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A Fresh Look at ‘Idols of the Heart’
“Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair’” was published in 1991, and then republished in CCEF’s Journal of Biblical Counseling in 1995. How well does the article hold up after twenty years? You be the judge. But as I reread it, I think it does pretty well. Let me make two introductory comments, first to orient you, and second to caution and remind you of important things.
First, the article explores a single weighty question: How is sin more than behavior? Everyone knows that ‘sin’ means bad behavior—“the works of the flesh are obvious.” But what else is it? Our actions, attitudes, words, thoughts and emotions do not arise in a vacuum. The Bible embeds and locates the obvious behaviors in an intricate, co-operating web of dark forces.
The flesh not only ‘works’ obviously, it also ‘lusts’ inwardly. Sin’s operations include an inner psychological dimension that is relentlessly self-centering, self-exalting, self-willed… and self-deceiving. We believe lies, pursue lusts and flee fears. Ego usurps God, and ultimately self-destructs. We are tempted by our own desires, birthing sin, resulting in death (James 1:14–15).
The ‘world’ adds a situational dimension. Our social and cultural surround marries the heart’s proclivities to a buzz of deceitful voices, values, vanities, promises and threats, pains and pleasures. We are lied to in 10,000 ways, eliciting and pandering to our lusts and fears. The world variously bullies and seduces us, birthing sin, reaping death.
The ‘devil’ adds a false-father, false-lord dimension. An active enemy craves, schemes, lies, bullies, tempts, deceives, enslaves, accuses… and murders. This father of lies and serial killer deforms his children into his image of pride and craving. The enemy minds you, finds you, wines and dines you, blinds you, binds you and finally grinds you.
O merciful Father, lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.
The energizing and deceiving trio of flesh, world and devil describes the vertical dimension of sin. These God-substitutes conspire to hijack the heart for darkness. Sin is more than behavior.
Second, over the years I’ve heard how people read (or misread), apply (or misapply) my article. I am delighted by how many people have been illumined by this rather technical analysis, and have found their faith energized. But the most common misreading and misapplication takes it in an introspective direction. Am I encouraging an inward hunt for ‘the idol’ in either my heart or yours? No.
The article itself is intently analytical. It is a narrowly focused topical probe. It is an attempt to see into the fog of war, to get a grip on evils that intentionally squirm out of our hands because deceivers do not want to be seen.
As a laser beam, the article can well serve as an aid to clearer self-knowledge. But a call to introspective self-analysis? Never. An invitation to nosy mind-reading of others motives? Never. Self-analysis cannot save us, and can become simply one more form of self-fascination. Other-analysis cannot save others, and can become simply one more form of judgmentalism.
True self-knowledge is a fine gift. It always leads us out of ourselves, and to our Father who, knowing us thoroughly, loves us utterly. True self-knowledge does not wallow around inside. God purposes to draw us out of self-preoccupation. Seeing the vertical dimension of the struggle with sin and death, reach out more boldly to the one who is life and light.
There are many reasons not to go on an idol-hunt.
Our renegade desires are not so complicated as to necessitate a ‘hunt.’ The desires that mislead us are self-deceiving, because we are so plausible to ourselves. They can be hard to identify. But they are not as complicated as we might imagine. For example, when I complain and grumble, my horizontal sin is wedded to multifaceted vertical sin. I grumble because
I want ____.
I need ____.
My kingdom come and My will be done take charge. I erase God from his universe (unbelief). I exalt myself (pride). I am enslaved to what I most want (lust). I am living in the community of grumblers, and wanting things that current opinion, cultural values and modern advertising teach me to need (world). I am exhibiting what James 3:14–16 portrays as the logic of a devilish wisdom. Fill in the blanks and you’ve named the nasty God-substitute that fired up a bad attitude.
It is helpful to name the mastering lust, fear, felt-need or expectation that hijacked God’s place. Repentance becomes more intelligent. I can bring to the Father of mercies both my behavior and my motives, both my horizontal and my vertical need. His love is magnified because I see my need more clearly.
Our renegade desires are not solo operatives. To be sure, the desires that mislead us are “all about me.” But they never work alone. The flesh partners with world and devil, as we have seen. Often I’ve heard this article referred to in shorthand as “Idols of the Heart.” But my title intentionally includes ‘Vanity Fair,’ the situational forces that beset us. It’s just as much about looking around as it is about looking in the mirror.
If I’d thought to impose a longer title on readers, I would have called it “Idols of the Heart, Vanity Fair and the Prince of Darkness.” Sin means war, and the war is fought both inside and all around us. I chose to use only the first two terms primarily because the article holds a running conversation with the behavioral and social sciences. Sin intimately characterizes the very phenomena that these sciences study—yet they expunge all awareness of sin. That’s significant. To front-end load the devil would be theologically balanced, but it would have immediately distracted from the implications of sin for psychology and sociology. Mention of the devil tends to make everyone get giddy or queasy. When the devil becomes the topic of conversation, he’s rather like that dominating relative who grabs the spotlight and microphone at your Christmas party. No one else gets a chance to be heard. In contrast, the Bible carefully points out that the devil is at the party, but it rarely puts him in the spotlight.
Our renegade desires are not so ‘inward’ as to call for intense introspection. The desires that mislead us do cause us to coil in on ourselves. But they are not as inward as we might imagine. They are not so much ‘intra-psychological’ phenomena as they are ‘vertical-dimension’ actions and defections. What are you seeking? What are you loving? What are you fearing? What are you trusting? Where are you taking refuge? What voices are you listening to? Where are you setting your hopes? Those simple questions take the Bible’s God-relational verbs, and turn them into questions. Such questions can help you to see how you are straying. They can help you help others to see themselves. Our answers to these questions describe the seedbed of our sins, how we are curving in on ourselves.
But these questions don’t send us on an inward journey. They don’t make us intrusive toward others. They do invite all of us to come out of the closet and into the light of
Christ. Seek him who is worthy. Trust him who gives freely. Love him who is lovely. Fear him whom we have to kneel before. ‘Idols of the heart’ is a great metaphor because it captures how we are always reaching out to worship something, anything—either God or the minigods. Sin causes the psyche to operate as if we were self-referential and encapsulated. But our souls are God-relational, and the self-encapsulation we experience simply describes our defection from reality.
An ‘idol-hunt’ would turn me introspective and self-analytical. It would make me mistreat you. Faith makes me extraspective and God-relational. Love makes me extraspective and other-relational. Faith and love draw us out of sin’s enmeshing self-obsession (including enmeshment in obsessive introspection). So come forth. Our Savior gives us his own joy, and joy is an interpersonal emotion. He throws open the doors to the fresh air and bright light of a most kind grace. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name!
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