Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is "Idol of the Heart" a Biblical Construct?

Earlier today, NANC fellow and Counseling Solutions founder Rick Thomas met with Pastor Donn Arms, director of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, and asked him a question that came out of a discussion on Rick's Facebook group. (The Institute, or INS, is the organization under whose auspices I am studying nouthetic counseling, so Pastor Donn and I have been in contact before. It was a comment he made to me a year ago that prompted the question).

In Christian counseling circles, sermons, and books, it is not unusual to hear "pet sins" or driving ambitions described as "idols", in that they figuratively displace God at the center of one's life. In my own book, a major thesis I developed was that eating disorders, like other addictions, are fueled in part by the sin of idolatry. I quoted Martha Peace, who defines an idol as "anything you want badly enough that you are willing to sin in order to obtain it." By this definition, wanting to be thin so badly that you are willing to self-destruct reveals an idolatrous heart.

Since there is not complete agreement among biblical counselors and writers in this camp on every single non-essential topic, it seemed like a good topic of discussion. Arms, like his colleague Jay Adams, falls at the more conservative end of the biblical counseling spectrum and is a stickler for exegesis. "If you can't find it in a Strong's Concordance, you shouldn't use it [in counseling]," he quoted Adams as saying. If you've been reading this blog for any time, you know how strongly I feel about good hermeneutics.

The term "idols of the heart" does in fact occur in Scripture, as Arms noted, but only once: in Ezekiel 14:3-4. The context was, of course, the wood-and-stone icons that the Israelites continued to hold dear - idolatry is pretty straight-forward in the Old Testament. The problem comes in when we attempt to make a New Testament construct out of the literal/historical meaning of the text. Although Christian counselors are fond of identifying "idols" in the counselee's "heart", a less confusing term according to Arms is to simply label them "sin". (The charismatic equivalent, he said, is labeling demons - the "demon" of lust; the "demon" of bulimia, and "casting them out").

The original writer (David Powlinson) who coined the term "idols" to describe inordinate or sinful priority placed on things other than God did so metaphorically. Since we must be very precise in our terminology when discussing doctrinal matters, Arms said he does not feel using the term "idols of the heart" is a helpful construct in counseling.

I can see his point. It's usually not too hard to get someone to see that her priorities are out of whack if she is engaged in a life-dominating sin. If we are careful to note that we are using the term "idolatry" euphemistically or metaphorically, (ie., "This obsession with ___ has taken over your thoughts and impacted your life in all of these ways. It appears to be like an 'idol' in your life,") I don't see that any harm would be done. However, idolatry is usually seen as the "root" or causal factor behind the sin itself - NOT a Scriptural concept, but rather a Fruedian one - so taking the blunt approach ("This is sin. God's Word says repent. Here's how...") is ultimately more effective.

Although Colossians 3:5 does equate greed with idolatry, we need to be careful not to push the analogy too far. Arms put it this way, "I do not see Paul, Peter, James, or any of the writers of the New Testament confronting people about the "idols in their hearts." I cannot imagine the Lord Jesus approaching Zacchaeus about his 'idol' of wealth, or saying to the woman at the well, "Woman at the Well, you need to deal with this idol of immorality in your heart!"

Sometimes the reality of sin is simpler, starker, and blunter than we care to realize. No need to pretty it up with euphemisms.

To hear the full transcript of the interview and for more great biblical counseling resources, including webinars, subscribe to Counseling Solutions through Rick's blog: http://www.competentcounseling.com/


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Thank you, Marie, for such a good point! The "idols of the heart" phrase has stuck in my crawl for quite some time.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely 'idols of the heart' is a biblical construct. As the following NT scriptures suggest idolatry was not just about cultural or religious idol worship but that which flows from the heart.
1 Corinthians 10:14
Galatians 5:20
Colossians 3:5
1 Peter 4:3
The apostle John warned the believer's of his day and ours that we are to keep ourselves from idols. Again I would suggest that he was not referring just to items of stone and wood but anything which takes God's rightful place in our lives.We are what we worship jesus taught and we need to recognise that we all sin when we love something or someone more than we love God.

Marie said...


Thanks for that. I agree with your point, naturally, and appreciate your citing specific verses which I am going to have a look at in context (may prove very helpful in a counseling session, in fact). I shared your comment on the lively discussion thread that stemmed from this question and Pastor Donn's explanation.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Anon, these passages make no mention of "idols of the heart," such as so many teach.

I think Marie's article was really straight-forward about what idolatry is, besides worhipping idols. As she pointed out, in Col. 3:5 greed is seen as idolatry, and I think anything that one is holding up to virtual worship is idolatry, but everyday sin is not idolatry. I have heard the term "Idols of the heart" much in connection with the "deliverance" minsitries and others of that ilk.

Anonymous said...

Can I add several extra thoughts to the discussion.GEC seems in part to be opposed to the construct because of the way some would use it. I agree it can be used incorrectly. But because some do it does not make it wrong or unbiblical. Even catholicism speaks of the Trinity but that does not make the doctrine of the Trinity wrong.
I am a biblical counsellor trained through NANC and other like- minded institutions who counsels up to five individuals each day. One of my main concerns in counselling is that we so often only address the 'fruit' and not the 'root' (heart) in our discipling/counselling. Jesus Himself taught that the root is identified by the fruit (Matthew and Luke). To not address heart motivation is to ensure outward behaviour modification only and that is not the gospel.I would disagree, respectfully with GEC that the verses I quoted do not include the reality of 'idols of the heart' for that is one of the very points the writer is seeking to make. Everday sin has its roots in a heart that is worshipping something other than the creator (Romans 1). Enjoying the interaction. Thanks.

Marie said...

One of my main concerns in counselling is that we so often only address the 'fruit' and not the 'root' (heart) in our discipling/counselling.

Yes, I am also concerned that this can be an issue - ESPECIALLY when counseling someone with life-dominating sin (which is why I like Ed Welch so much; he gets right to the heart). I love Jay Adams and am learning so much from him, but if someone has an addiction (for example), they can't just "put off" and "put on" the same way someone who is too undisciplined to keep up with the housework can.

I know that some have accused Adams et. al. of being "behaviorists", which is completely untrue, but if we're always focusing on changing the behavior as a means to changing the heart, it won't always work. It may work with gossip. It will not work in that order with an eating disorder (for example). So in that sense, I think the "idol" metaphor or image or construct is accurate. Can it be overdone? Sure. Arms gave examples of that in his interview.

I will be more conservative when writing about how I define "idol" or "idolatry" when using the word that way, (and maybe avoid the catch-all "idols of the heart", since it's a cliche), but I think we can all agree it's not inaccurate to figuratively describe consuming sin/lusts as "idols".

Anon, it's nice to "meet" another nouthetic counselor - from Australia, yes? Will you be attending the annual conference in Indiana this October?

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


I think you misunderstood me about the passages you cited; What I said was that they "make no mention of "idols of the heart," such as so many teach" My point was that this is a term that has - in my experience - developed from an idea that we call things "idols of the heart" rather than sin. Scripture really doesn't make that distinction, and I think it gives fodder for those such as Beth Moore who use such terms in a form of pop-psychology.

As an aside, there is no comparison with the word "Trinity." That term was developed to describe what is indeed Biblical, but I don't think "idols of the heart," as taught by most I've heard, can be found anywhere.

It is certainly true that our heart attitude is what makes all idols to us, whatever that Idol might be, but calling sin idolatry when Scripture doesn't is what I object to.