Among the most prominent paradigms in biblical counseling is that of idolatry. The profound and pioneering work in this area by men like David Powlison (1999), Ed Welch (2003), and Paul Tripp (1999) served as an iconoclastic force for my personal understanding of human motivation. During my initial years as a counselor, I operated in a perpetual feeling I had discovered a parallel universe in which all my previous perceptions of human psychology were eclipsed by the piercing light of Scripture.
As a believer in Christ, these truths were water to my soul. Yet, as a neophyte in biblical counseling, my methodology evolved from a secular model (in which I was trained) to a model that often bordered on legalism. My error was not in helping people understand the idolatry that shaped their souls, but in doing so to the exclusion of a sound Gospel theology in the process of human change. Here are few truths that have helped me continue to refine an ever-refining approach to biblically helping others.
Promote an Awareness of Divine Presence
The Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Unless there is a Person in the universe who demands all glory from His creation, then idolatry is an empty term. The Bible speaks to this, however. The psalmist writes, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1). Humanity dwells in God’s presence, and Scripture calls us to something of profound existential significance: His glory (I Corinthians 10:31).
As counselors, it is important that we help others maintain awareness that idolatry is not primarily an intra-psychic phenomena but a profoundly interpersonal one. This awareness motivates change in the context of the relational dynamic of glorifying God. This awareness serves as a protection from futile naval-gazing under the guise of solid biblical soul care. In the end, we hope to help others realize that change has very little, if anything, to do with self-improvement. Rather it is the transcendent purposes of God’s glory that must be our aim.
Embrace a Proper View of Freedom
Freedom from idolatry does not begin with, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). It begins with setting our minds on this Gospel induced reality. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
Our deepest freedom is not found in our ability to experientially overcome sinful patterns, but in the finished work of Christ, plus nothing (to use an oft used phrase by Francis Schaeffer). Paul writes, “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). To effectively war against sin, we are wise to help others do so in the context of freedom that is already given in the Gospel. Freedom that is granted by Another, not accomplished in one’s self. Those we serve desperately need to realize they stand in freedom already as they war against idols that seek to rule. This is true even if the particular battle leaves them lacking in success.
If we fail at this point, we may inadvertently promote a process of alternative slavery in which performance and obedience serve as the final litmus test of freedom. In my experience as a counselor, some of the most glaring exhibitions of Christian freedom have been realized in the aftermath of failure and sin to the glory of a good and faithful God!
Generate Goals of Eternal Significance
Warring against idols should have a lot more to do with loving God and others than it does turning from bad to being good. It is important that the goal of “putting off” is embedded in the more expansive goal of loving God.
The ethos of self-help that pervades the cultural atmosphere tends to make even the process of sanctification a project in self-improvement. Conformity to the image of Christ is primarily about becoming creatures that consistently glorify God in all things.
Ultimately, it is not even a process that is first and foremost individual. Rather it is the actualizing of a redemptive story centered in Christ as evidence of His finished work “in order that he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28). Sanctification, this Gospel process of conformity to the very image of Jesus, is about becoming a people whose very food is to do the will of the Father (John 4:34). It is a process centered in the love for God and neighbor far more than the temporal goals of overcoming acute counseling issues.
During more than a decade of serving as a biblical counselor, providing counsel that is rich in the Gospel has been of utmost importance. Counseling can be a very arduous experience at times. When methods taken from Scripture do not seem to bring instant desired results (as though they were ever intended for such a purpose), what do we offer?
For this counselor it is in this declaration by Paul who wrote, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to life self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14, ESV). In the end, those we serve (if they are believers) belong to Jesus, and He is committed, by grace, to transform the hearts of His people that they would become zealous for the glory of God.
When we counsel with an awareness of such divine commitment, we realize that it is true; we are indeed mere instruments in this process. My response to this reality: Thanks be to God!
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