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Tim Keller Sermon: The Heart of Darkness

Tim Keller preaching image

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration— PART 7

Preached in Manhattan on February 15, 2009

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. – Romans 1:18-25

We’re in a series that’s tracing out the storyline of the Bible. We’ve said each week that the Bible is not a disconnected set of individual stories that each has a little moral to it. Rather, the Bible is primarily a single story that tells us, first, what’s wrong with the human race; secondly, what God has done about that in Jesus Christ; and thirdly, how it’s all going to turn out in the end of history.

We first started by looking at Genesis 1–4 to see the beginning of the Bible’s story about what is wrong with the human race, and now we’ve begun to look at Romans 1–4, where Paul gives us perhaps the single most comprehensive explanation of what God has done about our problem through Jesus Christ.

At this spot in the text of Romans, we actually have something pretty interesting. If you’ve been with the series, we have Paul reflecting himself on Genesis 1–4. We have him looking back on all the things we’ve been looking at and summarizing what’s wrong with the human heart. Now all Scripture is equally true, and all Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally packed. This text is packed. There is more in it than we can unpack.

So, for example, the very first line introduces to us the idea of the wrath of God. A lot of people have questions about that. We’re going to wait for next week on that. Instead, what we’re going to look at tonight are the four things Paul says you can find in every human heart. If you look in every human heart, Paul says, reflecting on Genesis 1–4, you’ll find four things. Those four things are the knowledge of our God, the manufacturing of our idols, the hardening of our humanity, and the capacity for endless praise.

1. The knowledge of our God

Let’s start at the top of the text. The first thing we learn here, Paul says, is there is in every human heart the knowledge of God, because we’re told that what is so awful, what God is so angry at, is we suppress the truth. You can’t suppress something unless you have it. What do they have? What do we have? The truth. What is the truth? The truth is (and as you go through the rest of the little paragraph, it tells you), that basically down deep in our hearts, we know there is a God, and we know about his eternal power and divine nature.

In other words, regardless of what we tell ourselves or what we claim, every human being knows there is a Creator on whom we are utterly dependent and to whom we are completely accountable. His power … see? His nature … We know that down deep, but we suppress it. We repress it. The word there is we hold it down or hold it back.

That means Paul is saying two things about human beings. First of all, everyone does understand a great deal about truth. There is a lot of truth every human being knows about life, about reality. But we’re also told we hold down that truth. We repress it. Why? Well, here’s the big answer. The reason we repress the knowledge of the true God is, if you take a look down in verse 21, it says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him …”

I remember years ago, when I first started studying this passage, that sure sounded anticlimactic to me. “They didn’t give thanks? That’s it? That’s the problem? That’s the source of all the problems in the world, the evil, the misery, and suffering? We don’t give thanks?” You know, you think about when you were little, all the teachers and all the adults and all the parents were always saying, “Now, say ‘thank-you.’ Don’t take that without saying ‘thank-you.’ ” “Thank-you.” It just seems like courtesy, you know.

Is that it? That’s the problem with the whole world? Bad manners? Is that it? No. Let’s think about it for a second. Do you know what plagiarism is? We say, “That’s intellectual property theft, IP theft.” Yeah? But do you know what plagiarism is? Do you know why it’s so severely punished? Because it’s not giving thanks. In other words, it’s claiming to be self-sufficient, claiming that you came up with this, and not acknowledging dependence, not acknowledging the fact that you didn’t come up with that. You got it from over there. You’re dependent on this person.

Plagiarism is a refusal to give thanks, and therefore, it’s a claim to self-sufficiency when it’s not there, when it’s not true. Cosmic ingratitude, cosmic un-thankfulness, is living in the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we can call the shots, that we decide what is right or wrong, that we decide how to live. We hate the idea that we would be utterly and completely dependent and, therefore, thankful to God for everything, because then we’d lose control. Then we’d be obligated. Then we couldn’t live the way we want, and we hate that.

Therefore, we’re told, because the sin in the heart makes us want desperately to keep control of our lives, and to live the way we want to live, we cannot acknowledge the magnitude, the size, the greatness, and how much we owe God, how dependent we are on him, how accountable we are to him, how much we should be living in thankfulness. We don’t want that, because that means to lose control.

Let me give you an example. Therefore we repress the knowledge of the real God. We may believe in God, but we don’t believe in the real God, the true God, because that means losing control. Example: Some years ago, I was listening to a minister teach on this topic. When I give you his illustration, you’ll know how long ago this was. He was saying the other night he had been watching television. He was watching David Frost on television. He saw David Frost interviewing Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was a very famous and activist atheist.

David Frost was arguing with her. She says, “Oh, there is no God.” He says, “Well, I think you can believe in God.” They went back and forth, and finally David Frost was getting kind of frustrated, so he did a modern thing. He solved the problem in the modern way. He took a poll of the studio audience. He said, “Now how many of you out there believe in God?” Almost everybody raised their hand, and he turned to Madalyn Murray O’Hair and said, “See?”

The preacher, the teacher who was teaching on Romans 1, said, “What a shame Madalyn Murray O’Hair missed … What an opportunity, what a chance she missed! What she should have done is say, ‘Excuse me. Can I take my own poll?’ She would have turned to the audience and said, ‘How many of you believe in the God of the Bible?’

She would have asked, ‘How many of you believe in the God who, when he comes down on Mount Sinai, comes down in lightning and deep darkness? How many of you believe in the God who is a consuming fire, who says, “No one can look upon the face of my glory and live”? How many of you believe in the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin”? How many of you believe in the God of the Bible? That God?’ Probably,” said the teacher, “very few people would have raised their hands, and then she could have just turned and said, rightly so, ‘I win.’ ”

Here’s why she would have been able to do that if she’d known. Romans 1 says the real God, not the liberal God or the conservative God … The liberal God is the God of love in the universe, you know, the spirit of love. Everybody loves everybody, so you basically can live the way you want. The conservatives say, “No, we believe there’s a God with moral absolutes, and if you really obey those absolutes, if you try really hard, then you know you’re one of the righteous people. Then you can please God. Then he will take you to heaven.”

Don’t you see? Both of those kinds of gods leave you in control. You know, a God who is just a God of love … you can live any way you want. A God who is a demanding God … if you obey him, then he’ll take you to heaven, and then you can know you’re one of the righteous people … that’s a God who owes you. You’re not losing control.

But this is the God of the Bible, the God who is a consuming fire, the God whom you can’t look upon and live, the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there’s no remission of sins.” This is the God who, if you relate to him, you have to relate to him on the basis of absolute grace, and therefore you owe him everything. You will be utterly thankful to him or not have a relationship to him at all. That God.

At the very end of that old movie The Bible in which you have Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac at the very end looks up at his father Abraham and says, “Is there nothing he cannot ask of thee?” And Abraham says, “Nothing.” That God. Nobody believes in that God unless by the power of the Holy Spirit your heart is regenerated. The Holy Spirit has to come in and intervene to let you believe in that God, because according to Romans 1, you can’t believe in that God. You suppress the truth about that God.

You may not believe in any God at all. That way you can live any way you want. Or you believe in God. In fact, most people believe in God, but they don’t believe in that God. They can’t believe in that God. They won’t believe in that God, because then they lose control. We can’t do that. We don’t want to glorify him as God. That means give him the significance he deserves and give him utter thanks, because then we’d be out of control.

Therefore, we all have the knowledge of God, but we suppress it. Do you know what this means? Here I’m going to speak to Christian believers. We have to realize what Solzhenitsyn said is true of everybody in a way. Solzhenitsyn has this very famous line where he says you can’t divide the world into good and bad people. Rather, “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the center of every human heart.” Every human being is good and evil.

You know, Christians understand that, because Christians know even when you’re born again you have the new self and you still have the old self, and we feel that. But Paul is saying that’s true of absolutely everybody. Everybody is in the image of God. Everybody has the truth, and yet everybody has a deeply ambivalent relationship to the truth.

Therefore, the line between good and evil goes down the middle of every movie, every book, every work of art, because every human being knows a lot about the truth, and every human being is struggling and resists the truth. Therefore, every work of art, every cultural product, everything out there has remarkable mixtures. There’s a dialogue going on between the truth and falsehood in all human endeavor.

Therefore, Christians cannot just say, “Well, I only want to read Christian books and go to Christian counselors and Christian lawyers and Christian doctors, and all those other people out there are bad.” No, no. You don’t want to be like Salieri who’s sitting around saying, “Hey, I go to church. I pray. Why is this licentious person Mozart …” This is in the movie Amadeus. “… getting so many of God’s gifts? Why is such beauty coming into the world through him? I don’t understand it. I’m the good person. He’s the bad person. What’s going on here?”

James 1:17, says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights …” Every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty, no matter who does it, is a gift from God, and everybody does them. So Christians need to not be so exclusive. They need to have critical appreciation of all the people around them and all the culture around them, yet at the same time knowing in all of our hearts there is this deep resistance to the truth. So you’re not naïve; on the other hand you’re not exclusive. So it’s a very important first point.

2. The manufacturing of idols

Now this is perhaps the central thing Paul is getting across. There’s a lot more we could say about it than we are about to say, but let me say this. First of all, he shows us here the inevitability of idolatry, because he says in verse 25, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …”

Notice “… they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …” There are only two options. You either worship the Creator, or you worship a created thing, but there is no possibility of not worshiping or serving anything, in spite of the fact that plenty of people say they don’t worship or serve anything. It’s impossible. Why? Paul says it’s impossible. If you do not worship the true God, and nobody does, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, then you have to be worshiping something else.

How could that work? Well, like this. Some philosophers and thinkers have said it this way. Human beings are telic creatures. Telic is from the word telos, which means purpose. In other words, human beings have to live for something. Human beings don’t live; they have to live for something. Something has to capture your imagination. Something has to capture the highest allegiance of your heart. Something has to be the resting place of your deepest hopes.

Every human being has to look at something deep in their heart, semi-consciously or unconsciously, and say, “If I have that, then my life is worthwhile. Then I have meaning in life. Then life will have been worth living. Then I’ll know I’m somebody. If I have that …” and whatever that is, wherever your hopes are, your deepest hopes, whatever your highest allegiance is, whatever your ultimate concern is, that’s what you worship.

That’s what worship is. Therefore, the inevitability of idolatry, because since none of us in our natural state actually worship the true God. We believe in God, but we believe in a kind of god who keeps us in control of our lives, as we just said. Then what we actually center our lives on, what we actually give our functional trust, our functional worship to, is always something else, whether it’s achievement, or money, or claim, or human approval, or comfort, or power, or approval, or control.

That’s the inevitability. But the second thing Paul shows is the incredible range of idols. Today if you talk about idolatry, almost immediately modern people say, “You mean worshiping statues?” Oh no. When Kathy and I first started coming up here to start the church, in 1989, we used to take trips up here every Sunday afternoon to meet with people and meet individuals. I remember one time we met somebody at a Thai restaurant.

Every week we used to take one of our three sons and leave the other two at home with a babysitter. That’s the parental philosophy “divide and conquer.” You leave two at home, have one … you know, we outnumbered them, so it always was better. But I remember my middle son, age 9, with the loud voice that only 9-year-olds can muster, walks into the Thai restaurant, sees the little statue and a candle lit in front of it, and says, “There’s idols in New York!” If only he knew … Because see, Paul in his writings … let me give you three examples … shows that anything can be, anything is an idol.

On the one hand, here he links idolatry to sexual lust, sexual desires. Now if this is the only place he mentioned idolatry and then he said sexual lust is an example of an idol, making an idol out of sex, romance, maybe even marriage, you say, “Well, he has sex on the mind.” But go to Colossians 3. There he calls greed idolatry, materialism idolatry, a love of money idolatry.

You say, “Okay, well, I can understand that. Sex can be an idol, money can be an idol.” Try this one on. In Galatians 4, he is talking to Jewish Christians who are sliding back into their belief that they need to adopt the Mosaic code, all the Mosaic laws, in order to please God. He looks to them, and he starts saying, “If you go back into that kind of moralistic religion, if you begin to think that obeying the Mosaic code and the law of God is going to get you into heaven and please God, if you go back into that kind of moralistic, legalistic religion, you are going into idolatry.”

Look, maybe you’ve heard of the idea that money can be an idol. Maybe you’ve heard the idea that sex can be an idol. Have you ever heard that church can be an idol? The law of God can be an idol. Your own moral efforts and your own moral rectitude can be an idol. Until you can see that, you don’t have a biblical understanding of what idolatry is, because idolatry is looking to something to give you the kind of hope, the kind of value, the kind of safety that only God himself can give you.

If you love anything more than God, if you rest your security in anything more than the providence and wisdom and sovereignty of God, if your imagination is captured by anything more than the greatness of God, if your value is rooted in anything more than the grace and love of God, if you love anything more than God, and you do, you are looking to a created thing to give you what only God can possibly give you. Therefore, you have set up an idol.

There are all kinds of idols. There are near idols and far idols. For example, you say, “Well, I’ve heard this idea that money is an idol.” Ah, okay. But why is money an idol? Some people, you know, make a lot of money, and you’d have no idea. They don’t spend it on themselves. They don’t spend it on clothes. Do you know why? Money for them is something they sock away, and they can’t give it away.

Do you know why? Because money is their way of keeping control of the environment. It’s their way of saying, “I have this money, and therefore, I can handle what comes. I’m secure. I have control over my world.” Instead of prayer, instead of God, it’s money. That person doesn’t spend the money on him or herself at all. They just have to know it’s all there. They can’t give it away. Why? Because of the idolatry of control. “I have control of my life, and the money gives me that control.”

Other people take the money and they spend a lot on themselves. You can see it. They look beautiful, and they live in beautiful places, and they hang out with beautiful people. Why? Because for them, money is a way of getting on the inner ring. Money is a way of getting human approval. “If I have human approval, then I know who I am. Then I feel significant and secure.” So the money is actually an easy-to-look-for idol, but underneath there are deeper idols.

Everything is an idol. Everything can be an idol. Everything serves as an idol. If you are a Christian believer, it means you may have had the back broken of your idols, and when you gave yourself to Christ you understand something about who he is. He comes into your life, but you have the new self and the old self, and the old self is still beholden to idols. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re completely beholden to idols, and therefore, everybody in this room has a problem with it.

Do you know what your idols are? Do you know what your near idols are, your far idols are? Unless you do, Paul says you don’t even know your own heart at all. You don’t know anything about your heart. You haven’t begun to understand yourself. So in the heart is the knowledge of God. In the heart is the manufacturing of idols.

3. The hardening of our humanity

The third thing that’s going on in every human heart, and linked very much to idolatry, is the hardening of our humanity. One of the great themes of the Bible throughout, from Old to New Testament, is that idolatry leads to a heart of stone, to dehumanization. Over and over again, we’re told if you worship idols, which are things, rather than the living person of God …

If you worship things rather than the person of God, instead of a person, you’ll become a thing. You will become hard. You will become as blind as the idol. You will become as deaf as the idol. You will actually become less and less of a human being, less and less personal, more hardened in heart, more blind.

There are hundreds of these references, but here’s one. Psalm 135. “But their idols are silver and gold … They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear … They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”

Now Paul is basically working that out, because when he says we’re all guilty of idolatry, then he goes along and says our wills, our minds, and our emotions are slowly being eroded. They are slowly being taken over, and we are becoming less and less human and less and less personal all the time.

Look, first of all, he says whatever you worship (this is down in verse 25) you serve. That word serve means you are a slave to it. Think about this. Well, I know this is hard because we’re also blind and futile in our thinking, and we’re in denial. But think about this. Whatever is the most important thing in your life, whatever is the thing about which you say, “Boy, because of that, I’m happy. Because of that, I have meaning in my life …” You have to have that. You have to. If you don’t have that, life is over. Hope is gone. Your very identity falls apart.

Therefore, there’s no freedom about that thing. There’s no choosing about that thing. Human beings can choose. But you’re more like an animal who is operating on instinct. Or you’re more like a robot that has to do what it’s programmed to do. You have to have it. You’re driven. So your will is beholden.

Secondly, your mind. See, up in verse 21 it says because they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him, their thinking became futile. Then of course, even down in verse 25 it says, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie …” All addicts … and that’s what we’re talking about, you know. Idolatry is a form of spiritual addiction. All addicts … all … are actually in denial.

You see, I don’t know where you are. I don’t know what you thinking right now. But if you say, “I don’t see any idols in my life right now,” you’re an addict, and you are in denial. You say, “Well, yeah, of course, that is pretty important to me.” You have no idea how important it is, because you don’t want to see. Alcoholics say, “I can control it.” That’s what an alcoholic is. An alcoholic says, “I can control it.” They can’t, but they think they can.

There’s something in your life that you look at like that. Idols weave a delusional field, a field of denial, around them, so you always minimize their impact on you. In other words, you have eyes, but you don’t see. The longer you worship the idol, the more you have eyes that don’t see, just like they have.

Last of all, your hearts are darkened. Not only is your will beholden and your mind made futile and deluded, but then it says in verse 21, “… their foolish hearts were darkened.” Most of all, it says, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts …” Now if you’ve been around Redeemer, you’ve heard this before. The Greek word that is translated here desire shows up every place that idolatry shows up in the New Testament.

It’s the word epithymia, which actually means an epi-desire, like an epicenter. It doesn’t mean sinful desire. That’s not the best way to translate it. Sometimes they try to translate it as lust, but lust of course just means sex, so that’s not a good translation. There’s no good English translation, so I’m going to tell you what it is.

Idolatry creates super-desires. Burnout-level, over-the-top, uncontrollable desires. Inordinate desires. Over-the-top desires. You not only are driven to have it, but if anything gets in your way, there is paralyzing anxiety, not normal kinds of worry. There is paralyzing, debilitating guilt, not normal kinds of regret. There is paralyzing, debilitating bitterness, not normal kinds of anger.

Therefore, you are more and more like an animal, or more and more like a robot, following your program, and less and less like a human being. You say, “How does that work out?” Well, let me read you from a manuscript that I was working on with somebody about idolatry. Listen carefully.

“Anxiety is idolatry mapped onto the future. Anxiety becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose my highest value, my functional meaning in life, is politics, either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Then when my party experiences a great defeat, I don’t experience just glum disappointment, but I’m shaken to the depths. I want to leave the country, and I’m too furious to speak to anyone who voted for the other side.

Guilt is idolatry mapped on the past. Guilt becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose I value a happy family. Therefore, my performance as a parent is valuable above everything else. Then if my daughter goes wrong or has great problems, I am not just sorrowful and grieved, I am stricken with neurotic guilt. I cannot forgive myself. I hate myself. I may become suicidal.

Lastly, anger and bitterness is idolatry mapped onto the present. Anger becomes pathologically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value. Suppose my career is the measure of my worth as a person, and someone at work is harming it. I won’t just be angry. I will be so deeply bitter and capable of doing things to this person that I may blow up my career more thoroughly than that person ever could.”

Do you see what’s going on? Or what if you make your moral rectitude into an idol? Remember, like in Galatians 4? What if you really believe that because you’re a good person, you’ve tried very hard, God owes you a good life. Then when difficulties come, sorrow is pathologically intensified into absolute bitterness against God and life itself and it poisons your ability to ever enjoy life ever again, because you deserve better than this? Don’t you see? Idolatry dehumanizes you. If you worship a thing instead of the living person of God, you’ll become less and less a person and more and more a thing.

4. The capacity for endless praise

How will we escape? I told you this is a packed text. This text is like an arrow. If you really listen to it, this text is like an arrow in a bow, and the bow is bent. The bow is really bent. How are we going to escape? Here’s what you have to do. Admittedly, the text doesn’t tell you much about it, because what Paul’s going to tell you God has done about it comes later on in the next chapters, especially chapters 3 and 4. But there’s a hint here, especially at the very end, when it says we “… worshiped … created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

Think with me for a second. The first thing you have to do, if you want to escape the idols of your heart and the hardening that comes with them, is you have to really not waste your sorrows. You have to make good use of your disappointments. There has never been a better time than now. There have never been more disappointments in New York City than now.

Why? Well, here’s why. It says in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them over …” To what? Now don’t forget what the right translation is. God gave them over to the strongest desires of their hearts. The worst thing God can do to you, and the most just form of punishment God could possibly give you, is to give you over to the strongest desires of your hearts. In other words, let your wishes come true. That’s the worst thing God could possibly do, and the most fair thing.

Oscar Wilde, of all people, said, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” You think about that. It’s right out of Romans 1. When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers. Oscar Wilde knew that when he got the things his heart most wanted it was the worst possible thing for him, because our hearts are disordered, our hearts have idolatrous desires. They have epi-desires, over-desires.

The worst thing God could possibly do is give you what you want, give you over. You know, the word give over is actually a word that means surrender to your enemies. That’s an amazing verse. Paul is saying your enemies are the strongest desires of your heart, the idolatrous desires of your heart. The worst thing God could actually do is give you a good life, let everything happen the way you want it to happen.

Richard Baxter, the old seventeenth-century Puritan, has a section on particular kinds of spiritual problems, and he has a frightening section which he wrote in the 1650s or 1660s on if you set your heart on money and you actually get it, how horrible that is for you spiritually. He says, for example, if you set your heart on money and you actually make it, several things happen.

One is you, first of all, mistake wealth and savvy and skill and smarts for character, because you’re smart and you’re savvy and you’ve made this money. You want to believe it’s because of your character. So you mistake wealth and savvy for character. Then the rest of your life, you make all kinds of terrible choices in relationships, because you’ll mistake wealth and savvy for character, and it’s not true.

You’ll also become very proud. He says wealthy people believe they’re smart about every area, they’re experts on everything. He says everybody sees it and everybody laughs at it, but nobody can say anything because of your power, which makes it impossible for people to tell the truth. He goes on and on and on and says the worst thing that could possibly happen is to set your heart on money and get it.

But it’s really true about anything. Kathy and I, before we were married, had really good prayer lives. Neither of us really thought we were going to get married to anybody. We got married, and without our knowing it, our prayer life kind of went into the toilet. Why? Well, why do you have to pray to God when all you could do is just call on the phone?

John Newton said the worst thing about a good marriage is the problem of idolatry. For many years, we had no idea how poor our prayer life was because we had made idols out of each other. We didn’t see it that way. We didn’t understand that. But when sickness came, when bad sickness came to both of us, we realized our prayer life was nothing like it should have been. The best thing that happened to us was our idols were in jeopardy. It gave us a prayer life back.

The best thing that can happen, according to Oscar Wilde, is God not answering your prayer. At that time, and only at that time, do I begin to see this anxiety I’m feeling, this guilt I’m feeling, this anger I’m feeling … it’s pathological. It’s not caused by the circumstances. It’s caused by my over-trust in things, my looking to things to give me what only Jesus can give me. It’s only in bad times that you will ever see your idols. It’s the only opportunity you have … briefly, when bad times come … to get on top of them.

Then besides making good use of your troubles, the second thing you have to do is learn to do what the angels do, which is endlessly praise. See, the only way to get your hearts to stop worshiping other things is to worship the right thing. Who endlessly praises God? The angels. In 1 Peter 1:10–12, we read, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets spoke of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. They spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, into which things even angels long to look.”

The phrase long to look … It says here the angels long to look at the gospel. They long to look at Jesus dying for us. They long to look at the glory of it and the beauty of it and the wisdom of it and the love of it. They can’t get enough of it. Do you know what that phrase long to look is? It’s the word epithymia. It’s the word that’s usually translated lust. The angels lust after the gospel. What does that mean?

Here’s what it means. The deepest passions of angels’ hearts are satisfied by looking at the love and the beauty and the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Reveling in it, rejoicing in it, singing praise … It wasn’t even for them. See, when the deepest passions of your heart are satisfied by praising and adoring Jesus Christ, then all other passions are put in their place.

You can look at approval, and you can look at romance, and you can look at all these things you wish you had, and you can say to them, “I can live without you, because I have Jesus Christ. If I can’t live without you, I’ll never be able to live safely spiritually with you. Therefore, don’t you tell me how to live my life. Don’t you push me around. Don’t you inflict anxiety and guilt on me.”

You can spit in the world’s eye, if you have learned, like the angels, to look at the gospel and be so moved by his love for you and love him for his love for you, especially when you realize this word … It says God gives us over to our strongest desires, but do you realize in Romans 8 it says God gave him over to die for us? And in Ephesians 5 it says Jesus Christ gave himself over to die for us.

When you see Jesus Christ giving himself over to his enemies to die for us, out of love for us, to pay for our sins, nothing else will take functional control of your heart. If you see him giving himself over for you, you will not be given up and given over to your lusts, to your idols. Learn to sing the praises of the one who died for you. Here’s actually a hymn that was written many years ago about this very subject by William Cowper.

The dearest idol I have known,

Whate’er that idol be,

Help me to tear it from thy throne,

And worship only thee.

Let’s pray.

Thank you, Father, for being the one God who, if we get you, will satisfy us to the bottom, and if we fail you, will forgive us. If we live for our career, our career can’t die for our sins. We pray, Father, that you would help us to rest in the beauty of what Jesus Christ has done. Teach us how to praise you endlessly, especially for your gospel grace.

As we do it, as we sing your praises, and as we think about what you’ve done, our hearts will heal. We’ll get from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We’ll become more and more personal. We’ll be more and more free to live our lives instead of being driven by fears and guilt and anxiety. Oh, Lord, give us the lives that are possible if we love what your Son our Savior has done for us, Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, amen.

 
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TIM KELLER: TWO WAYS THE GOSPEL CHANGES YOUR VIEW OF SIN

THE GOSPEL CHANGES YOUR VIEW OF SIN

In Luke 11, Jesus is instructing his followers on the subject of prayer, and in the midst of it he says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Luke 11:13).

This off-handed reference to his own disciples as “evil” reveals an astounding (to modern readers) assumption by Jesus; namely, that even the best human beings are so radically corrupt that they can be referred to as evil persons. Nevertheless, in spite of calling them evil, Jesus obviously loves his disciples with the utmost tenderness and even delight, and he is willing to pay the ultimate price for them (John 13; 17:20–26).

This view differs totally from the view of sin and evil prevalent in the world today. No one, apart from those who hold Jesus’ view of sin, can look at friends and family, take genuine delight in them, and say, “I love them—but they have lots of evil in them! And so do I!”

What then is the biblical view of sin? Sin is a distortion and dislocation of the heart from its true center in God (Romans 1:21–25). This distortion is expressed as a basic motive for all human life—the heart desire of every person to be his or her own savior and lord (the serpent’s original temptation in Genesis 3:5 was “you will be like God”).

Søren Kierkegaard used very modern terms when he defined sin as building your identity on anything besides God (See Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, 1849). That definition is just another way to convey the old biblical themes of idolatry, self-justification, and self-glorification.

Sin, therefore, is something that everyone is doing all the time (see Romans 1:18–3:20, with the summary in 3:20). People who flout God’s moral law are doing this overtly, of course, but even moral, religious people are trying to be their own saviors by earning salvation and being good. It is just as possible to avoid Jesus as Savior (to be your own savior) by keeping God’s law as by breaking it. Everyone is separated from God equally—regardless of the external form of behavior.

The fundamental motives of self-justification and self-glorification are what distort our lives and alienate us from God. Unless a person is converted, these mo- tives operate as the main driver for everything we do. This situation is true of every culture and class of people. In the ultimate sense, then, everyone is equally a sinner in need of Jesus’ salvation by grace alone.

Once this radical view of sin is grasped, it revolutionizes the believer’s attitude toward others who do not share his or her beliefs. Here are two ways it changes you in this regard.

First, it means you sense more than ever a common humanity with others. The biblical view significantly changes in Christians the natural and traditional human attitudes toward those who behave in ways that they do not approve. It is normal for human beings (whose hearts are always seeking to justify themselves and who are always trying to make the case that they are one of the “good guys”) to divide the world into the good and the bad. If, however, everyone is naturally alienated from God and therefore “evil,” then that goes for everyone from murderers to ministers.

The biblical teaching on sin shows us the complete pervasiveness of sin and the ultimate impossibility of dividing the world neatly into sinful people and good people. It eliminates our attitudes of superiority toward others and our practices of shunning or excluding those with whom we differ.

Second, it means you expect to be constantly misunderstood—especially about sin! The gospel message is that we are saved by Christ’s work, not by our work. But everyone else (even most people in church) believes that Christianity is just another form of religion, which operates on the principle that you are saved if you live a good life and avoid sin. Therefore, when others hear a Christian call something “sin,” they believe you are saying, “These are bad people (and I am good). These are people who should be shunned, excluded (and I should be welcomed). These are people whom God condemns because of this behavior (but I am accepted by God because I don’t do that).”

You may not mean that by the term “sin” at all, but you must realize and expect that others will hear what you are saying that way. They have to. Until they grasp the profound difference between religion and the Christian faith, they will probably understand your invoking of the word “sin” as self-righteous condemnation—no matter what your disclaimers.

For example, if most people hear you saying, “People who have sex outside of marriage are sinning,” they will immediately believe you look down on them, that you think they are lost because of that behavior, that you are one of the “good people” who don’t do things like that, and so on. If people hear a Christian say, “Well, these people are sinning, but I don’t think of myself as any better than they are—we are all sinners needing grace,” they will think you have spoken nonsense. They have a completely different grid or paradigm in their minds about how anyone can approach and relate to God, and they are hearing the word “sin” through that grid.

This reality is why wise Christians will in general try to avoid public pronouncements on particular behaviors as sinful. Rather, they will try to help people hear the radical message of the Bible about the true inward nature of sin, its universality, and salvation by grace. They will try to explain that people are ultimately lost only if they are too proud to see they are lost and in need of a Savior who saves by sheer grace, just as a drowning person offered a life preserver will only die if he won’t admit he needs it.

Christians must talk to their friends about sin to explain our need for Jesus and for God’s grace, but we must do so in a way that quickly puts the term in context—the context of the full message of Jesus’ salvation.

Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Keller, Redeemer City to City. This article first appeared in the Redeemer Report in January 2003.

We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

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The Power of the Gospel Over Idolatry in the 21st Century

Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”

A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison

One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences?  Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.

One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question.  Why is idolatry so important in the Bible?  Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question.  How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior?  In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?

These questions-and their answers-eventually intertwined.  That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counseling of troubled people.

THE RELATIONSHIP OF INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATION TO SOCIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING

The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry.  But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament which long troubled me.  The last line of 1 John woos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).  In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word?  Is it perhaps a scribal emendation?  Is it an awkwardfaux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language?  Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked onto the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles?  Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.

Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart.  Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?  It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings.  In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question.  Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?  The undesirable answers to this question—answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,” the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.2

The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate 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 externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies.  The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior-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 with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12).  The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.

An Internal Problem

The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods.  But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here.  First, the Bible internalizes the problem.  “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8.  The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members.  The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry.  The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized 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 Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings.  The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia).  The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.”  It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7.  Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires.  Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5

A Social Problem

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

That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions.  Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behavior and mutual influence under the microscope.  The “lack” is only in specific application.  The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system—or any other size or kind of social grouping—work and influence one another for good or ill.  For example, the life patterns often labeled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.”  In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other.  They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.

The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well.  There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods.  In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.

The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and 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, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live.  Their idols sometimes are modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting…hell on earth.

Spiritual Counterfeits

Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth.  Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only…then….”  For example, the wife’s “enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the 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 cover for him, then disaster will occur.”  Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accursedness.  Idols lie, enslave, and murder.  They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning.  They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is powerfully extended by the Bible.  Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning.  The idols of 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 wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life.  The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries.  These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.

In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.”  The problem in human motivation—the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry.  Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.

This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset.  This second question is a counseling question.  How on earth do we put together the following three things?  First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins.  Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.

Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems.  People suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do.  These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like.  These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization.  My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems.  If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.

Third, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware.  We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us.  My behavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me.  “You might hurt me…so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.”  My behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs.”  Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.

How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?!  That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God).  It is also the question that any Christian counselor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind.  The Bible’s view of man—both individual and social life—alone holds these things together.

A Three-Way Tension

Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features.  All psychologies grapple with these issues.  But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heart which is both self-deceived and life-determining.

Here are some examples.  Moralism—the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street—sticks with responsible behavior.  Complex causalities are muted in toto.  Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens.  Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted.  Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination.  Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted.  Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies.  But the present milieu and responsible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.

Unity ‘with Respect to God’

The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words!—speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision.  There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count.  There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind.  “Idols of the heart,” “desires of the flesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing after…,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals.  There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us.  The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us.  Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death.  They sin against us.  God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations.  I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad 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 simultaneously true?

The answer, which all the psychologies and sociologies miss, is actually quite simple.  Human motivation is always “with respect to God.”  The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” because they themselves are idolatrously motivated.  In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.

Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society.  Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic.  It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these.  These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon which is essentially religious or covenantal.  Motivation is always God-relational.  Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue.  It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry.  The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly.  Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.

The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?”  The final question is,“Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?”  In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another.  People do not have needs.  We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan.  The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god?  Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.

Hunger as Idolatry

When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior.  I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears.  The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.”  Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on.  But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically.  I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”

We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously.  I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes.  Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving.  The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.

The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological.  Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes.  Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety.  Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety.  Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice.  Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed.  Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements.  The variations and permutations are endless.

Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another.13 Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms.  A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food.  For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs.  Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death.  Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status.  Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms.  Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger.  Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost.  I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry.  For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!

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, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals.  But the same critique applies.  When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious 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 by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.”  Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.”  Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation.  They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.

Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous.  “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger.  Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them.  In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.14

Idols: A Secondary Development?

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created.  Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs.  The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need.  In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs.  Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs.  Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ.  Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor.  We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor.  We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are.  We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people.  The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.

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

It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols.  Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money.  A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.

The Bible is simpler.  Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous.  Idols can be compounded on top of idols.  But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.

The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior.  The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry.  Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.

CASE STUDY AND ANALYSIS

Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.

Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years.  They have two children.  He is a highly committed Christian.  He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor.  He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage.  He became enraged and beat her up.  Then he ran away, threatening never to come back.  He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.

The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness.  Wally has no close friends.

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

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

Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family.  He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42.  By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent 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 I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”

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

Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast.  “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.”  His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating.  He loves Jesus Christ.  He believes the Gospel.  He desires to share Christ with others.  He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped.  “I just react instinctively.  Then I feel guilty.  You know the pattern!”

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

How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?

“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry

Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions.  They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda).  Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma.  Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure.  If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.”  There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.

His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.”  Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand.  “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.”  “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side.  We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned.  “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.”  Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him.  At the same time Wally bought the idol.  He is simultaneously a victim and guilty.  He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system.  He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.

Relationships are rarely static.  There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion.  At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself.  At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.”  At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father.  He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.”  Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.

At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands.  He pitted his will against his father.  Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel.  In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use.  One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17

There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture.  His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father.  Idols are fluid.  The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead.  But rebellion is not unmixed.  It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies.  “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me.  At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”

Wally’s father was not static either.  In his later years he mellowed considerably.  Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the 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 father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement.  Our hearts also evolve.  A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled.  The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death.  Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.

Multiple Idols

We become infested with idols.  The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships.  Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church.  He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children.  Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship.  He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.

We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections.  We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail.  His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen.  The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy.  He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them.  He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded.  He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed.  All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.

Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream.  Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods.  In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme.  First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures.  Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture.  Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.

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

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

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

This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.”  False gods are highly catching!  With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like.  Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them.  False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates.  “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture 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 for their attention.  These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins.  But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions.  They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences.  Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others.  Both tempt me, and I must battle both.

Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility.  But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives.  In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded.  The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely.  But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.

Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry

At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own.  He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems.  But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values.  His life implicitly validates many lies.  His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols.  Is he a Christian?  Yes.  But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ.  There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life.  But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.

Idols are rarely solitary.  Our lives become infested with them.  Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods.  For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois.  The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior.  They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes.  Your performance in my eyes.”

Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life.  At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure 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.  He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.”  Of course, this is only a sampler.  Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.

The real Wally is irreducibly complex!  Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties.  This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case?  Yes, there are.  Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes.  He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him.  Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally.  “Pride” (I play god) 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 repeated in Wally’s life.  Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight.  Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in 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 and do not speculate abstract typologies.  The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view.  In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses 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 temperaments.  He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family.  His root sin is anger.  His problem is low self-esteem.  In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth.  Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge.  In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.

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 not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!”  For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth.  A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.

But sin is creative as well as habitual!  We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods.  The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience.  Typologies are pseudo-explanations.  They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power.  At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people.  At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual.  At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.

How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like.  Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:

Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple.  It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult.  While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning.  The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes.  It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25

 ‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair

How do individual styles develop?  Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols.  It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart.  Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail.  Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.

Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us.  For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal.  For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement.  His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports.  The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people.  For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.

Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate 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 hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth.  In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.

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

OTHER DIAGNOSTIC PERSPECTIVES AND THE GOSPEL: MULTIPERSPECTIVAL INTERPRETATION

As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry.  The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment.  Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes.  The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world.  But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.

Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living.  “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers.  Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods.  Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally.  Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism?  Decidedly not.  But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s.  The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil.  Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer.  But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.

The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people.  Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like.  This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.”  “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.

Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally.  His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle.  Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component.  The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’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 flare into rage and cursing.  A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair.  A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse.  Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins.  It does not create new kinds of sins.

The Role of the Will

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable.  As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility.  Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent.  Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right.  He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.”  He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.

Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil.  The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices.  One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly.  Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences.  Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, 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, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.

But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random.  These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life.  Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change.  His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief.  One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative.  In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them.  It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion.  He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world.  The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.

My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!).  A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive.  But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”

The Lordship Question

There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole.  The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention.  But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God.  This can be looked at through numerous lenses:

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

  • Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, 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 hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.

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

  • Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.

Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it.  Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world.  The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes.  Wally is fully responsible for what he does.  Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions.  Wally is 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 him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.

Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people?  But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment.  The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.

One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively.  There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this.  The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived.  But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people.  What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life.  People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.

How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns?  But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ.  Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable.  I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior.  Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior.  The heart issues are typically misread, however.  “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God.  Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic 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 emotional problems.  “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.”  The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you.  Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.”  Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.

What is the Gospel?

What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped?  “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures.  The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.”  Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are.  God has unconditional love for you.”  That is not the biblical Gospel, however.  God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large.  A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.

The Gospel is better than unconditional love.  The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.”  Christ bears the curse you deserve.  Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness.  Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.”  He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.”  The center of gravity is different.  The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself.  Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please.  But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel.  The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me.  It loses its force 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 healed lightly.”30

Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem.  Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins.  The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated.  Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically.  In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.

Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu.  Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts.  Human responsibility would be compromised.  But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ.  Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully.  As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us.  We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power.  We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.

Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation.  Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.”  But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning.  The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration.  There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs.  Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us.  Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31

I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences.  People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-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 gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:

Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.  Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.  Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33

Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart.  He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.

The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies.  The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior.  The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.

Article published on October 9, 2009 @ http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Powlison

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at: http://www.ccef.org/biography/david-powlison#sthash.BgnGUHsy.dpuf


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

2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.

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

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

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” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols.  If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that.  I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.

I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry.  The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.

8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound.  This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior.  This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.”  Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations.  But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation.  Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.

9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution.  This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases.  That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people.  The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.

The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.”  The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ!  Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional 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 replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner.  Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God.  Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.

Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.

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

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

11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives.  Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals.  Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.

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

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

14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.

15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us.  The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.

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

16 Mark 10:42-45.

17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.”  It could equally be said that they boil up around us.  There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.

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

19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle?  There may well be.  In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling?  Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships.  The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).

I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling.  Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins.  My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children.  That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out.  His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues.  But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.

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 endless variety of forms.

21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced.  Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics.  Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship.  The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif).  In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship.  For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.

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

23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.

24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power.  It is purely descriptive.  It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”

25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.

26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer.  Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers.  James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.

27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.”  Satan is the arch-deceiver.  We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu.  Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.

28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation.  See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for 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 Christian counselors.

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

30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).

31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith.  Psalm 23—like many 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 to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions).  Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.

32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents.  There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.

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

33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.

– See more at: http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair#sthash.oEMKasPC.dpuf

 

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Tim Keller on “Removing Idols From Your Heart”

Sermon: Removing Idols of the Heart – Series: Growth in Christ, Part 1—October 22, 1989

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Colossians 3:5–11

We are in the middle of a series of studies of Christian growth, and eventually we’re going to be talking about the fruit of the Spirit here. We’re going to be looking at love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control. We’re going to be looking at all of those, but for these few weeks here we’re looking at how you can create a dynamic (a cycle) in your life that results in supernatural maturity and character change, and what we have been saying is there is a combustion cycle, you might say, a dynamic, a motor that needs to be going on in the heart of a Christian.

When that cycle is going there is growth, there is progress, and if there is no progress in your life, it’s because that cycle is not going. It’s a two-part cycle, and we have said that cycle is repentance and faith. Let’s again read the passage we’ve continually looked at, but we’re going to be looking at it in more detail in one aspect here tonight. We’ve been looking at it for a number of weeks, but we’re especially going to read Colossians 3, and I’m going to read verses 5–11, because it’s about repentance, and that’s what we’re looking at tonight.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

The Word of the Lord

A quick review, but an important review. Repentance. When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg door to start the Protestant Reformation (one of the watersheds in the history of the world), the first thesis was all of life is repentance. That is misunderstood by the Christian church today. I believe the average Christian believes repentance is something for the bad times. It’s something for when you have done something rather majorly wrong.

You slid back in the Christian life. Then you need these times of repentance, but otherwise a Christian is supposed to walk on (if he or she is doing it right) in a obedience and having victory over sin and over troubles and rising above things and not letting anything get to them and always rejoicing in the Lord, whatever that is. Repentance is not understood the way Martin Luther understood it, who after all was the first Protestant, and we probably better take this seriously. He might have understood more about evangelical religion than many of the rest of us.

You see, he was right, not us. The cycle by which you grow, the thing you must be doing daily, is moving from repentance to faith. You remember in Luke 7, Jesus was in the home of Simon, a respectable pillar of the community, and when he was there a woman of ill-repute came in and began to kiss Jesus’ feet and anoint them, and Simon thought to himself, “If this man knew the kind of woman she was, he wouldn’t be doing this.” Or he probably also thought this, although it’s not listed in the text, “If this man does know what kind of woman this is and he’s letting her kiss his feet, what’s going on here?”

Jesus turns to Simon, perceiving his heart, and he says, “Let me tell you a story.” Whenever Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story,” you’re in for trouble. He has you in a corner, all right. He says, “Simon, there were two debtors. A single man had two debtors, and one debtor owed the man 50 denarii …” I still don’t know exactly what that is in yen yet, but I’ll find out. “… and the other debtor owed the man 500. He forgave both.” He said, “Simon, which of the two will love him more?”

Simon said, “Well, the one who was forgiven 500 denarii.” Then he turned to Simon and said, “Simon, listen. Ever since I got here she has been kissing my feet. She loves me, Simon. You don’t,” and then he said, “Because she was forgiven much, she loves much.” The last line of the little parable is, “… he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Here is what he was saying: “The difference between you and her, Simon, is not that you are more moral and she is less, or that somehow, because we’ve changed our standards, she is more moral because she is more honest or authentic or something like that and you’re a hypocrite or a stuffed shirt. That’s not the point.

She has more love and joy in her life toward me because her repentance is deeper, because she knows the size of her debt.” Because of her repentance being deeper and deeper her joy and her love are getting greater and greater, because the dynamic was unleashed in her heart. It was going on, and it wasn’t in Simon’s heart. Simon kept repentance for the bad times. Simon says, “I’m a pretty good person. I move right along, and as a result, occasionally … Yes, I repented last January, remember, when I did this thing I shouldn’t have done, and I repented maybe the September before that.”

He’s like most of us. Repentance is for the bad times, and as a result this woman is way ahead of him. Her joy and her love are deeper because her repentance is deeper. You see, the dynamic goes like that. If you understand the gospel (that Jesus Christ has covered your sins and he actually is your Savior) that means God doesn’t accept you because of your efforts but because of what Jesus has done. You’re accepted in him. You’re loved in him. If you understand that, then when you see your sins more deeply and when you repent, that releases joy and love.

If, on the other hand, you don’t rest your life on the gospel … If you’re an atheist, or if you’re a criminal, or if you’re a very moral and religious person but you don’t rest your life on the gospel … All those people are in the same boat for the purposes of this discussion because they all basically rely not on Jesus Christ for their sense of self-worth and acceptance, but rather they rely on their own power and ability. If you’re like that, if you’re one of them, then a discovery of your sin and a discovery of your weakness is going to lead you to despair.

In other words, repentance leads to despair if you don’t understand the gospel, and repentance leads to joy and love and a burst of energy and growth if you do, because repentance leads to a greater appreciation and gratitude and thrill at what Jesus has done for us. That is the dynamic and as that’s moving along, you grow. See, it’s very misunderstood. That is how you grow, and that’s what we’re talking about. The reason I keep repeating it is because I know how many of us think about repentance, but, oh, be very careful.

If you find that to look at your sins and to get a deeper knowledge of your sins leads to despair, I have to begin to ask you on what basis do you believe God loves you? What is the basis? Is it your efforts? Is it your moral excellence? Is it coming up to your standards? If so, of course repentance is just going to push you down, but if on the other hand Jesus Christ is your Savior, then repentance is the beginning of that cycle, it gets the combustion cycle going, and that’s what we’re talking about and what we have been talking about.

Now one more thing. See, I’m trying to recap, because I know people are in an out. A lot of you weren’t here last week or the week before last, so I have to recap, but I’m trying to recap using new illustrations so even if you were here, you’re getting a chance to rethink it and rethink it so it becomes clearer. The other thing I have to recap is we have tried to talk about repentance using a different name. We’ve said repentance is identifying and removing the idols of the heart. Now the reason we’re doing that is because if you don’t understand the idols of the heart, you can still think of repentance as just basically stopping certain kinds of superficial, external behavioral sins.

As we reread the Scripture we see the things the Bible talks about such as greed or sexual immorality and so on are really idols, you see. For example, covetousness (greed) is called an idol. Real quickly, again, psychologically from our point of view, an idol is actually something you get your identity from. Now I used an illustration this morning in the morning service I can use again tonight. Rocky Balboa says he wants to go the distance. He’s going to go for it. Why? What is he going for?

He says in the most important line in the film, “If I can just go the distance, I’ll know I’m not a bum.” Now I would submit to you … I propose to you … that you have something just like Rocky does in your life you believe, and you talk to yourself about it, and you say, “If I can have that, if I can get that, then I’ll know I’m not a bum.” We all have some things. In some cases, it might be relationships. In some cases, it might be financial security or independence. In some cases, it might be achievement and status.

It’s different for everybody, but there are some things in your life you look at and you say, “If I have that, I won’t be a bum.” That’s what an idol is, because an idol is making something else besides Jesus Christ your life, and the only way you can tell if something is an idol usually is God sends a problem into your life, and you begin to see you can’t get to that thing. “I can’t get there.” When you can’t get to it, you begin to realize what really is running your life. Now that is the psychological way to look at an idol. It’s identifying with something saying, “That’s my life. Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”

Theologically, what the Bible says is these are things you are making your righteousness. See, from God’s point of view, God says what you have done is you have gone about to patch up a righteousness of your own. Paul, for example, in Philippians, the book right before Colossians, talks about himself like this. He says, I was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”

He says, “… I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from [my striving], but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Now what he is very clearly saying is he’s giving you a list of all the things that used to be his righteousness. He’s saying, “Look at my pedigree. Look at my family background. Look at my career accomplishments. Look at my intellectual attainments, but I count them all as loss.”

What he means is, “They used to be my righteousness. They were the things I relied on and said, ‘This is my honor. This is my glory. This is my dignity.’ ” He said in order to be a Christian he had to give up on that, and he said, “I count them as rubbish.” Some of you know (it depends on your translation) rubbish is a kind of nice word the translators use there because it might be offensive. He said, “I count them all as dung, excrement, bowel movement,” you see, because that had become his righteousness.

Now the fact is, though, when you become a Christian, though you say, “Now I know God accepts me only because of the righteousness of Christ” (that’s what the gospel is), you still have a big part of yourself the Bible calls the “old” man. You have the new man who says, “Only in Jesus Christ am I acceptable, and he is my righteousness. He is my honor. He is my glory.” On the other hand, you have the “old” man who says, “Are you kidding?” You know, like that little 16-year-old girl years ago I remember talking to down in Hopewell, Virginia, at that other church I invited you to today.

I remember sitting down with Debbie. She was 16 years old. She was five foot ten and weighed about 90 pounds, and she couldn’t get dates. She was always saying, “Nobody wants to ask me out.” In as gentle a way as I possibly could do it, I used to say … I mean, I took time doing this. I didn’t just throw this at her, but I gently reminded her since she was a Christian and she professed faith in Christ, we have so many great things in Christ. We have our adoption. We’re in the family. We have guidance. We have protection. We have all these things. We’re going to rule and reign with him forever.

You talk about that, and at one point she looked at me, and she said, “Well, what good is all that if you’re not popular?” You see, Debbie will mature because at some point she’ll realize you don’t say that to ministers, and a couple of years after that, she’ll realize you don’t even say that to yourself because you don’t want to believe you’re really that crass. You don’t want to believe you’re really that enslaved. You don’t want to believe you’re really that childish, but we are, you see, and we do have a little thing down there saying, “If I can just go here, I’ll know I’m not a bum.”

We do have a little thing down there saying, “If I don’t have this, then what good is everything else?” You see, that was Debbie’s righteousness. She was going about doing that. There was an “old” man (a part of her) still operating on the old basis. The job of the Christian in order to grow is to identify what those things are and to pull them out. Now, by the way, we’re not going to go into identifying. That’s what we did last week, but doing that is a process like this. You’re looking at yourself and you’re saying, “Why am I so angry? Why am I so worried? Why am I so depressed?”

Then you say, “Let me analyze this. What is actually driving me? What goals do I feel like I must have?” Here is a good question a counselor friend of mine wrote down and would give his counselees when they were trying to analyze themselves and understand themselves. He says ask yourself this: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust?” That’s a great word, functional trust. Everybody who is a Christian says, “Oh, I trust Jesus and nothing else,” and he says, “I don’t care about what you say and what you believe and what you appear to say. What is your heart functionally trusting? What does it actually trust? What does it really rely on?

Here is the whole question: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust, its functional preoccupation, loyalty, service, and delight?” You can do that when you find yourself getting extremely anxious and biting your nails down to the knuckle. When you find yourself very depressed or extremely angry, you say, “What is it out there that I’m not getting to and why is it driving me like this?” That’s if you’re failing. But what if you’re succeeding and you find yourself stretching and stretching and working harder and enjoying it less?

At a certain point, you need to ask yourself a similar question. You should say, “The desires I have for this achievement, as satisfying as they are, isn’t it possible what’s going on here is I’m trying to go about patching up a righteousness of my own? Isn’t this success actually my effort to do for myself what only Jesus Christ can do for me? Am I trying to patch up a righteousness of my own?” Now that is what repentance is, and as we said before, you realize the flesh (the “old” man) …

Talking about the word, flesh, when the Bible says, “kill the flesh” or “war against the flesh,” it’s not talking about your body. When the Bible talks about the flesh, it will say, “These are the works of the flesh,” and it will say gossip, envy, pride … things that have nothing to do with the body … because the word flesh does not mean the body, usually, in the Bible when it talks like that. Usually, when the Bible talks about the flesh versus the spirit, the flesh is Self. It’s the “old” man. It’s the side of you who still wants to go about making its own righteousness, wanting to live for its own glory.

The fact is your flesh can still operate when you become a Christian. It can still operate, absolutely. People who still have a need to dominate the discussion, the need to hold forth, the need for security, the need for love and approval … You come into the church (the kingdom) and you can still be dominated by the flesh even in all of your Christian activity. Oh, yeah. There are some people who have this deep need for certainty and control.

They come into the church, and every time they take a class on the Bible what they’re actually doing, instead of reading the Bible to say, “Ah, I need to get this into my life,” instead they’re saying, “Aha! Now I can spot heresy. Now I can spot people who are not accurate, who are not preaching the true Word of God. Now I can hit them. Now I can get them. Now I can tell them what’s wrong.” There are a lot of people, you see, who are very critical and love control and love to be always the right ones.

Before they were Christians, they were insufferable, and now that they’re Christians, they’re still insufferable because the flesh is continuing to dominate them. It’s still continuing to control them. It’s very, very important to see. Therefore, every one of us has an “old” man. Every one of us has a flesh. Every one of us has a way of going about patching up our own righteousness, and the only way in which we’re going to grow is to recognize the ways in which that happens and repent of it every day.

You’re going to see pride. You’re going to see selfishness. You’re going to see gossip and defense. By the way, I know one pastor who, when somebody says, “I really don’t see all this going on in my life,” he says, “Okay. I want you to really do a discipline for me. This week a) don’t gossip, b) don’t defend yourself, and c) don’t brag. Now watch yourself. Never, ever, ever gossip. In other words, say nothing bad about anybody else, never defend yourself, and don’t brag. You just try that for a week and just see how easy it is.”

If you start looking for that sort of thing, which is the flesh, you’re going to find it’s all over. Repentance. Now last week, after the service a couple of people came up and said, “You were specific enough about identifying it. You were specific enough about making me feel terrible. You did a wonderful job of that. I thought I was doing okay until you showed me these things, but please give me a very specific one-two-three step way of taking the things out. I mean, it’s nice to see them, but taking the things out.

Okay. Let’s begin. I’ll be real specific, but on the other hand, it’s not that easy. Some of you get more frustrated than you ought to when you begin to see the things that are driving you, and you say, “I just can’t seem to purify my motives.” Some people say, “Now that you’ve helped me look at my motives, now that you’ve begun to help me see that, I begin to realize I can never purify my motives, and I start to feel discouraged, and I start to feel in despair.”

1. When you’re able to spot your problems like you are, half the battle is over

The only way your flesh can completely dominate you is if you are not aware of it at all. In a battle, for example, if the enemy is completely unknown to you (you don’t know where the enemy is or what their movements are at all) you’re going to get annihilated. If on the other hand, you can spot the enemy’s movements then you’re going to have a big fight. You might still lose on a given day, but at least you have a fighting chance.

In the same way, the only way you can be completely dominated by your flesh is if you don’t see it at all. If you know, because people have shown it to you and God has shown it to you, you need to control a group you’re in or if somebody has shown you that you’re extremely sensitive to what people think of you and you constantly get your feelings hurt … In other words, if you begin to get aware of your pride and the way in which your pride is shaped … Some of us, our pride (our Self, our flesh) takes the form of a need for domination and holding forth and telling everybody how they ought to live.

Others of us are just shy, self-conscious, or afraid of what people think and always getting our feelings hurt, which is just another form of self-centeredness. It’s just another form of pride. When you begin to see the form and see it for what it is, it no longer can ambush you the same way. On a given week you may fall prey to it, but if you’re able to name it, if you’re able to see it … In fact, anybody who comes and says, “Oh, I see all kinds of bad motives. I see all kinds of problems. I’m so discouraged,” I say, “You are not being really dominated by your flesh if you’re upset like that, if you can see the movement of it.

You have already basically engaged it. The most important part of the battle is actually over, and that is, you woke up.” You see, if the enemy is after you and you’re asleep, there won’t even be a battle. You’ll be dead, but if you’re awake, at least there will be a battle. If you feel the fight, that is a sign of life, and it’s a sign of growth, and it’s a sign God is working in you. The only people who are really losing are the people who have no struggle in their life at all, you see. Don’t be discouraged when you see the bad motives. That is a sign of life.

2. There are two basic parts to repenting of a sin

I began to tell you about the first one last week, but I’ll finish it and tell you the second part, too. First, you have to unmask it, and secondly, you have to take it to the cross. Unmasking it means make sure you stop doing little rationalizations, calling the sin by nice names, you see. Be ruthless with yourself. If you say, “Well, my feelings get hurt pretty easily, you mean you’re bitter. If you say, Well, I’m just very, very concerned,” you’re actually eaten up with anxiety.

You see, call it by its name, and recognize what is going on. We talked about that last week, and I just can’t go into it. The second part, which is what I really want to bring out, is the way in which you destroy the power of a sin is to take it to the cross, not to Mount Sinai. Take it to Mount Calvary, not to Mount Sinai. I’ll explain this for a minute. If you take a sin to Mount Sinai that means you’re thinking about the danger of it. You’re thinking about how it has messed up your life.

You’re thinking about all the punishments that are probably going to come down on you for it. That is not repentance; that is self-pity. Self-pity and repentance are two different things. I came to a place in my life where I realized 90 percent of what I thought I had been doing as repentance throughout most of my life was really just self-pity. The difference between self-pity and repentance is this: Self-pity is thinking about what a mess your sin got you into.

Self-pity is thinking about the consequences of it, what a wreck it’s made of you, how God will probably get me for it, or how my parents will probably get me for it, or how my boss will probably get me for it, or all the problems it will create in my life or already has created in my life. “Oh, Lord, how sorry I am this has happened. Oh, Lord, get this out of my life.” What you’re really doing is saying, “I hate the consequences of this sin,” but you haven’t learned to hate the sin. What is happening is instead of hating the sin, you’re hating the consequences of the sin, and you’re hating yourself for being so stupid.

Self-pity leads to continuing to love the sin so it still has power over you but hating yourself. Real repentance is when you say, “What has this sin done to God? What has it cost God? What does God feel about it?” Let me give you an interesting example of two guys who wrote 300 or 400 years ago. One man’s name is Stephen Charnock. Stephen Charnock tries to explain the difference between taking your sin to Mount Sinai, where you just look at the danger of it, and taking your sin to the cross, where you see what effect it’s had on God.

When you see what effect it has had on the loving God who died so you wouldn’t do it, who died for your holiness, when you begin to see that it melts you, and it makes you begin to hate the sin. It begins to lose its attractive power over you. Instead of making you hate yourself, you find you hate it, and so the idol begins to get crushed bit by bit. Listen carefully to Stephen Charnock, because he’s using old English. Charnock says there is a difference between a legalistic conviction of sin and an evangelical one.

“A legal conviction [of sin] ariseth from a consideration of God’s justice chiefly, an evangelical conviction [of sin] from a sense of God’s goodness.” Now hear this. “A legally convinced person cries out, ‘I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion … I have provoked one that is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth whose word can tear up the foundation of the world …’ But an evangelically convinced person cries, ‘I have incensed the goodness that is like the dropping of a dew. I have offended a God that had his hands stretched out to me as a friend. My heart must be made of marble. My heart must be made of iron to throw his blood in his face.’ ”

Now you see what he’s done. Don’t you see the difference? Let me tell you. I’m going to have to close. I’ll say one more thing. You unmask the sin. We talked about that last week. You take it to the cross. The way to destroy the power of a sin in your life is to take it to the cross where, you see, Jesus Christ died so you wouldn’t do it. Jesus Christ died out of a commitment to your holiness.

When you see that and realize this sin is an insult to him because it’s putting something as more important than him in your life, yes, that will make you feel bad, but it’s not a pathological kind of bad feeling. Instead, it actually frees you, because instead of making you hate yourself, it makes you say, “I don’t want this. I know what he wants for me. This thing I can do without,” and you’re free. You have to look and see what Jesus has done. You know, there is a place in the Bible where Jesus said to the people, “Fear not those who could destroy the body, but fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell.”

Just keep this in mind. He’s talking to his disciples, all of whom were going to die horrible deaths. Stay with me for one minute here. The people who were in front of him who he talked to, we know historically how they died. Some of them were crucified, which is a pretty terrible death. Some of them were ripped to pieces. You know, one of the things they used to do to Christians was to tie one hand and one leg to this horse and one hand and one leg to this horse and just let the horses go and rip them apart. Some of them were impaled while still alive on stakes and covered with pitch and lit as torches.

Some of them had little holes drilled in their skull while they were still alive and molten lead poured into them. Jesus knew what they were going to go through, and he has the audacity to say that’s a picnic compared to hell. He says, “Don’t be afraid of any of that stuff. What’s that? That’s a Sunday school picnic compared to hell.” Jesus talked more about hell than anybody else. You want to blame hell on Paul or somebody nasty like that, I’m sorry. Go take a look. Jesus Christ experienced not just one hell but all of our hells on the cross. All of them pressed down into three hours.

Why? So you could be holy. Now if you think about it like that … Do you know what I’m doing? I’m telling you how you have to preach to yourself, because when you’re saying, like Debbie, the little 16-year-old girl, “What good is all that if you’re not popular? What good is what he’s done if you’re not popular?” You have to look. I said, “You know, Debbie …” I couldn’t do this to her because it’s a pat answer. You have to give yourself pat answers. You can’t get them from anybody else.

She should have come to the cross and said, “Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, I see what you’ve done so I wouldn’t put anything before you, so I wouldn’t do anything but be holy, because only when I’m holy am I happy. You died so I wouldn’t do this. I drop it. I don’t even want to see it. It’s an ugly thing to me because of your beauty.” That is something you should be doing every day, and usually what I do is I find a verse that works on me. You know, verses get radioactive for a while. Last week, a particular verse that got radioactive for me was the verse in Psalm 32 where it says, “You are my hiding place. You fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I’m afraid I put my trust in you.”

I began to realize, “Wait a minute here. I find all kinds of things to hide in.” If some friend calls up from some other part of the country and says, “How are things going?” and I say, “Well, we’ve only had five weeks.” “How many people are coming?” I’m so glad he asked me that. I say, “Well, I don’t know, but probably something like …” He says, “That’s wonderful.” I’m so glad he said that. I find myself hiding in that, you see.

But then all day, all week I find myself hiding in things besides him. I begin to see my flesh creeping back in. I began to see myself, and what I have to do is I have to go back to the cross with it and say, “Listen. Nothing is worth what he is. There is nothing as valuable as what he is. I put that to death.” I have to do it. You can. It’s something that is done every day. He who is forgiven much loves much. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we ask you would help us to get ahold of some of these important truths and use them in our lives. What we ask, more than anything else, is you would enable us to see the difference between repentance and self-pity, between legalistic repentance and evangelical repentance.

Father, in many of our lives we have found we’ve stayed away from looking at our sins. We’ve stayed away from dealing with our idols because we just despair when we see them, yet we realize now what we need to do. We need to recognize what they are. We need to take those things to the cross. We need to leave them there.

We pray, Father, you would enable us to do these things, because it’s only then that we grow. We want to have ourselves growing in joy and in love like that woman, because her repentance grew as well. All of life is repentance. We see that now, because all of life is your love. Your love gives us the security for that. Now Father, lead us into this. Grant us repentance into the life, for we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.

About the Preacher

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for GodKing’s CrossCounterfeit GodsThe Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.

 

 

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Dr. Tim Keller on The Pervasive Influence of Idolatry in the Human Heart

(Nobody has impacted and influenced my understanding of Jesus Christ and God’s amazing grace in the Biblical Gospel than Pastor Tim Keller – you will find more posts by Tim Keller on VLM’s website than any other writer – because nothing is more important than understanding, receiving, and applying the Gospel for closure on our past, present, and future justification and sanctification with the God of the Gospel – And nobody explains the Gospel in a more deep and applicational manner, in my opinion, than Tim Keller – DPC)

“Counterfeit Gods – The Personal Story”

I often get asked how I personally became acquainted with the pervasive influence of idolatry in the human heart.

Like many younger ministers I worked far too many hours, never saying “no” to anyone’s request for my pastoral services. When salary increases were offered to me, I turned them down. When administrative help was offered to me, I declined. I was quite proud of being the kind of person who worked very hard, never complained, and never asked for any help. This regularly brought me into conflict with my wife, who rightly contended that I was neglecting my relationships to her and to my young sons. It also led to health problems, although I was only in my early thirties.

Nevertheless, I continued to feel that the way I was living was noble and good. I believed I was sacrificially committed to the ministry of the Word. I was especially delighted to make sacrifices that nobody saw — not my people or even my family. That made me feel most noble of all. If all this created some problems for me personally, wasn’t that just evidence of how truly devoted I was? It was a very dangerous situation. My future was bleak, though I didn’t know it. In the short run, this kind of ministry workaholism is often rewarded by admiring people all around.

Some well-meaning friends, however, saw the problem and literally “laid the law” on me, showing me that I was violating the commandments of taking Sabbath and of honoring my family. I usually responded with incremental changes that never endured. Others used the modern technique of self-esteem — “You need to think of yourself; you need to do things that make you happy.” I despised that advice as terribly selfish.  I valued self-sacrifice.

It wasn’t until I began to search my heart with the Biblical category of idolatry that I made the horrendous discovery that all my supposed sacrifices were just a series of selfish actions. I was using people in order to forge my own self-appreciation. I was looking to my sacrificial ministry to give me the sense of “righteousness before God” that should only come from Jesus Christ. People make idols out of money, power, accomplishment, or moral excellence. They look to these things to “save them” — to give them the sense of purity, value, and acceptability that only Jesus can give. In my case, I was using ministry (and my own people) in this way.

Without the category of idolatry — a good thing turned into a pseudo-salvation — I would never have been able to see myself. Nothing but the concept of counterfeit gods could have blasted me out of my illusion of virtue and superiority. I thank God for this life-saving insight — though I still struggle mightily with the implementation of what I’ve learned.

*Article Originally posted by Dr. Tim Keller on October 20, 2009 at the excellent resource site: http://redeemercitytocity.com/blog/view.jsp?Blog_param=60

 About Tim Keller and His Absolutely Brilliant Gospel Centered Books:

 In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York, Dutton, 2011.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2011.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

 

 

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Book Review: Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian

 Clearly Articulates the “Now-ness” of The Gospel

I was gripped by this book from the outset because it was in going through the hardest difficulty in my life a few years ago (similar to what Tullian describes in chapter one) that I realized the idolatry for what it was in my own life and learned to once again treasure the “now-ness” (not newness) of the gospel. It’s easy to take the gospel for granted when you have been a follower of Christ for many years, but I think having to personally live out or flesh out the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ makes one better appreciate the significance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – not only in the past and future – but especially in the now.

I am very grateful for this book because Tullian articulates the gospel with passion, clarity, and hones in on how the gospel makes a difference in the now. If you have already read a lot of Tim Keller or Paul Tripp this book will have a lot of new insights for you. However, if you have never read Keller or Tripp than you are really in for a treat. I think Tullian writes in a way that’s simpler, and more concise than Keller or Tripp. No matter how you slice it, this book has great information on the distinctions between justification and sanctification and how everything we long for can only be satisfied in Christ.

I highly recommend this book especially for people who are prone to legalism, or have come from a background where “works righteousness” has been emphasized. I think this book is MUST reading if you haven’t read any of Tim Keller or Paul Tripp’s stuff. If you like this book than you will really love Keller and Tripp. These three guys have really got a good grasp of the gospel and how it applies to all of life – past, present, and future – with a special emphasis on the present.

As Tullian writes and you read his illustrations, a plethora of Scripture, and a lot of great quotes – my hope is that you too will come to treasure and apply the gospel in your own life more than ever before. It is so exciting to see so many new writers, and pastors going into the depths of the gospel with passion and clarity. He must have a generational gift inherited from his grandfather for this ability (Billy Graham). Tullian has a great story and we all do, if we have repented of our sins and put our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and seek to pursue Jesus + nothing – we will indeed get everything we have ever longed for here and beyond!

Note: I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher and was not required to write a positive review. Thanks – Crossway – for continuing to put out the best books in Christian publishing (in my humble opinion).

 

*William Graham “Tullian Tchividjian” is a Florida native (born July 13, 1972 in Jacksonville) and is the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is named after third century theologian Tertullian.

A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tchividjian is the author of The Kingdom of God: A Primer on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth), Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life’s Most Important Relationship (Multnomah), Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different  (Multnomah), Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Crossway) and, most recently – from which the review above is based, Jesus + Nothing = Everything  (Crossway).

Before becoming senior pastor of Coral Ridge, Tchividjian was the founding pastor of New City Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation which merged with Coral Ridge in April 2009.

After taking over as pastor, Tchividjian instituted sweeping changes. He made the services somewhat more contemporary than they had previously been. He canceled the church’s long-running television program, The Coral Ridge Hour. He also significantly deemphasized politics; Coral Ridge had long been reckoned as one of the most politically active churches in the country. Tchividjian’s opponents garnered enough support to force a congregational vote of confidence, but a solid majority voted to retain him as pastor. In response, more than 400 members–including a large part of the music ministry–broke off to form “The New Presbyterian Church.”

He speaks at conferences throughout the United States and his sermons are broadcast daily on the radio program Godward Living. He is the new chaplain for the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys.

He married his wife Kim in 1994 and they have three children – Gabe, Nate, and Genna.

 

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