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[CCEF] Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”


Idols of the Heartand “Vanity Fair”

by David Powlison

One of the great questions facing Christians in the socialsciences and helping professions is this one: How do welegitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptualstock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the tech-nical terminologies and observational riches of the be-havioral sciences? Within this perennial question, twoparticular sub-questions have long intrigued and per-plexed me.

One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question.Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is byfar the most frequently discussed problem in the Scrip-tures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevanttoday, except on certain mission fields where worship-ers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling ques-tion, a “psychology” question. How do we make senseof the myriad significant factors that shape and deter-mine human behavior? In particular, can we ever makesatisfying sense of the fact that people are simulta-neously inner-directed and socially-shaped?

These questions—and their answers—eventuallyintertwined. That intertwining has been fruitful both inmy personal life and in my counseling of troubledpeople.


The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangson our understanding of idolatry. But let me focus thequestion through a particular verse in the New Testa-ment which long troubled me. The last line of 1 Johnwoos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep your-selves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In a 105-verse treatise onliving in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, howon earth does that unexpected command merit being thefinal word? Is it perhaps a scribal emendation? Is it an

1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or threecommandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to theLord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appearsvividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges,Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.

The Journal of Biblical Counseling • Volume 13 • Number 2 • Winter 1995

© 1995, The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation
All rights reserved. No portion of this publication should be reproduced, copied or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from The Christian Counselingand Educational Foundation. Inquiries should be made in writing, addressed to CCEF, 1803 East Willow Grove Ave, Glenside, PA 19038.

awkward faux pas by a writer who typically weavesdense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple,repetitive language? Is it a culture-bound, practicalapplication tacked onto the end of one of the mosttimeless and heaven-dwelling epistles? Each of thesealternatives misses the integrity and power of John’sfinal words.

Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with thatmost basic question which God continually poses toeach human heart. Has something or someone besidesJesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccu-pation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a questionbearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behav-ior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualiza-tion, the motivation question is the lordship question.Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substi-tute? The undesirable answers to this question—an-swers which inform our understanding of the “idola-try” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in1 John 2:15-17,3:7-10,4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking howthese verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,”the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspec-tives on idolatrous motivation.2

The inwardness of motivation is captured by theinordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16),our inertial self-centeredness, the wants, hopes, fears,expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts. The exter-nality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, andconditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies. The“demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’sbehavior-determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10,5:19),standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world.In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live witha whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by allthat lies behind the address “Beloved children” (seeespecially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12). The alternative to Jesus,the swarm of alternatives, whether approached throughthe lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.

An Internal Problem

The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discus-sions of the worship of actual physical images, thecreation of false gods. But the Scriptures develop the

2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil isunsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: seeEphesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensedexamples.


idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinentto my discussion here. First, the Bible internalizes theproblem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayedin Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, omi-nously, an expression of a prior heart defection fromYHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one ofmany metaphors which move the locus of God’s con-cerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable

Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor forhuman lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5

A Social Problem

Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central featureof the social context, “the world,” which shapes andmolds us. The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyanstrikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6 Bunyan’sentire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular,can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful,enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behaviorwith the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s ownheart. Will Christian serve the Living God or any of afluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors,acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatroushuman society...and, ultimately, his own heart?7

That idolatries are both generated from within andinsinuated from without has provocative implicationsfor contemporary counseling questions. Of course, theBible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psy-chological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet,for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of whatpsychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctionalfamily or marital system” only because it does not putthose particular pieces of human behavior and mutual

5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.
6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.
7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” socialinfluences, which both communicate their idols to us andprovoke our hearts to produce idols. If you rage at me, I tendto learn from you something about the supreme importance ofgetting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques foraccomplishing that. I also instinctively tend to generate com-pensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. Wetend to return evil for evil.

I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” socialinfluences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicatefaith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts andrepentance from idolatry. The biblical way to deal with “en-emies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from othersand a product of the heart.

8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatryhave described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labelsare culture-bound. This is especially true with regard to func-tional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic prob-lems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and badbehavior. This relativizing observation means that diagnosticlabels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.” Labels areoccasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for whatthey are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations. Butlabels are elements within schemas of value and interpreta-tion. Because diagnostic categories are philosophically andtheologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to theBible’s system of value and interpretation must generatebiblical categories and must approach secular categories withextreme skepticism.

That idolatries are both generated fromwithin and insinuated from withouthas provocative implications forcontemporary counseling questions.

bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behav-ior: hands, tongue, and all the other members. The FirstGreat Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind,and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inward-ness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language oflove, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describ-ing a relationship to the true God—is continually uti-lized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts,false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.

If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary OldTestament word for our drift from God, then “desires”(epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary NewTestament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthandfor the problem of human beings. The New Testamentlanguage of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expan-sion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting(epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a commandthat internalizes the problem of sin, making sin“psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and de-manding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfullydescribes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurpris-ingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idola-try and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires.

3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for whatdetermines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. SeeProverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc. The metaphorof “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to“idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity isemployed to portray the inward motivational dynamics whichthe outward act reflects.

4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and Jamesas Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for whatis wrong with us.


The Journal of Biblical Counseling • Volume 13 • Number 2 • Winter 1995

influence under the microscope. The “lack” is only inspecific application. The biblical categories do compre-hend how individuals in a family system—or any othersize or kind of social grouping—work and influence oneanother for good or ill. For example, the life patternsoften labeled “codependency” are more precisely andpenetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.”In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, twopeople’s typical idol patterns reinforce and competewith each other. They fit together in an uncanny way,creating massively destructive feedback loops.

The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife areenslaved within an idol system whose componentscomplement each other all too well. There are manypossible configurations to this common pattern of falsegods. In one typical configuration, the idol constellationin the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a rulingand enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of afalse savior from the pains and frustrations in his life,playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’sclinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of hisperiodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personalvalidation through acceptance by his bar companions,and so forth.

The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behaviormight combine playing the martyred savior of her hus-band and family, playing the proud and self-righteousjudge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man whichovervalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of manwhich generates an inordinate desire for a male’s loveand affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth.Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts,and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, theminiature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats withinwhich both live. Their idols sometimes are modeled,taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved:her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify eachother; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce theirrespective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idolssometimes are reactive and compensatory to the otherperson: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and shereacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to changehim. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting...hell on earth.

Spiritual Conterfeits

Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and char-acter, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior,source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of awill which must be obeyed, and so forth. Each idol thatclusters in the system makes false promises and givesfalse warnings: “if only ...then....” For example, the wife’s“enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing ofthe savior. This idol promises and warns her, “If only

you can give the right thing and can make it all better,then your husband will change. But if you don’t coverfor him, then disaster will occur.” Because both thepromises and warnings are lies, service to each idolresults in a hangover of misery and accursedness. Idolslie, enslave, and murder. They are continually insinu-ated by the one who was a liar, slave master and mur-derer from the beginning. They are under the immedi-ate wrath of God who frequently does not allow suchthings to work well in His world.9

The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper pros-trated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is pow-erfully extended by the Bible. Idolatry becomes a con-cept with which to comprehend the intricacies of bothindividual motivation and social conditioning. The idolsof the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways.They manifest and express themselves everywhere,down to the minute details of both inner and outer life.Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the waresoffered in the Vanity Fair of social life. The invitationsand the threats of our social existence beguile us to-wards defection into idolatries. These themes provide afoundational perspective on the “bad news” that per-

9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-depen-dent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution. This standsin marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-depen-dency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christianphrases. That literature often perceptively describes the pat-terns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies—which curse and enslave people. The idols which enslave therescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well forthem.

The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor,without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.”The solution, without exception, is to offer different andpresumably more workable idols, rather than repentance untothe Bible’s Christ! Secularistic therapies teach peopleeufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and“bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).

So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacementfor trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem forthe Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner. Acceptance and lovefrom new significant others, starting with the therapist, createsuccessful versions of the fear of man and trust in man ratherthan teaching essential trust in God. Self-trust and self-confi-dence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myselfto which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentallycounterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowedto flourish temporarily.

Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave theidol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fun-damental godlessness to function more successfully.

The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confidentpeople build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as percep-tively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obvi-ously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).

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vades the Bible.
In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the

Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.” Theproblem in human motivation—the question of practi-cal covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substi-tutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the prob-lem of idolatry. Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeplyin the human heart and powerfully impinging on usfrom our social environment.

This brings us squarely to the second kind of ques-tion mentioned at the outset. This second question is acounseling question. How on earth do we put togetherthe following three things? First, people are responsiblefor their behavioral sins. Whether called sin, personalproblems, or dysfunctional living, people are respon-sible for the destructive things which they think, feeland do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.

Second, people with problems come from families ormarriages or sub-cultures where the other people in-volved also have problems. People suffer and are vic-timized and misguided by the destructive things otherpeople think, want, fear, value, feel, and do. These maybe subtle environmental influences: social shaping viamodeling of attitudes and the like. These may be acutelytraumatic influences: loss or victimization. My prob-lems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop withyour problems. If you attack me, I tend to strike back orwithdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.

Third, behavior is motivated from the inside bycomplex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears,views of the world, and the like, of which a person maybe almost wholly unaware. We may be quite profoundlyself-deceived about what pilots and propels us. Mybehavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns ofexpectation that own me. “You might hurt I’dbetter keep my distance or attack first.” My behavior isa strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, mywants, my fears, my “felt needs.” Such motives rangealong a spectrum from the consciously calculating to theblindly compulsive.

How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneouslysocially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible forour behavior without any factor cancelling out the oth-ers?! That is the question of the social and behavioralsciences (and it is the place they all fail when they exciseGod). It is also the question that any Christian counselormust attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a

10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal prob-lems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsi-bility only to oneself, family, and society. “Sin” implies aprimary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal andsocial responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.

way that reflects Christ’s mind. The Bible’s view ofman—both individual and social life—alone holds thesethings together.

A Three-Way Tension

Motives are simply what move us, the causes of orinducements to action, both the causal “springs” of lifeand the telic “goals” of life.11 The notion of motivationcaptures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented na-ture of human life in its most important and trouble-some features. All psychologies grapple with these is-sues. But no psychology has conceptual resources ad-equate to make sense of the interface between respon-sible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heartwhich is both self-deceived and life-determining.

Here are some examples. Moralism—the workingpsychology of the proverbial man on the street—stickswith responsible behavior. Complex causalities aremuted in toto. Behavioral psychologies see both drivesand rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, takingdrives as untransformable givens. Both responsible be-havior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart aremuted. Humanistic psychologies see the interplay ofinner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustra-tion but cast their final vote for human self-determina-tion. Both responsible behavior and the power of extrin-sic forces are muted. Ego psychologies see the twistedconflict between heart’s desire and well-internalizedsocial contingencies. But the present milieu and respon-sible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seem-ingly simple elements together.

Unity ‘with Respect to God’

The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, inother words!—speaks to the same set of issues with auniquely unified vision. There is no question that we aremorally responsible: our works or fruit count. There isno question that fruit comes from an inner root to whichwe are often blind. “Idols of the heart,” “desires of theflesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing af-ter...,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of otherword pictures capture well the biblical view of innerdrives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs orgoals. There is also no question that we are powerfullyconstrained by social forces around us. The “world,”“Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false proph-

11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortabledescribing both the push and the pull of human motivation ascomplementary perspectives. Psychologies tend to throw theirweight either towards drives or towards goals. Idolatry is afertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to thedata of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternativeand unbiblical explanations.


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ets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture some-thing of the influences upon us. Other people model andpurvey false laws or false standards, things whichmisdefine value and stigma, blessedness andaccursedness, the way of life, and the way of death. Theysin against us. God quite comfortably juxtaposes thesethree simple things which tend to fly apart in humanformulations. I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is abad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.”I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in

with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneouslytrue?

The answer, which all the psychologies andsociologies miss, is actually quite simple. Human moti-vation is always “with respect to God.” The social andbehavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” becausethey themselves are idolatrously motivated. In a mas-sive irony, they build into their charter and methodol-ogy a blindness to the essential nature of their subjectmatter.

Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the indi-vidual nor to human society. Human motivation isnever strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic. It is not strictly either psychodynamic orsociological or biological or any combination of these.These terms are at best metaphors for components in aunitary phenomenon which is essentially religious orcovenantal. Motivation is always God-relational. Thushuman motivation is not essentially the sort of unitaryspecies-wide phenomenon that the human sciencespursue. It is encountered and observed in actual life asan intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry.The only unitary point in human motives is the oldtheological construct: human beings are worshipingcreatures, willy-nilly. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alonecan unify the seemingly contradictory elements in theexplanation of behavior.

The deep question of motivation is not “What ismotivating me?” The final question is,“Who is the mas-ter of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?” Inthe biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound toone god or another. People do not have needs. We havemasters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people,valued objects, Satan. The metaphor of an idolatrous

heart and society capture the fact that human motiva-tion bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, otherthan the true God, is my god? Let me give two examples,one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dearto the heart of humanistic psychologists.

Hunger as Idolatry

When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segmentof my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior.I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food hasbecome the object of my will, desires, and fears. TheBible observes the same mass of motives which thebehavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.” Somethingbiological is certainly going on. Something psychologi-cal, and even sociological, is going on. But the Bible’sconceptualization differs radically. I am not “hunger-driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”

We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eatingwhat we know we have received and by sharing gener-ously. I am an active idolater when normal hungerpangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and atti-tudes. Normal desires tend to become inordinate andenslaving. The various visible sins which can attendsuch an idolatry—gluttony , anxiety , thanklessness, foodobsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability whendinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie,miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—makeperfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrainsmy heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and hasto do with God.

The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food,however, are as social as they are biological or psycho-logical. Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes.Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quellanxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depres-sion and experienced severe privation, which has left itsmark on them and made food a particular object ofanxiety. Perhaps food has always been my family’s drugof choice. Perhaps food is the medium through whichlove, happiness, anger and power are expressed. Per-haps I am bombarded with provocative food advertise-ments. The variations and permutations are endless.

Membership in the society of the fallen sons anddaughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a foodidolater in one way or another.13 Membership in Ameri-can consumer society shapes that idolatry into typicalforms. A complex system of idolatrous values can be

12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are fourpassages, among many, which work out these themes ingreater practical detail. Notice how the language of relating toGod—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—canbe applied to relating to food.

13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”

The final question is, “Who isthe master of this pattern of thought,feeling, or behavior?”

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attached to food. For example, we characteristically lustfor a great variety of foodstuffs. Food plays a role in theimages of beauty and strength which we serve, in de-sires for health and fears of death. Food—the quantitiesand types prepared, the modes of preparation andconsumption—is a register of social status. Membershipin a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped thegeneric idolatry into different typical forms. Member-

ship in the micro-society of my family further particu-larizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps inour family system hunger legitimized irritability, andeating was salvific, delivering us from destroying ourfamily with anger. Yet in all these levels of social partici-pation, my individuality is not lost. I put my ownidiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry. For example, per-haps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense andpeculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes arecarcinogenic!

Security as Idolatry

Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower”the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals.Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speakof “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquelyhuman social and existential goals. But the same cri-tique applies. When a “need for security” propels mylife or a segment of my life, I am again engaging inreligious behavior. Rather than serving the true God,the god I serve is the approval and respect of people,either myself or others. I am an idolater. I am not“motivated by a need for security.” I am “motivated bya lust for security rather than ruled by God.” Or, sincedesire and fear are complementary perspectives onhuman motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear andtrust God.” Need theories, like drive theories, can nevercomprehend the “rather than God,” which is alwaysbuilt into the issue of human motivation. They can nevercomprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which seesthat the things which typically drive us really exist asinordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternativesto submitting to the desires of the Spirit.

Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as wellas spontaneous. “Vanity Fair” operates as effectivelyhere as it does with our hunger. Powerful and persua-sive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust orfear them. In convicting us of our false trusts and ac-

knowledging the potency of the pressures on us, theScriptures again offer us the liberating alternative ofknowing the Lord.14

Idols: A Secondary Development?

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psy-chology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental“rather than God” at the bottom of human motivationcontinues to be missed. For example, many Christiancounselors absolutize a need or yearning for love. Asobservant human beings, they accurately see that fallenand cursed people are driven to seek stability, love,acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for suchblessings in empty idols. As committed Christians theyoften want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ ratherthan their idols. But they improperly insert an a prioriand unitary relational need, an in-built yearning orempty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subse-quent divide between faith and idolatry.

They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-cre-ated. Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet alegitimate need, and our failure to love others becomesa product of unmet needs. The Gospel of Christ isredefined as the proper way to meet this need. In thistheory then, idolatry is only a secondary development:our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs.Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, beinginstrumental to the satisfaction of needs. Such satisfac-tion is construed to be the primary content of God’sgood news in Christ. Biblically, however, idolatry is theprimary motivational factor. We fail to love peoplebecause we are idolaters who love neither God norneighbor. We become objectively insecure because weabide under God’s curse and because other people arejust as self-centered as we are. We create and experienceestrangement from both God and other people. The loveof God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeingit as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning tolearn how to love rather than being consumed withgetting love.

Humans lust after all sorts of good things and falsegods—including love—in attempting to escape the ruleof God. The love-need psychologies do not dethrone theinner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry. Structurally, thelogic of love-need systems is analogous to the “healthand wealth” false gospels. Jesus gives you what youdeeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.

It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-needpsychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of coun-selees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelengthof what we might call the intimacy idols. Such theories

14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.


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Many Christian counselors absolutizea need or yearning for love.

lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to peopleand places where the reigning idols are not intimacyidols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure,success, or money. A love-need system must interpretsuch idols reductionistically, as displacements or com-pensatory versions of the “real need” which motivatespeople.

The Bible is simpler. Any one of the idols may havean independent hold on the human heart. Idols mayreduce to one another in part: for example, a man withan intractable pornography and lust problem may besignificantly helped by repentantly realizing that hislust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to bemarried, a desire which he has never recognized asidolatrous. Idols can be compounded on top of idols.But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as anidol as well. A biblical understanding of the idolatrymotif explains why need models seem plausible andalso thoroughly remakes the model. In biblical reality—in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as thatneutral, normal and a priori love need at the root ofhuman motivation.

The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetratingtool for understanding both the springs of and theinducements to sinful behavior. The causes of particularsins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamicforces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning fromwithout,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can betruly comprehended through the lens of idolatry. Suchcomprehension plows the field for Christian counselingto become Christian in deed as well as name, to becomeministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.


Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person,this article will now explore in greater detail the rela-tionship between “world” and “heart” in the produc-tion of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotionalresponses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.

Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married toEllen for eight years. They have two children. He is ahighly committed Christian. He works for his churchhalf time as an administrator and building overseer and

15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human be-ing are purely coincidental products of the essential similari-ties among all of us. The external details of this case study arefabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives,altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, back-ground, etc.

Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblicalanalysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included—rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman,idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.

half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among innercity poor. He and his wife sought counseling after anexplosion in their often-simmering marriage. He be-came enraged and beat her up. Then he ran away,threatening never to come back. He reappeared threedays later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense offailure.

The current marital problems are exacerbated ver-sions of long-standing problems: anger, inability todeeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating withthreats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternatingwith escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking whenunder stress, generally poor communication, use ofpornography, and loneliness. Wally has no close friends.

Several years ago Wally became involved sexuallywith a woman he was working with diaconally: “I knowit was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how roughshe’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort herphysically.” He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; butboth acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt andmistrust.

He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and thedeep freeze.” On the one hand he can be abrasive,manipulative, angry, and unforgiving. On the otherhand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, andafraid of people. He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s“bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting meor listening to me” and depression at his own sins. Herpatterns and his create a feedback system in which eachtends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.

Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working classfamily. He was born when his father was 52 years oldand his mother, 42. By dint of hard work, long hours,and scraping by, they bought a house in a relativelyaffluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born.Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please.“If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’ If Imowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spotbehind the garage.’”

After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became“much more mellow; and, with my having become aChristian and trying to forgive him, our relationshipwasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.” His motherwas “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimi-dated by my Dad.” Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo”in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeoisvalues. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, tooshy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”

Wally became a Christian during his first year incollege and immediately gravitated towards work withthe poor and downcast. “I have little sympathy for rich,suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the singleparents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-

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cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, thelosers.” His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating. He loves Jesus Christ. He believes theGospel. He desires to share Christ with others. Heknows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped.“I just react instinctively. Then I feel guilty. You knowthe pattern!”

Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off. Theyare not extravagant spenders, but they face continualfinancial decisions: Dental work for the children? Shouldwe buy a house? Should we take a vacation or work sidejobs to earn a little extra money? How many hours aweek should Ellen try to work outside the home? Canwe really afford to tithe? Should we accede to the kids’desire for a VCR? They live month to month, and the billcycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.

How are Christian counselors to understand Wallyin order to help him?

“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry

Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’sdefinitions. They establish a locus of control that isearth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money),other people (“I need to please my critical father”), ormyself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda).Such false gods create false laws, false definitions ofsuccess and failure, of value and stigma. Idols promiseblessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or failagainst the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you willbe secure. If I can get certain people to like and respectme, then my life is valid.” There are numerous idola-trous values which influenced Wally and continue topressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, control-ling him, constraining him, enslaving him.

His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of theprominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal his-tory: “You must please me in whatever way I deter-mine.” Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand.“Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from thepsychological side of the equation, a particular “idol ofthe heart.” “Oppression” and “injustice” describe hisfather’s powerful demands on the sociological side. Wesee the dominion of a father whose leadership style wasthat of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promot-ing the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied,bullied, enslaved, and condemned. “I can rememberlying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturingme, ranting and raving.” Wally was conditioned to bevery concerned with what significant people thought ofhim. At the same time Wally bought the idol. He issimultaneously a victim and guilty. He was abused by

16 Mark 10:42-45.

powerful idols operative within his family system. Healso instinctively both bought into those idols and pro-duced his own competitive idols.

Relationships are rarely static. There were varioussides and various phases to Wally’s relationship withhis father’s critical opinion. At times Wally temporarily

succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good abouthimself. At other times he failed in his father’s eyes,earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emo-tional.” At other times he obsessively, almost mania-cally, strived to please his father. He once spent asummer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribblea basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.” Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symp-tom patterns were established in this crucible.

At other times Wally rebelled against his father andhis father’s implacable demands. He pitted his willagainst his father. Being highly intelligent, he was for-midable and creative as a rebel. In his teens he suc-ceeded in driving his father half crazy by setting upcontrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rockmusic, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics,marijuana use. One idol—”I need to please my fa-ther”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and setmyself in opposition to my father.”17

There are even elements in Wally’s conversion toChristianity which might be construed as part of thistendency to define himself in opposition to his father’ssecular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture. HisChristianity could be used at times to torment his father.Idols are fluid. The rebellious stance ultimately becameWally’s predominant long-term commitment andundergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feelsat the memory of his father, now five years dead. Butrebellion is not unmixed. It can be tinctured with re-grets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentletendencies. “Sometimes I think I have really come topeace with my father—an honest, merciful peace thatChrist has painstakingly wrought in me. At other times

17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature ofman in the opening section of his Institutes, comments on theway that idols “boil up from within us.” It could equally besaid that they boil up around us. There is always some objectat hand for us to put our faith in.


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Idols define good and evil in wayscontrary to God’s definitions.

I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proudanimal I once was.”

Wally’s father was not static either. In his later yearshe mellowed considerably. Wally’s Christian faith andhis father’s evolution into a gentler man combined tobring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness intothe relationship. It became peaceable but never warm.Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves.A demanding father became a less demanding fatherwho eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wantedto bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement. Ourhearts also evolve. A youth with a compulsion to pleasebecame a young man who half wanted to please and halfrebelled. The young man became a middle-aged mandriven and haunted by some of the same patterns ofcontradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’sdeath. Wally both lusts after the approval and respect ofpeople and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.

Multiple Idols

We become infested with idols. The idolatrous pat-terns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest inother relationships. Wally has had ongoing problemswith authority figures in school, the military, work, andthe church. He has had the same sorts of problems withhis wife, friends, and even his children. Naturally, hebrings this same pattern into the counseling relation-ship, with all the challenges that creates for buildingtrust and a working relationship. He continues to mani-fest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavishdesire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t beapproved, a stubborn independency.

We have attended in some detail to the way in whichhis father’s demandingness constituted an idol systemwhich staked out a claim in Wally’s affections. We willgive less detail to other influences, though each might beexplored in equal detail. His mother’s passivity in theface of conflict set a model for him which still frequentlycolors his relationship to Ellen. The “bourgeois values”of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scor-ingsexually,looks,clothes,money,“cool”—alsomarkedhim out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and hissense of shameful inadequacy. He bought the bourgeoisvalues and failed against them. He rebelled againstthose values and bought the alternative values of thedrug culture, in which he succeeded. He rebelled againstboth straights and druggies and isolated himself as aworld of one, which sometimes worked and sometimesfailed. All these things happened, sometimes simulta-neously, sometimes successively.

18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for thisfelicitous phrase.

Even the counterculture values of his “radical Chris-tian” subculture can be understood in part as an idola-trous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to theopposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with theAmerican Dream. Certain biblical goods are magnifiedto the exclusion of other biblical goods. In various waysWally continues to play out a three-fold theme. First, hetypically rebels against certain dominant “successfulpeople” cultures. Second, he finds his validity in theaffirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture. Third, allthe while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his ownculture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinionson anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.

“Who can understand the heart of man?!” And whocan understand the world that negotiates with thatheart?! Wally and the myriad forces which impinge onhim elude exhaustive, rational analysis. Yet we candescribe enough of what goes on in his complex heartand complex world to minister helpfully to him. Andthe Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not theWally of some prior point in his personal history. Bibli-cal counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can begiven. Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue,can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, andWally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.

Many other idol systems and sub-systems impingeon Wally. Some are the same players Bunyan describedin his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, andopportunities which circle around money, sex, food,power, success, or comfort. Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcoholindustry—woo him with temporary compensations andfalse, escapist saviors from the pressures generated byhis slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslaveand whip him along at other times: “I must perform. Imust prove myself. Everyone I respect must like me.What if I fail?”

Some of the other idol systems which daily impacton Wally are found within the marital system and thefamily system. Ellen’s and the children’s values anddesires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways. IfEllen worries about money, if the children get swept upwith complaining when they do not get what they want,if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic be-havioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry,compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or what-ever else, depending on how he interfaces with theparticular micro-society that is constraining him.19

This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “socio-

19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies ofinfluence or “key” influential relationships to tackle? There

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logical.” False gods are highly catching! With goodreason both Old and New Testaments abound withwarnings against participating in pagan cultures andassociating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angrypeople, and the like. Our enemies not only hurt us, theyalso tempt us to be like them. False voices are notfigments which the individual soul hallucinates. “World”complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: themanufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.

If we would help people have eyes and ears for God,we must know well which alternative gods clamor fortheir attention. These forces and shaping influencesneither determine nor excuse our sins. But they donurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in par-ticular directions. They are often atmospheric, invisible,unconscious influences. Conscious repentance beginsto thrive where I see both my own distortions and thedistortions impinging upon me from others. Both temptme, and I must battle both.

Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces withoutcompromising human responsibility. But, of course,idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining thecourse of our lives. In the discussion above, Wally’sheart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded. The two are impossible to disen-tangle absolutely. But in the next section I will look ingreater detail at the more psychological dimension ofidolatry.

Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry

At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols towhich he was exposed and creatively fabricated hisown. He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelledagainst various value systems. But in each case henurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values. Hislife implicitly validates many lies. His heart is deeply

may well be. In particular, is Wally’s relationship with hisparents the key to effective counseling? Not necessarily, al-though psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased to-wards parent-child relationships. The Bible is not similarlybiased (either for or against looking at relationships withparents).

I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’srelationships with his father and mother are the most impor-tant ones to tackle now in counseling. Theoretically, we couldtackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we wouldend up grappling with generically similar issues, the sameidols and sins. My instincts in counseling would be to tacklevignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children. That iswhere most of the hot patterns are being played out. Hisrelationship with his father could come up as could othersignificant relationships where there are live issues. But forWally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to betransformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessar-ily need to look at the parental relationship.

divided between the true God and idols. Is he a Chris-tian? Yes. But the ongoing work of renewal must engagehim genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatrythat functionally substitute for faith in Christ. There hasbeen a measure of genuine fruit in his life. But there hasbeen a measure of bending the true God to the agenda ofthe flesh.

Idols are rarely solitary. Our lives become infestedwith them. Wally is psychologically controlled by a lushvariety of false gods. For example, he typically oscillatesbetween “pride” and the “fear of man.”20 Pride or “play-ing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation,compulsions to control people and circumstances, a“Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and thebourgeois. The fear of man or “making others into god”generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depres-sion, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense ofinferiority, chameleon behavior. They work hand inhand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxiousand its demanding aspects: “My performance in youreyes. Your performance in my eyes.”

Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occa-sional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life. At timesWally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from thepressure cooker he creates. Alcohol abuse, TV watching,video games and pornography provide fleeting escape.At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people. Hebecomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any whohinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulter-ous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part byreference to the supreme value of “my ministry.” Ofcourse, this is only a sampler. Any of scores of particularlesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depend-ing on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wifetreats him, how his children do in school, etc.

The real Wally is irreducibly complex! Even as Iportray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his lifeemerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties.This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotentidols of unusual significance in Wally’s case? Yes, thereare. Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeatedthemes. He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he cannever be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because ofthe myriads of fluid idols which constrain him. Certainidols strike me as predominant in Wally. “Pride” (I playgod) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial.One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way”and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly re-

20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men”(1 Corinthians 10:13). This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature. It plays itself out in an endlessvariety of forms.


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peated in Wally’s life. Demand and fear take turns in thespotlight. Other typically dominant idols—sexual plea-sure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’slife but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, whichin a different counselee might be greatly intensified.

It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif,in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life anddo not speculate abstract typologies. The bedrock simi-larities between people tend to be brought into view. Inour psychologized culture we are used to definitiveanalyses of Wally and others according to a typology.He is a type-A person. He is a Pleaser. He is a Controller.He is a combination of melancholic and choleric tem-peraments. He is a typical ACOA or member of a dys-functional family. His root sin is anger. His problem islow self-esteem. In DSM-III categories he is a..., and soforth. Such statements tend to pass for significant knowl-edge. In fact, they are not explanations for anything butare simply ways of describing common clusters of symp-toms.

Root Idols?

Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people,it might be expected that we could say something like,“His root idol is....” But the data on idolatry does notgenerally support such reductionistic understandingsof the human heart.21 At best we can make the softerclaim, “His most characteristic idol is...usually...but atother times...!” For purely heuristic purposes it may beuseful to notice that one person is particularly attuned tothe intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, anotherto power idols, another to comfort idols, another topleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth.A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in RichardLovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitu-ally around particular predominant idols.

But sin is creative as well as habitual! We should notforget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offersis not a typology that distinguishes people from eachother but is a summary comment that highlights ourcommonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each tohis own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23

21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need tobe named and faced. Wise biblical counseling grapples withspecifics. Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammonworship. The parable of the sower faces people with theirunbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches,pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expres-sions of the idol motif). In the Old Testament Elijah directlyconfronts Baal worship. For example, Wally will need to dealwith his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfoldsin counseling.

22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.

Under this master categorization the temple teems withpotential shapes for idols and false gods. The rampantand proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contendwith the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience.Typologies are pseudo-explanations. They are descrip-tive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for vari-ous psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend toexplanatory power. At best, typologies describe “syn-dromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that com-monly occur together.24 Current typologies are not help-ful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people.At best they are redundant of good description andintimate knowledge of a particular individual. At worst,they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, forthey duck the idolatry issues.

How do we explain the fact that all of us are notexactly like Wally though we share the same generic setof idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of prideand the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures;preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; thecreation of false views of God based on our life experi-ence and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous,worthy, and esteemable; and the like. Jay Adams hasperceptively commented on the commonality inheringwithin individual styles of sin:

Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is theproblem with which the Christian counselor mustgrapple. It is the secondary dimensions—the varia-tions on the common themes—that make coun-seling so difficult. While all men are born sinnersand engage in the same sinful practices anddodges, each develops his own styles of sinning.The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) arepeculiar to each individual; but beneath them arethe common themes. It is the counselor’s work todiscover these commonalities beneath the indi-vidualities.25

‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair

How do individual styles develop? Certainly par-ticular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empowerdifferent idols. It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s de-manding and unpleasable father can be correlated witha particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idolin Wally’s heart. Yet because of the continual interplay

23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.
24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinicalpretensions to significant explanatory power. It is purelydescriptive. It literally means, “things that tend to all run alongtogether.”
25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyte-rian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.

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of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, anotherchild might grow up with very accepting parents, andthe “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as alust never to be rejected or fail. Our idols both covetwhat we do not have and hold on for dear life to what wedo have.

Many of the nuances of our idolatries are sociallyshaped by the opportunities and values that surroundus. For example, it is unsurprising that more people willbecome homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers,or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms ofsexual sin available, legitimate, or normal. For example,

Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed withacademic and professional achievement. His next doorneighbor might have grown up in a family obsessedwith escapist pleasure, and he might have been nur-tured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports. Thegeneric idols in every heart may bear different fruit indifferent people. For example, Baal is no threat to pro-duce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormon-ism is such a threat.

Much of the variation among us is simply empow-ered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies orsmooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty,New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or agraduate school education, first-born or eighth-born,male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960,and the like. Much individual variation is due to heredi-tary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelli-gence, physical coordination and capabilities, variationin talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differ-ences, and so forth. In the last analysis, idiosyncraticchoice from among the opportunities and options oneencounters accounts for the nearly infinite range forindividuality within the “commonalities” that biblicalcategories discern in us.

The diagnostic categories which pierce to the com-monalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,”which we are using here. These alone can embrace boththe fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world,flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who hassaved Wally. They apply to every person in a way whichis simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all thecomplexities. For all our differences, the Bible speaks toevery one of us.


As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors,attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influ-ences, et al. can be understood right down to the detailsutilizing the biblical notion of idolatry. The disorder inWally’s life is produced by the interplay between par-ticular idols of his heart and particular idols of his socialenvironment. Sins occur at the confluence of disorientedheart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems ofall sizes. The intention of this essay has been to exploresome of the dense connections between flesh and world.But there are other ways of approaching these thingswhich are important to recognize.

Notably absent has been attention to the equallydense connecting links between the Devil and bothworld and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunc-tional and sinful living. “Who rules me?” invites aware-ness of spiritual powers. Idols and demons go hand inhand in literal worship of false gods. Not surprisingly,the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in themore subtle idolatries that enslave Wally. Does thismean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treat-ment of choice is exorcism? Decidedly not. But wher-ever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolatetwo particular bad fruits—we are being formed intoSatan’s image rather than Christ’s. The same modalitiesthat fight world and flesh also fight the Devil. Intelligentfaith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately theanswer. But awareness of the spiritual warfare occur-ring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is aministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfarealso helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindsetwhich tempts us to think about people psycho-socially,rather than with respect to God.

The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to estab-lish his lordship over people. Satan methodically disin-tegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins,deceives his mind into highly distorted and selectiveperceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him,ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fansnormal desires into inordinate and addictive desiresand “needs,” and the like. This article has primarilyattended to “world and flesh.” “Devil” completes themonolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motiva-tion of problem behavior.

26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of bothtruth and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on themode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expres-sion defeats demonic powers. James 3:13-4:12 adds the notethat repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.

For all our differences,
the Bible speaks to every one of us.


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Also notably absent has been detailed attention tothe somatic influences on Wally. His problems are exac-erbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much“junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle.Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital ten-sion, sexual lust, and depression would consistentlyreveal a plausible somatic component. The fact thatmonitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting moreregular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderatesWally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences.Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity”of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the“quality” of his problems. A tense irritability can flareinto rage and cursing. A case of “the blues” can spiralinto bleak despair. A tendency to ogle women can breakout into purchasing Penthouse. Wally’s body variouslyexacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins. It doesnot create new kinds of sins.

The Role of the Will

Also notably absent has been a discussion of thedegree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence,immediately controllable. As was stressed earlier, pay-ing biblical attention to motives of heart and world is noploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view ofhuman responsibility. Wally chooses, even when heplunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the roadseems experientially nonexistent. Wally has made head-way in self-discipline at various times in his life. Heknows what is wrong and what is right. He is able todescribe many times when he “bull-headedly chosewrong.” He can also tell of many times when he actedout of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.

Recognizing choice does not negate the power ofworld, flesh, and Devil. The more Wally grows to knowhimself and his environment, the more he consciouslyknows and experiences that he has always been makingchoices. One of the purposes of working with the idolmotif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents:the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations andgoals which own people) is to expand the arena in whichWally is aware of the choices he has been makingimplicitly. Sanctification expands the arena of consciouschoice and biblical self-control.

Also notably absent has been a discussion of theprovidence of God in bringing intense, transformingexperiences. Wally’s conversion “dropped out of thesky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy inChrist, and growing love for people. He has had other“high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love,and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, orby some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in amoment of daily life.

But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product ofvictories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiologicalalterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintopexperiences—seemingly “happen” at random. Thesefour paradigms often provide the stuff with whichWally thinks about problems and change in his life.Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is mov-ing in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable,whole-souled change. His life in general seems to be anunhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary mo-ments of symptomatic relief. One of the goals of thisessay is to describe several elements which can makechange more consistent, internalized, self-conscious andgenuinely transformative. In my experience the Wallys,both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blindto the things that move them. It is a curious but notuncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate per-son like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of hisown heart and the temptations of the particular VanityFair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse,and emotion. He knows relatively little about what Godsees going on in his heart and his world. The question,“What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be an-swered with some confidence when I start to grasp thethemes which play out in my life.

My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-so-cial” (covenantally psycho-social!). A full biblical analy-sis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 Tounderstand the exact weight of each variable is, obvi-ously, to quest after something which is—from a humanpoint of view, the intentions of social scientists notwith-standing!—ultimately elusive. But the Bible’s answer isalways powerfully applicable: turning from idols to theliving God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth,activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repen-tance and faith.”

The Lordship Question

There is some utility to teasing out these two strandsof human motivation, while never forgetting that we arefocusing only on several perspectives within a unified

27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describ-ing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.” Satan is the arch-deceiver. We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions ofour socio-cultural milieu. Our idols are so plausible andinstinctive that a person can even describe them, withoutreally seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.

28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing thepie of human motivation. See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resourcesfor Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3(1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christiancounselors.

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whole. The two I have concentrated on in this article—the heart and the social milieu—without question re-ceive the bulk of the Bible’s attention. But the questionof human motivation is ultimately the multiperspec-tival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false godsin tension with vital faith in the true God. This can belooked at through numerous lenses:

• Lordship through the lens of our hearts: Thegrace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versusthe rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.

• Lordship through the lens of social influences:Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body ofChrist versus imbibing the models and values of the

kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms ofmarital and family systems; on up through progres-sively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighbor-hood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group,socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).

• Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters:The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.

• Lordship through the lens of somatic influences:living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hopeof the resurrection versus immediate service to andpreoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, plea-sures, deprivations, and wants.

• Lordship through the lens of volitional choices:Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience toGod’s will versus believing and choosing according tomy spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the waythat seems right to a man.”

• Lordship through the lens of experiential provi-dence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and torepent and trust God amid sufferings versus growingpresumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things goour way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life ispainful, frustrating, or unsure. Though this article hascommented particularly on the interplay between thefirst two lenses, my intent throughout has been to ex-pand our view of Wally, not to constrict it. Within thebiblical conceptual framework we can bring into viewall of Wally and his world. The notion of behavior asruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes. Wally isfully responsible for what he does. Wally’s inner life isfull of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions. Wallyis continually being conditioned from without, tempted,tried, and deceived. Wally is also a Christian. The Spirit

and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient himfrom the inside and to set him free from the control ofwhat impinges on him.

Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospelof Jesus Christ

In this article my attention has been heavily weightedtowards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblicallyunderstand people? But biblical diagnosis bridges im-mediately into biblical treatment. The understanding ofpeople presented here enables the message of the Gos-pel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubledpeople.

One of the major challenges facing Christian counse-lors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of Godincisively. There are many faulty, distorted, or inad-equate ways to go about this. The Gospel is easilytruncated and weakened when idols of the heart andVanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived. But if weaccurately comprehend the interweaving of responsiblebehavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful exter-nal forces, then the riches of Christ become immediatelyrelevant to people. What was once “head knowledge”and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life. People see thatthe Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and roteforgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.

How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with avague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructivepatterns? But when Wally sees his heart’s true need andhis need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be,he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ. Christpowerfully meets people who are aware of their realneed for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in ourown lives and in our counseling, frequently do not getthe Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable. I will con-sider two broad tendencies among Christians who seekto help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drifttypically have a genuine interest in the motivation thatunderlies problem behavior. Psychologically-orientedChristians attempt to deal with both the internal andexternal forces that prompt and structure behavior. Theheart issues are typically misread, however. “Need”categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry,desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate theheart immediately to God. Also, environmental issuessuch as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dys-

29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible! Christ’sforte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsionsfrom within and pressures from without.


The Journal of Biblical Counseling • Volume 13 • Number 2 • Winter 1995

The Gospel is betterthan unconditional love.

functional family patterns tend to be given more deter-ministic status than they have in the biblical view.

These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotionalproblems. “You feel horrible and act badly because yourneeds aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.”The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diag-nosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you. Yourneeds can be met, and you can start to change how youfeel and act.” Behavioral responsibility is muted, andthe process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and re-newal of mind unto Christ.

What is the Gospel?

What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themesare not grasped? “God loves you” typically becomes atool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel likefailures. The particular content of the Gospel of JesusChrist—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned-against”—is down-played or even twisted into “uncon-ditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack ofacceptance.” Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comesacross something like this: “God accepts you just as youare. God has unconditional love for you.” That is not thebiblical Gospel, however. God’s love is not Rogerianunconditional positive regard writ large. A need theoryof motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bendsthe Gospel solution into “another gospel” which isessentially false.

The Gospel is better than unconditional love. TheGospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has‘contraconditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curseyou deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father andgives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns inpower, making you the Father’s child and coming closeto you to begin to change what is unacceptable to Godabout you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He acceptsme “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity isdifferent. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love tobe sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptabil-ity and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenterspeople—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and“faith”—to look outside themselves.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drifttypically are very concerned with ministering God’slove to people who view God as the latest and greatestcritic whom they can never please. But their failure toconceptualize people’s problems in the terms this articlehas been exploring inevitably creates a tendency to-wards teaching a Liberal Gospel. The cross becomessimply a demonstration that God loves me. It loses itsforce as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect

Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin. “The wound of my people is healedlightly.”30

Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies facea different sort of problem. Where there is a moralizingdrift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness istypically applied simply to behavioral sins. The contentof the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the contentof the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of applica-

Christian counseling is counselingwhich exposes our motives—our heartsand our world—in such a waythat the authentic Gospel is the onlypossible answer.

tion may be truncated. Those with psychologizing ten-dencies at least notice our inner complexities and outersufferings, though they distort both systematically. Insome ways the moralizing tendency represents an inad-equate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article hasbeen exploring.

Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidencemuch interest in the pressures and sufferings of oursocial milieu. Counselors fear that such interest wouldnecessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting andaccusation which spring up so readily in our hearts.Human responsibility would be compromised. But theydo not see that understanding the evil that happens tome—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—isa crucial part of my widening and deepening apprecia-tion of Christ. Attendance to the forces that have pres-sured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for illallows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, andmercifully. As psalm after psalm demonstrates, oursufferings are the context in which we experience thelove of God, both to comfort us and to change us. We arecomforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s prom-ises and power. We are changed in our afflictions as welearn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.

Moralizers are also weak on the inward side ofmotivation. Heart motives may be attended to in partvia an awareness of “self” or “flesh.” But the solution istypically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conver-sion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness”attempt to deal with motive problems through a single

30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).

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act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning.The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or adramatic act of consecration. There is little sense of thepatient process of inner renewal which someone likeWally—and each of us!—needs. Jesus says to take upour cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, andlearning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full ofgrace to help us. Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORDis my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutelynecessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedienceto God.31

I have looked at two common truncations of theGospel of Jesus Christ. Both evidence an inadequategrasp of the deviance of our hearts and our correspond-ing vulnerability to external influences. People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wanderthrough a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-

31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith. Psalm 23—likemany portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in.Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude,from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith toworks (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the mostsustained expositions). Performance-oriented people likeWally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.

32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system ofinterpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his chil-dren, wife, friends, and parents. There is obviously a feedbackloop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.

Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart andbehavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects inhis family and church. We have emphasized the negative sideof social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.

buyers, and idol-sellers. We variously buy and sell,woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose,attack, or flee. But there is a bigger Gospel. At the gatesof Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated himand his companion:

Let the Kingdom be always before you; and be-lieve steadfastly concerning things that are invis-ible. Let nothing that is on this side of the otherworld get within you; and, above all, look well toyour own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for theyare deceitful above all things, and desperatelywicked. Set your faces like a flint; you have allpower in heaven and earth on your side.33

Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied butpurer in heart. He remembered, amid hard combat withworld, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was hisdestination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him tolife.

The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sinand situational tyrannies. The biblical notion of inneridolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as amerciful savior from large sins of both heart and behav-ior. The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idola-tries allows people to see Christ as a powerful delivererfrom false masters and false value systems which wetend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling iscounseling which exposes our motives—our hearts andour world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel isthe only possible answer.

33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.


The Journal of Biblical Counseling • Volume 13 • Number 2 • Winter 1995

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