Precision within Idolatry

June 9, 2011

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

Precision within Idolatry

One of the areas in which I believe biblical counseling can grow is the precision with which we think of idolatry. I am not referring to our ability to identify the object of idolatry: a person, money, an experience, etc… Neither do I mean just singling out the desire that fuels an idolatry: pleasure, control, peace, etc… Both of these are important.

But I believe we can be precise in our understanding of idolatry in another way. An idol (by definition) replaces God. More accurately, it tends to substitute for some aspect of God. Rarely do modern people call their idols “god”; we just rely on them for some particular thing only God can do. Therefore, because God relates to humanity in many different ways, we can turn to our idols in just as many ways.

For the purpose of illustration, I will coin the phrases “idols of worship” and “idols of comfort.” Each is meant to capture different aspects of God we can replace.

Idols of Worship

  • With these idols we celebrate the object of our affection.
  • We pursue it with passion because we find it delightful. We try to savor and master the experience.
  • The mode of worship for these idols is pleasure.
  • If you will, this is an idol we “sing to.”
  • These idols would have a tendency to stem from our raw sin nature and deem God to be less desirable.

Idols of Comfort

  • With these idols we turn to them for refuge.
  • When life gets hard we turn to these false gods believing they can provide safety or a form of escape.
  • The mode of worship towards these idols is trust.
  • If you will, this is an idol we “pray to.”
  • These idols typically emanate from experiences of suffering and perceive God to be less available, relevant, or dependable.

Both forms of idolatry share some essential commonality. God has been replaced. The replacement is incapable of sustaining what is being asked. The person will experience forms of disappointment and pain.

Yet the two forms of idolatry are different in important ways. Idols of worship are “classic” idols. Idols of comfort are “subtle” idols. The first is pursued for its own sake. The latter is pursued as a means to an end. The first insults God. The latter doubts God.

So what? What is the relevance of this discussion? Does it change counseling methodology? Does it impact our theology of counseling? I believe it does.

Impact on Methodology

In both cases, the goal is to get to right beliefs about God through Scripture and by repentance. However, the “fear of God” that leads to repentance is very different. Idols of comfort already know fear. They are looking for something to be strong. Idols of worship are more rooted in pride and think they’ve already found what they’re looking for.

The words spoken to someone struggling with an idol of comfort should be more tender. The trustworthiness and understanding of the counselor serves as an ambassador for the trustworthiness and compassion of God. They are drawn from their idol. Dependence is natural and desired. Usually the scariest part of repentance and faith for these people is the absence of control.

The words spoken to someone struggling with an idol of worship are spoken to someone who does not yet see their need to be rescued. They are often still an evangelist for their idol. Their idol serves them and they want to know if God will do the same. More cognitive, relational, and emotional structures have to be torn down and built from scratch.

Impact on Theology

These are not the only categories for idolatry that could be developed. Each way that God relates to us can reveal its own flavor(s) of idolatry. We can try to replace or subsidize any aspect of God’s character or any of God’s activities towards us. The emotions that we are playing to in our false worship become indicators of how what we need points us back to God.

With this conception of idolatry, I believe it allows us to speak of the influence of suffering upon idolatry in clearer, more refined, and more compassionate ways. Our compassion does not have to be the mere avoidance of condescension (“I am a bad sinner too”) or empathy for injustice (“I would be tempted in the same way”). Our compassion can be more descriptively robust without leaving our anthropology behind or compromising biblical standards.

Extended conversations about pain, neglect, disappointment, and other forms of suffering paint a picture of how someone sought comfort before they knew there was a Comforter. In these cases, repentance may be a very sweet transfer of trust. Conviction may feel like fear and anticipation more than it feels like guilt. In this case, idolatry would be “seen through” as much as “put off.”

In these possibilities, the core categories (idolatry) and movements (repentance) of change are the same but the experience (emotions) and role of the counselor (confrontation for idols of worship; directive compassion for idols of comfort) is different. I would hope as we grow in our precision of understanding idolatry that it would enable us to capture the experience of more hurting people, win their trust, and point them to all of who God is.

Join the Conversation

What other categories of idolatry would you suggest? What is distinct about that category and what part of human experience does it help us understand? What dangers do you see in adding diagnostic categories within idolatry? In your opinion, does the potential reward merit the risk?

Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.

6 thoughts on “Precision within Idolatry

  1. Would you please suggest how we can tear down cognitive, relational, and emotional structures” for a person struggling with an idol of worship?

  2. We build our lives around our idols of worship. We believe they can deliver what they promise and that we want what they have to offer. As we build our lives around these idols (choices, values, priorities) they shape our beliefs, emotions, and relationships. “Tearing down the structures” involves not merely identifying the idol as wrong, but helping the person see that their idol is the cause of their life disruption. Until they see this connection, they will feel like repentance is taking them away from where they want to go.

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  4. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind teasing out more (here or elsewhere) what these two different types of idols look like with specific examples. And it seems like there is a lot of overlap between the two. Would you say that is the case?

  5. I would say there is significant overlap between the two. Both are examples of idolatry. An example of their difference might be: (person A) someone who struggles with an eating disorder based upon an idol of control and comes from a chaotic home or (person B) who has an idol of control rooted in their over-achieving perfectionist desire. Person A is seeking comfort from his/her idol based upon a life history of suffering. Person B is seeking pleasure from his/her desire because they believe it to be the most satisfying life.

    The difference is not false worship (both are idols) but how/why the idol is pursued. Generally, idols of comfort come from a context of suffering while idols of pleasure come from a disposition of pride/independence.

    As I mentioned in the post, I do not believe this to be the only or best division of idolatry, but I do think it is helpful in counseling contexts to differentiate what triggers a given idolatry.

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