we cannot think straight.
  • Epi-sadness: If we lose something good in our lives, we grieve and weep. Again, that’s normal. But if we lose something ultimate, we despair. We fall apart. We feel like life is not worth living.

These three emotions point to places where something has displaced God as the Master of our hearts.

What ends up provoking these three emotions in you? What makes you the angriest? What causes you the most worry? What has caused you the most sadness?

Bob Dylan said that you gotta serve somebody, but he got it from the Apostle Paul. When we take a good look at what triggers these emotions, we’ll often find we’re not serving the master we think we are.