Can or Should We Identify Idols?

July 5, 2011

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

Can or Should We Identify Idols

I recently posted a BCC Grace & Truth blog entitled “Precision Within Idolatry”. I received a critique on that post’s theology and counseling theory in a post entitled “On Counseling and the Heart”. It was not a critique of me personally, but of the benefit (or even the possibility) of identifying “idols of the heart” in counseling. My post was merely given as the latest example of this trend in biblical counseling and as feeding into the perceived dangers or distractions that can come with focusing upon idols in counseling.

I appreciate the critique and always want to learn from those who identify something I do as out of balance with biblical teaching or at its root unbiblical. This is particularly true when someone raises their concern from biblical or theological study and is someone with great experience in the subject, as is the case with this critique from Dr. Jay Adams.

I would encourage the readers of this post to review the prior two discussions before reading this part of the conversation.

What the Post Intended

I’ll start by noting that, in the first post, I presumed the reader would agree that identifying idols was biblically legitimate and a profitable counseling exercise. Because of this assumption, I focused upon unpacking or expanding these concepts rather than laying their biblical foundation. The post was meant to be illustrative rather than exegetical.

The major point of the blog was that sin (conceptualized in the language of idolatry, a connection supported by passages such as Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5) is not the same in the life of every person. We sin because we are sinners (Luke 6:45), but that does not mean the motive behind or pursuit in front of every sin is the same.

Human depravity comes with unique fingerprints. This means that not only do we worship different things, but we may worship the same thing for different reasons and in different tones. In the previous post I proposed “idols of worship” and “idols of comfort” as one helpful way to differentiate types of false worship.

I believe Paul supports this approach to people and their struggles in I Thessalonians 5:14 (ESV):

“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle [ESV footnote “disorderly” or “undisciplined”], encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”

In this passage, Paul does not focus upon the type of sin the brother is struggling with, but the disposition with which that person approached his sin. Those who approach their sin in an idle, disorderly, or undisciplined manner are typically seeking the pleasure of sin over the Lordship of God. Those who are fainthearted are typically seeking the comfort of sin over the protection of God. Paul says we should approach these two cases differently (admonish vs. encourage) and that was my primary point under “Impact on Methodology.”

Not That “New”

Another critique that was raised is that the general idea of identifying “idols of the heart” is a “new” concept being added to the Bible and which distracts from or distorts our ability to apply the Bible properly in counseling. As I understood it, this was really the crux of the critique.

So the difference can be summarized in two “if” statement. IF false worship (idolatry) is at the core of our sinful nature, and it is both possible and beneficial to identify these idols during the change process, then my post would be potentially valid. IF not, it is flawed from its most basic assumptions.

However, I believe “idolatry” (as I attempted to communicate the concept) is consistent with (and, therefore, not “new”) the writings of Dr. Jay Adams on the noetic effects of sin. Consider the following quote from A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption.

“Biblical counselors, therefore, recognize that understanding is often (if not always) selective – based upon sinful bias. They know that far too frequently counselees won’t hear what they are told, will distort what is said, and they know that they won’t always do God’s will even when they do understand it. They take into consideration, therefore, the need to call counselees to obedience to Christ, not merely to instruct them in the ways and means of obedience (p. 172).”

That final line captures the kind of counseling dialogue I was attempting to facilitate between a counselor and counselee (never replacing the agency of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God). Because of the counselee’s commitment to someone or something other than Christ, instruction alone would not cause them to follow sound biblical teaching. Their false worship would distort their ability to hear and apply sound biblical teaching.

I would contend that right thinking is one of the functions of the heart (since, as I understand Scripture, words like mind, will, soul, and spirit are summarized in the category of “heart”) and, therefore, we will not think, understand, or respond biblically until our worship is focused upon God. The phrase from the first sentence “based upon sinful bias” also captures what I was attempting to communicate.

However, Dr. Adams may disagree with how I have sought to apply it. My understanding is that our sinful bias determines what we have give ourselves to (specific idol) and what we hope to gain from it (key marker of identifying a type of idolatry—what attribute or interaction with God was being replaced in the false worship).

Is It Possible to Identify Idols?

If we can’t even identify idols, then we surely can’t classify them. But I am, as of now, still hesitant to concede that it is wrong, not useful, or not possible to identify the idols of our hearts. There are passages like Proverbs 20:5 (ESV) that seem to directly allude to both the possibility and benefit of such an exercise.

“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”

There are also the examples of what I believe to be this kind of pastoral exploration in the New Testament epistles. In I Timothy 6:3-10, Paul cautions against the inordinate desire for money and the various forms of destruction to which it can lead. I believe that Paul’s use of the word “desire” supports the conception of idolatry being knowable—Paul seems to point it out in the false teachers (v. 5). I would contend that this is an example of what I described in my original post as an “idol of worship.”

There is also the example of James in 4:1-10. Here James identifies that there are certain passions and desires in the life of his readers which lead them to attack and devour one another. The fact that these desires get referenced three times and remain nameless would seem to indicate that the readers should engage is some self-examination. Based upon the fact that this epistle was written to refugees (1:1) and that oppression is a frequent subject in the letter (1:26-2:13; 5:1-11), then I think it would be likely that these early Christians were tempted to turn to their possessions as what I described as an “idol of comfort” in the original post.

Join the Conversation

I appreciate the opportunity to think through the original post again and appreciate being challenged to do so with greater biblical and theological clarity. It has been a helpful exercise and caused me to re-evaluate several things I had originally categorized as “givens” (a dangerous thing). I don’t see this post as substantiation of my original post, but as part of an on-going conversation in biblical counseling.

So I would ask:

  • “Are ‘the noetic effects of sin’ and ‘idols of the heart’ categories with significant overlap?”
  • “Does Scripture point us to identify the ruling desires of our heart as part of our sanctification?”
  • “If so, is there value in categorizing the tone with which we approach particular idols in order to determine the tone of counseling?”
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.

5 thoughts on “Can or Should We Identify Idols?

  1. I would also add that the very nature of the Sermon on the Mount was turning people’s ideas from outward sins to the heart, and I would think with the assumption that you could know that about yourself and take action.
    Good thoughts. I guess Dr. Adams is not a Tim Keller fan!

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  3. Thank you Brad for your humble “thinking through” this topic.  How we handle the wrong worship with counselees is so important.  When a counselee is willing to sin (either by commission or omission) to get what they desire, how can you not address that?  Otherwise it would seem that only addressing sin without addressing the desire that motivates it will end up looking something like seeking after behavior modification. 

  4. Perhaps the Great Commandment would be a positive example of being able to  identify who or what we are worshiping.

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