Commentary and Analysis from a Biblical Perspective (if the mainstream media won't touch it, somebody has to!)
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/
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.