Reviewed by Carol K. Tharp, M.D.
Idols of the Heart: Learning to Long for God Alone by Elyse Fitzpatrick is a prime example of present-day popular books that may sound biblical but actually appear to follow a fetish. Fitzpatrick seems to be in awe of the idols-of-the-heart dogma taught by fellow travelers in the biblical counseling movement. She says she wrote this book for “those of you who desire to live a godly life and yet find yourself in a recurrently disappointing struggle against habitual sin…the same bad habit…the same embarrassing weakness, the same slavery”(15). It is basically a self-help book based on what has become a theme in the biblical counseling movement: “The worship of idols is the reason we’re discontented, and it’s why we disobey God” (27).
Fitzpatrick fails to biblically define the “godly life” but leads readers to believe that it can be achieved by the elimination of that impediment called “idolatry.” She claims this impediment “lies at the heart of every besetting sin that we struggle with” (15). She contends that idols (“We create images out of our thoughts.”) are “the driving force behind everything we do” in our lives (87,124). Furthermore, “Every sin, every idolatry in my heart is rooted in lovelessness and thanklessness” (52).
She credits popular Christian counselor David Powlison with “reconfiguring” her thinking about idolatry in the early 1990’s (11). Powlison insists that a Christian counselor must understand the idols of the heart (this is similar to Freud’s unconscious conflicts and drives) before he can really help the counselee with his problem (this is like Freud’s therapeutic working through). He says, “If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention” (Powlison, D., “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’” Journal of Biblical Counseling, V. 13, N. 2, p. 44). Having adopted Powlison’s reconfiguration, Fitzpatrick advocates a process for diagnosing these supposed idols of the heart. Statements such as “we’re going to take a deep look at the functioning of our heart” (93) should place any reader on “red alert” for psychotherapeutic techniques in spite of her use of Scriptural references. While Fitzpatrick declares that “God changes hearts” (17), the rest of the book is about how people can change their own hearts.
When she encourages her readers to be “sincere about getting rid of [their] idols and developing pure worship” (155), to “put on a heart that…celebrates the beauty” (202), and to “[put] on the right action [by] rehearsing His goodness” (203), telling them that “wholehearted devotion can be developed” (93), we hear that ancient call to achieve a higher level of existence by our own effort. To anyone with knowledge of church history, her techniques bring memories of Luther’s futile efforts to change by whipping himself in his monastic cell. While Luther’s efforts were dramatically different from Fitzpatrick’s recommendations, both are dependent on self-effort. While Fitzpatrick criticizes self-help programs (63), her idols-of-the-heart methodology is a self-help program for gaining happiness by changing the heart.
Diagnosing the supposed idols of the heart is but one aspect of the over-arching emphasis on self in this book. “As I’ve studied, I’ve been enlightened about my true thoughts, desires and choices” (103). “God has given you the Word so that you can grow in your knowledge of yourself…” (103). “There will come a day when we’ll know ourselves…” (103). “Think about your imaginations during the day. How do you see yourself?” (122). “Examine the thoughts and desires that captivate your heart. That’s where you’ll find the answers to every sin and failure in your life” (145).
Rather than knowing the self better, Scripture says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself” (Matthew 16:24). “He died for all, that they which live should not, henceforth, live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15). The Bible’s teaching against men becoming “lovers of their own selves” (2 Timothy 3:2) is not evident in this book. To the contrary, Fitzpatrick trivializes self-denial with a joke about a Mary Englebreit poster making a girl “The Queen of Everything” (83) and even credits the Puritans for her new understanding that it is “in the nature of mankind to pursue happiness and it would be fruitless to teach otherwise” (84).
Fitzpatrick seems hesitant to violate the teaching of Scripture that only God can know the heart of man (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Chronicles 28:9, Jeremiah 17:9-10, Psalms 26:2, 44:21, 51:6, 139:23). However, she wavers as she tells the reader “to consider what idolatrous thought or imagination is at the root of my anger” via the answers to a series of questions (119).
The book points the reader more toward self-analysis than toward knowing God, but some sections are closer to biblical self-examination (Lamentations 3:40, 1 Corinthians 11:28, 2 Corinthians 13:5) than to Powlison’s recycled version of psychic determinism. However, there are numerous comments like the following: “I need to understand that the reason I’m angry is because I crave and worship other people’s opinions of me” (120). “Peter was tempted to deny Christ because he desired security…” (167). A few years later in “Will Medicine Stop The Pain,” Fitzpatrick fully enters the Powlison-Freudian-like camp. There she accepts not only the counselor’s need but also the ability to accurately diagnose the so-called idols of the heart, which are treated like Freudian unconscious conflicts.
In Scripture, idolatry is presented as syncretism with the goal of obtaining carnal desires. People build idols that they believe can be used for their own purposes as did Aaron and Jeroboam. “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Self-satisfaction is always the goal and inherent in that goal is the futile attempt to manipulate God.
In stark contrast to the idols-of-the-heart teachings, Scripture always places the focus on Christ. “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
In Scripture idol-worshippers are grouped among whoremongers, unclean persons, covetous men, fornicators, railers, drunkards and extortioners. Such are said to have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” With such people, believers are not even to eat. (1 Corinthians 5:11 and Ephesians 5:5). The “Idols of the Heart” theme, so popular with biblical counselors, is but a thinly disguised “reconfiguration” of Freud’s concept of unconscious neurotic conflicts. This not only broadens the concept of idolatry beyond that taught in Scripture but trivializes its basic nature, turning idolatry into a problem for therapeutic self-correction rather than one worthy of condemnation.
Romans 6:1-2 can be paraphrased for Paul’s commentary on this: “What shall we say then? Should we labor to analyze ‘what idolatrous thought or imagination is at the root of my anger’ (119) so that I may ‘know exquisite joy and pleasures forever’ (204)? By no means! We died to self and no longer look inward for so-called idols-of-the-heart answers; how can we live in it any longer?”
A fundamental doctrine of Freudian theory naively incorporated into this book is the pleasure principle. For counselors in general, happiness is clearly the goal of successful counseling. Few are quite as open about it as is Fitzpatrick in this book with such blatant statements as: “So, go ahead! Pursue happiness!” (88). “I’m going to speak about the goodness of pursuing happiness in this book” (83). She quotes Thomas Watson saying that God “has no design upon us, but to make us happy” and concludes that, since Puritan writers believed “happiness could not be found other than in God” (84), personal happiness should be the goal for Christians. Attempting to make this pursuit sound biblical, she quotes Richard Baxter who said that God “will use you only in safe and honorable services, and to no worse an end, than your endless happiness” (85, italics added by Fitzpatrick). However, when we read those Puritans in context, happiness is not presented as a goal.
In a further attempt to justify happiness as the goal of the Christian life, Fitzpatrick tells her readers to “Think about David’s words, ‘Because Your loving-kindness is better than life, my lips will praise You’ (Psalm 63:3),” and then asks her readers, “Is His love the greatest source of pleasure, happiness, or good?” (76, 77). While God’s love brings many spiritual benefits, His love is freely given rather than something to be sought for and attained by analyzing the self and searching the heart for hidden idols.
She then talks about “Jesus’ Happiness” and says, “Peter knew this joy as he proclaimed, ‘You will make me full of gladness with Your presence’ (Acts 2:28)” (79). Here Peter is quoting David speaking prophetically about Jesus and His resurrection (Acts 2:24-31). While Scripture speaks of Jesus’ joy in accomplishing the plan of salvation, one should not use His joy to justify happiness as a godly Christian goal or to motivate sinners to obey God to gain happiness. His joy is related to fulfilling the outpouring of love giving new life to believers. His motivation was not a desire to obtain happiness or to gain anything for Himself, but rather to give Himself to save unworthy sinners.
In her effort to make the desire for happiness a godly pursuit, Fitzpatrick quotes David again, “In Your presence is fullness of joy, in Your right hand there are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11)” (79). Fitzpatrick seems to equate happiness and joy, but a Christian may bear the fruit of joy and obey the command to rejoice without being necessarily happy. For instance, a believer may be very unhappy in the midst of a severe trial but at the same time rejoice in God, giving thanks in all circumstances. But even the goal of joy should not be what motivates a Christian to do what is right. God’s love freely given should be what motivates the believer.
Even when Scripture says, “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye” (1 Peter 3:14) and “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye” (1 Peter 4:14), the happiness is not a result of pursuing happiness. It comes from the right and proper goal of doing God’s will no matter what the consequences. Scripture never presents happiness as a godly goal for the Christian. Saying “Pursue happiness” not only trivializes the Christian walk, but it misses the whole point of walking according to the new life rather than according to fleshly desires.
Fitzpatrick quotes Augustine: “Man’s happiness is God Himself (78).” It is not clear that Fitzpatrick knows what Augustine meant. Steeped in Platonic philosophy, on his conversion Augustine attempted to blend Plato’s philosophy with Scripture and concluded that “God and He alone is our highest good…the source of our happiness. He is the end of all desire” (City of God, Bk 10, Ch 3). Augustine believed that man’s love should be directed to God because He is our “highest good,” our “summum bonum” (On The Morals of the Catholic Church Ch. 8, 13). For Augustine, fallen man’s natural quest for happiness is actually the quest for God: “When I seek Thee, my Lord, I seek the blessed life” (Confessions Bk. 10, Ch. 20, 29). He wrongly saw man’s love for God as motivated by the natural desire for personal happiness and saw this egocentric desire as not only appropriate but good.
For Augustine (and Plato), all love is ultimately self-centered. He said, “Love is set upon God, the highest good, which I thus gain for myself. So if I do not love God, it only shows that I do not rightly love myself” (Letters CLV, 13). “The more I love God, the more I love myself too” (The Trinity, Bk. 8, Ch. 8, 12). Augustine’s concept of Christian love was eudemonic, sought because of the happiness it will bring. In contrast, the apostle John clearly reveals the source of a believer’s love for God: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The Bible does not say that we love God because we love ourselves or because He gives us happiness or because He is our highest good.
Augustine’s eudemonic concept of Christian love and its influence on the church was denounced by Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation. Luther saw that true Christian love is sacrificial, indifferent to the value of the object loved, and is without calculation for personal benefit. He realized that God in his love and mercy descended to sinful man when he had “become unprofitable” (Romans 3:12). “…when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). Scripture does not teach that Christ died for me because I was His summum bonum, His highest good, His lost diamond in the mud. Far from it! Christ died for man out of agape love. Man can only receive this love and pour it out in loving his neighbor; man cannot comprehend this love, much less achieve it by twisting the pleasure-seeking nature of his fallen heart and attempting to call it good. In this day when all that is “natural” is considered to be good, we are especially prone to accept the lie that our happiness is an acceptable goal. It is the nature of fallen man to deny the curse.
Anders Nygren in his book Agape and Eros says that for all religions other than Christianity, “the dominant question was that of eudemonia, happiness” (Nygren, 44). Only in Christianity does the question change to “the Good-in-Itself” as it is “dissociated from eudemonism and utilitarianism.” He says that “it makes all the difference whether we are interested in God as the One who can satisfy all the needs and desires of the ego, or as the sovereign Lord who has absolute authority over the ego” (Nygren, 45). Only in Christianity do we leave man’s natural tendency to take everything around him into his own service and to judge and value everything according to whether it advances or retards his own interests. Only in Christianity is “egocentric religion essentially superseded by theocentric religion” (Nygren, 46). It should not need to be said that the commandment of self-love is alien to the New Testament commandment of love and has grown up out of a wholly different soil from that of the Bible. “So far is neighborly love from including self-love that it actually excludes and overcomes it” (Nygren, 101).
J. Gresham Machen said, “Paganism is the view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties…Christianity is the religion of the broken heart” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 65). Even liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann said, “It is therefore meaningless to say…that neighborly love must be preceded by self-love. [Self-love] is in fact presupposed, but not as something that man must first learn, something that must be expressly required of him, but as the attitude of the natural man, which has simply to be overcome” (Jesus, p. 100).
When Fitzpatrick tells us that successful “crushing” (172) of the idols and “seek[ing] to put them to death” (183) will gain for us “pleasures forever” (204), transforming us into “happy children playing in the garden of His delights” (204), she has redefined the godly life as the happy life. She claims that Jesus is the route to “recovering holy desires” (134) and wants to show the reader how to reach “the day when you’ll consistently choose the Lord” (141). In other words, the women will choose the Lord for what they will get rather than in response to who He is and what He has already done.
So when Fitzpatrick says, “So, Go ahead! Pursue happiness!” (88) and “we always choose what we believe to be our best good…what will bring us the most delight” (81), she is based in pagan religion rather than in Christ. The Christian is objectively a new creation, according to Scripture. Never is the believer presented as a reconfiguration of the old man. “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh…for to be carnally minded is death” (Romans 8:5, 6). Psychotherapy, self-help, and now “biblical counseling” consist of beating this “dead horse” in endless attempts to reshape the old flesh.
It should be sufficient to remember 1 Corinthians 13 as regards true Christian love that “seeketh not her own… beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…never faileth” and will remain “when that which is perfect is come (vv. 5, 7, 8, 10). When the perfect (Christ) comes, the imperfect (man’s search for happiness) will utterly disappear. However, agape, grounded in God, belongs to the things that will abide. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things…. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (vv. 11, 13). At best, Fitzpatrick’s book points women toward speaking, understanding, and thinking “as a child”; at worst, she presents a counterfeit god, the ultimate idol, which exists solely to serve man.
In contrast to love of self and striving for “happiness,” Paul describes the Christian life as follows: “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:1-5).
Believers, saved from eternal condemnation by the unmerited free grace of God, love Him from boundless gratitude rather than for what’s in it for them. As Christians we are no longer bound to “always choose what we believe will bring us the most delight” (81). Believers have Christ’s promise: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). My pursuit of pleasure, good feelings, happiness as a goal of life has been “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death.” It has been recognized as a part of the curse and can never be seen as an acceptable pursuit for anyone who walks “in newness of life”
(Romans 6:4, 5).
A BETTER IDOL?
Fitzpatrick depicts God primarily as the provider of our happiness: “He’s the source and satisfaction of all our happiness” (138). She declares, “He’s committed himself to transforming us…to happy children playing in the garden of His delights, all for His ultimate glory and our enjoyment” (204). Little or no mention is made of His justice, His judgment, or His ordination of trials (unhappiness) for our good. Powlison correctly states that “Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character” (Powlison, ibid., 37) and are “the creation of false gods” (Powlison, ibid., 35). But, this is exactly what Fitzpatrick has done. She has created an idol, a false god.
The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is Learning to Long for God Alone. The “God” depicted, common though it may be among today’s popular Christian books, is a creation of the author, a god sought for the personal happiness it will deliver. She offers her readers the outward trappings of a psychological environment. She offers the same deadly spiritual blindness and spiritual delusion as does the secular psychotherapeutic community because the god is borrowed from them. The book advocates the diagnosis and elimination of the idols of one’s heart, but in their place is built the ultimate idol, the god of my happy life, a eudemon. The reader is left exhausted from the laborious attempt to harness this deity’s power to beat the old flesh into a higher level of existence.
Because of books like Fitzpatrick’s, it is increasingly difficult to see clear distinctions between psychological and Christian, works and grace, self-centeredness and Christ-centeredness. As the distinctions between secular psychotherapies and biblical counseling disappear, it should not be surprising that God Himself is molded into a golden calf. The secular psychotherapy industry has long promised happiness via self-improvement. Apparently this is what biblical counselors have come to promise as well.
“As Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, so is not our hope. The worldling’s motto is, ‘a bird in the hand.’ But the word of believers is, spero meliora — my hopes are better than my present possessions” (Elnathan Parr in The Treasury of David by Charles H. Spurgeon).
“And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11: 39, 40).
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2009, Vol. 17, No. 3)