Most churches in America do not believe that the Bible is sufficient for the usual personal trials, tribulations and sufferings of life. Our city of Santa Barbara, California is a microcosm of a macrocosm. The evangelical churches in Santa Barbara merely reflect what is happening throughout America. After surveying the local evangelical churches, we find only two that do not refer out to local licensed psychotherapists. However, those two do what is regarded as “biblical counseling,” which uses a psychological format of problem centeredness, which generally elicits sinful conversations. Feedback from across America reflects the same. To put it briefly and succinctly, the biblical counseling across America is not biblical. Check out your church. Chances are that your church refers out to professional psychological counselors or offers problem-centered “biblical counseling.” If the latter, they may very well incorporate idols-of-the-heart methodology.
Personal ministry occurs on various levels from the superficial to that which reaches deeply into a person’s soul. However, to engage in the deepest level of ministry, many in the church believe that one must be able to understand the intricacies of the soul through some form of enlightenment. Therefore, many have turned to psychological theories of the unconscious for such insight. Others have turned back to what the Puritans were attempting to accomplish by analyzing the soul and revealing the “idols of the heart.”
The designation of “idols in the heart” comes from Scripture, particularly as recorded by Ezekiel. However, there is an important difference. Ezekiel speaks of “idols in the heart,” which were specifically related to physical idols, rather than general “idols of the heart.”
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face: should I be inquired of at all by them? Therefore speak unto them, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Every man of the house of Israel that setteth up his idols in his heart, and putteth the stumblingblock of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet; I the LORD will answer him that cometh according to the multitude of his idols; That I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their idols. Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations (Ezekiel 14:2-6).
The nations around Israel worshipped idols. They prayed, burned incense, and sacrificed to them in order to improve their lives. Sacrifices were made for fertility and fruitfulness, for victories and plunder. Instead of trusting God, the Israelites were trusting in the idols of the nations around them. In so doing they worshipped, sacrificed, and obeyed the idol, rather than God alone. The more devoted they were to an idol and the more faith and trust invested in an idol, the more that idol became an idol in the heart.
Puritan Soul Sleuths
In the New Testament idolatry is connected to covetousness (Eph. 5:5). Such inordinate desires begin inside a person. Just as in the Old Testament, idolatry puts something or someone else in God’s place.
The Reformers considered all disobedience to God to be idolatry of the heart. Puritan ministers had a keen interest in identifying idols of the heart. They desired to be holy and to make all believers under their care holy. It was not enough for them to get rid of external sin. They believed it was their duty to cure hearts by getting rid of their idols. To do so, they would spend much time examining the spiritual condition of individual souls. Through various questions they attempted to discover whether an individual was indeed saved. Then they would seek to uncover secret sins and expose the idols of the heart. Some even thought they could chart the progression of each person’s soul and determine which point along the way to maturity the person had reached.
In his book titled A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization, E. Brooks Holifield says:
Pious New Englanders, especially, wanted to learn how to map their progress, and the Puritan pastors became masters of introspection, cartographers of the inner life, adept at recognizing the signs of salvation.1
In their zeal for holiness, they sought to go right to the core, to those inner depths of the soul.
The Puritan pastor, especially in the seventeenth century, became a specialist in the cure of the idolatrous heart. He analyzed motives, evaluated feelings, sought to discern hidden intentions and to direct inward consent.2
But for such analysis they needed to speculate about how the mind worked, how the will could be turned, and what might be the relationship of reason, emotion, understanding, and the will. Yet, with all their expertise they could not see inside another person. They may have thought they were successful in uncovering hidden sin, and in some instances they may have been correct because of external manifestations (sinful behavior that could be observed) of what they identified as a particular heart idol.
One can imagine the interrogation, the suspicion, if you please, the discomfort, the suggestions, the accusations, the dissent, and, alas, the acquiescence to confessing inward sin not revealed by the Holy Spirit, but imposed by those who were eager to make people holy. What could an ordinary Christian do but agree with the one who was superior in education and position? Since Christians of that day expected their pastors to be able to understand, interpret, and analyze the intricacies of the soul, what could they do but accept whatever spiritual diagnosis might be given?
The Sinful Heart
What is of grave concern to us is that, in order to look inside another person, a pastor had to go outside Scripture. He had to make assumptions about the mind, the heart, and the will. But the only mind, heart, and will with which he was familiar was his own. Even here, he could not be sure, because of the possible self-deception of a heart that is deceitful. In fact the Bible verse that speaks of the deceitful heart reveals that those holy, well-meaning men were trying to do what only God can do:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jeremiah 17:9,10.)
While the desire to guide people in their walk with the Lord is admirable, there is a subtle danger when one person tries to look inside another person to determine the contents of that individual’s heart. The Puritan focus on the soul’s interior life set the stage for self-absorption and introspection. As one looks at the history of theology and pastoral care, one can see the Puritan’s contribution to a growing fascination with the self and the later integration of secular psychological therapies with their underlying psychologies.
Regarding the connection between the Puritans and psychology, Holifield says:
American pastoral care traditions are rooted in an ancient introspective piety which demands that Christian clergy possess a knowledge of the inner world. It would not be outrageous to suggest that the extraordinary preoccupation with psychology in twentieth-century America owes something to the heritage of experiential piety; that America became a nation of psychologists in part because it had once been a land of Pietists.3
Not only did this country become The Psychological Society4; the church itself is now infected with that kind of psychology. Moreover, members of the very movement that worked to provide biblical counsel in place of psychological counseling became more and more fascinated with the inner life and have, therefore, been seeking to uncover idols in the heart as did the Puritan forefathers. But doing so created the soil for the subtleties of psychology to come in and contaminate what was intended to be pure.
Besides preparing the way for psychotherapy, the Puritans failed to emphasize evangelism and mutual care in the Body of Christ. The Puritan pastor was the “expert” of the soul and the Puritan was intensely occupied with the condition of his own soul. In “Perils of Puritanism,” Thomas N. Smith says:
The pull of such individualism and subjectivity in Christian experience and ethics is away from, rather than toward the church, as the body of Christ. Thus, there is little emphasis in the Puritans on the role of the church as a fellowship of real Christians met together for worship and mutual edification.5
Christians can learn much from the Puritans’ zeal to live godly lives, but need to beware of the pull of the flesh towards subjectivity, introspection, and reliance on “experts” of the soul. Rather than spending much time and effort at focusing on themselves, believers are called to look out for the welfare of others. We have a mandate from God to love one another and serve one another in the Body of Christ. We also have a mandate to reach out to evangelize the lost. The church has moved off track by emphasizing the process of counseling with its subjectivity, speculation about the psyche, and penchant to peer into another person’s heart.
In seeking to expand biblical counseling beyond the external and visible behavior and beyond the activities provided by Scripture, numerous biblical counselors are eager to explore the inner man and thereby to gain and use special knowledge. Not satisfied with simply caring for individuals regarding behavior they can observe, they want to delve into the inner workings of the heart and thereby discern and judge motivation. Just as the Puritans, those in the biblical counseling movement (BCM) are working to become specialists in curing the idolatrous heart by evaluating feelings and analyzing motives and in doing so they are imbibing from the cisterns of secular psychological theories.
Although biblical counselors recognize many contradictions, failures, and false promises and premises of the psychological way, many continue to use portions of various psychological theories and therapies they think agree with Scripture. Dr. David Powlison, considered the originator of the currently popular and prolific idols-of-the-heart biblical counseling model, sought to reach and repair the soul or inner person by integrating Puritan techniques of idols-of-the-heart with what he found useful in contemporary psychological counseling theories.
Powlison confirms that he is an integrationist:
One of the ironies (whether it is bitter, humorous or sublime I am unsure!) attending the contemporary Christian counseling world is that we, of all people, are the ones who successfully will ‘integrate’ secular psychology.6
Powlison’s technique of integrating psychological theories in such a way as to make them appear biblical was “to reframe everything that psychologists see and hold dear into biblical categories.”7 In this way, Powlison could pick and choose which psychological ideas would fit into his system. Then connecting that with the Puritans was an unfortunate stroke of genius, as it deceptively biblicized a psychologically-tainted system, similar to various forms of psychotherapy.
Powlison has had a great influence on those in the biblical counseling movement (BCM). In his book about the BCM, Dr. Heath Lambert says:
It would be difficult to overstate the influence Powlison’s contribution has had on biblical counselors. Indeed it could be fair to say that over the last twenty years the movement has been defined by the usage of Powlison’s metaphor. The “idols of the heart” metaphor has been used extensively by any number of authors.8
This polluted cistern of problem-centered, psychological counseling from which Powlison and other problem-centered integrationists have been drawing is loaded with the rottenness of evil, sinful speaking. Those who engage in problem-centered counseling, no matter what their positive motives may be, are often engendering strife in families as people talk behind one another’s backs and say all manner of evil about them, whether true or false.
When people speak evil of others, they actually increase their own negative feelings towards them to justify having said bad things. When people focus on how bad things are, they fail to see what is good. Rather than nurturing gratitude, these counselors often nourish ingratitude and a sense of victimization. Rather than nurturing love for God and others, they are at times feeding self-love and pride. Evil speaking of others is not edifying to believers (Eph. 4:29, 31). Therefore counseling that depends on it is sinful and will fail to nurture spiritual growth.
Powlison has turned his psychologically tainted system into a necessity for all Christians who would minister to fellow believers. He says:
If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention.9
Therefore, much attention is paid to the old carnal nature in order to find the ever shifting, expanding, and aggrandizing so-called idols of the heart. Time is devoted to trying to identify and get rid of so-called idols of the carnal nature, as if fixing the old nature can do a Christian any good, as it strengthens self and pride. However, the old self is the primary problem for everyone and that is why the flesh (old nature) must be put off and denied.
Self is the very essence of the psychological systems that have a host of things to look for in the self and a myriad of systems that must be learned and followed. If a believer were to have “eyes and ears for God,” which seems like a rather pompous description for anyone these days, they would certainly not need any system of idols, no matter how those idols seem to fit the various manifestations of the flesh. Such idols can only exist in the old nature.
If one is to have “eyes and ears for God” one must be much in His Word and much in His presence. The way a believer is to grow and change is not through a counselor memorizing the names of an ever-expanding hierarchy of idols, looking for and identifying them in a counselee, and then teaching the counselee about the idols and how to deal with them. Scripture is clear about how a believer “may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works”:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Spelunking and Speculating
The practice of attempting to understand another person’s soul and to identify that person’s “idols of the heart” through spelunking and speculating is sinful. Such spelunking involves a great deal of digging and prying on the part of the counselor, which then stimulates sinful responses from the counselee. In looking for idols much of the conversation ends up being ungodly and unbiblical with possibilities of talebearing and dishonoring parents, just as with insight psychotherapy. Then the dirt that the counselor digs up must be analyzed for the counselor to speculate what idols are motivating the counselee.
Just because one uses Bible verses, biblical terminology, and biblical goals for change does not make such analyzing the soul biblical. That is because analysis works at cross purposes to the Holy Spirit, who does not have to analyze a person in order to know the heart. But, since our nation has deeply imbibed psychological assumptions, most believe that analyzing one’s actions, thoughts, and motives will lead to understanding the self or the soul and thereby help one change.
The deception is similar to a Gnostic mentality— that special knowledge will bring change. But, how many times does one know better but fail to do better? Understanding one’s own self through any kind of prolonged analysis may help one change some thoughts and actions, but it may also increase self-absorption and self-deception, for the soul can only be known and understood by God. Far better than spelunking and speculating about the idols of the heart would be focusing on Christ, abiding in Christ, believing His Word, and following biblical rather than psychological or analytical means for change.
Those who call themselves biblical counselors and who specialize in identifying the idols of the heart end up dipping into the psychological theories of the world.10 Just as the Israelites copied the nations around them and adopted their idols, so also have those who developed and use the idols-of-the-heart system been attracted to the psychological counseling systems of the world around them and then adopted aspects of those systems.
The Bible clearly identifies sin, and only God knows the inner person. The Bible does not instruct anyone to look into another person’s soul to identify or analyze that person’s idols of the heart. One must go outside Scripture to do what the Bible does not teach. This idols-of-the-heart methodology can be a serious impediment to true ministry. The notion that one must be able to identify any hidden idols of another person’s heart may intimidate and thereby discourage believers from ministering to one another. Moreover, counsel based on speculation about another person’s inner life may sorely mislead a fellow believer who is being treated as a “counselee” and analyzed by a “counselor.” How much better to meet a fellow believer at the foot of the cross on an equal footing with the Bible’s clear instructions and the Holy Spirit, resident in the soul, to bring forth change and growth.
Naming and Identifying Idols-of-the-Heart
To devise an idols-of-the-heart system, one must make up a name for whatever each idol represents, such as lust, and then make a list of characteristics and accompanying external sins. In addition, one must find external “evidence” that would point to a particular idol one has devised along with its characteristics. Then the only way external “evidence” or “manifestation” of the idols can be gleaned by the counselor is through external observation and conversation, much of which is generally filled with sinful tales about other people not present and evil expressions of feelings about circumstances and other people. In other words, to find such idols, there must be many violations of Scripture regarding the tongue (James 3), as the counselor asks questions and digs for detailed personal and interpersonal information.
Turning lust, selfishness, anger, greed, rebellion, covetousness, hatred, malice, self-seeking, pride, various fears, and other sinful states of the heart into idols removes them one step away from the person himself. An idol is not seen simply as a sinful tendency of the flesh; it is still external to the person. It’s not the person who’s at fault; it’s his idols that are the problem. His idols are the ones causing him to sin, so he becomes a victim of his own idols, so to speak.
These idols may be manifestations of his flesh, but they are not the totality of his flesh, which must be denied and put off. The primary problem is living according to what the Bible calls the “old man,” rather than by the new life Christ purchased for every believer. This focus on idols does not disable or disarm the flesh, even though counselees may learn to rearrange the power structure of their so-called idols. In doing so, counselees might succeed in overcoming some anger, rebellion, fear, and sexual lust by strengthening self-confidence and pride, even while believing they are becoming truly humble servants.
Old Carnal Nature or New Life in Christ?
Whatever idols of the heart one might identify, they are simply aspects of the old nature—“old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts”—which is to be put off (Eph. 4:22). Why waste weeks, month, years seeking out these individual idols when the problem is far bigger and deeper, and it took the death of Christ to accomplish? “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Believers are to put off and not give life to the old nature, which is filled with all the inner sinfulness that might be sorted out as idols. Believers are to count it dead and buried with Christ and walk in newness of life—His life (Rom. 6).
One does not have to discover which idols are at work in anyone’s heart because whatever combination of idolatries one might have, they all consist of loving the world more than loving God.
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. (1 John 2:15-17.)
Anything in the world or the world’s systems can become an idol of the heart, but it’s the old heart of the “old Man” or old nature that had to be replaced.
The “old man” is indeed a complex mixture of the evil effects of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we do not need to analyze it, because it cannot be repaired. There is no way to save ourselves or anyone else through any man-made system. Christ, in dying in our place, took our sinful lives with Him and gave us new ones. Indeed, we are to daily take up our cross and reckon our old man crucified on the cross with Christ so that we say with Paul:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20.)
Those who promote counseling in which the counselor is probing for the idols of the heart of the one being counseled are similar to Job’s counselors, who were convinced that Job was being punished by God for hidden sins. They tried to get at those sins through much idle speculation and accusation. They were troublesome instead of helpful, because they had an agenda—to discover Job’s hidden sin to make him confess before them and before God to end Job’s punishment. Job’s arguments to them would be seen as denial and self-protective strategies if he were being counseled today.
Some important lessons in Job have to do with the sovereignty of God, the faithfulness of God, and the sufficiency of God. God had allowed difficult circumstances for His own purpose, but, because Job’s counselors relied on their own wisdom and legalistic view of God, they sinned against Job and against God. Had they just sat with Job, avoided idle speculation, and never opened their mouths, they would have been the wiser. But, in their pride and self-righteousness, they presumed to know what they did not know, and they had the audacity of attempting to pry into Job’s inner man and of making false accusations.
Idolatry of Psychology
We cannot identify the idols residing in another person’s heart, but we can see evidence of what people trust. We can certainly see evidence of one of the greatest idolatries in the church today—the idolatry of psychology. Rather than looking to God and His Word for personal growth and for solving problems of living, Christians are looking to the made-made creations of psychology. The kind of psychology they turn to is not even science. It is a conglomeration of notions originally concocted by those who rejected God and formed their own theories about who man is and how he is to change and grow. This kind of psychology is religion rather than science.11 In his endorsement of our book The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way, Dr. Thomas Szasz, eminent author and professor of psychiatry, wrote::
Although I do not share the Bobgans’ particular religious views, I do share their conviction that the human relations we now call ‘psychotherapy,’ are, in fact, matters of religion—and that we mislabel them as ‘therapeutic’ at great risk to our spiritual well-being.12
Psychotherapy and its underlying theories are a false religion and “science falsely so called” (1 Tim. 6:20). Because psychological counseling theories and therapies constitute another religion, counselors often attempt to do what only God does.
1 E. Brooks Holifield. A HistoryofPastoralCare in America:From Salvationto Self-Realization. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983, p. 27.
2 Ibid., p. 24.
3 Ibid., p. 65.
4 Martin Gross. The Psychological Society. New York: Randon House, 1978.
5 Thomas N. Smith, “The Perils of Puritanism,” Reformation & Revival, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1996, p. 95.
6 David Powlison, “Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling.” Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, p. 76.
8 Heath Lambert. The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 76.
9 David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair.’” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter 1995, p. 44.
10 Articles critiquing Idols-of-the-Heart biblical counseling: “Paul Tripp & Syncretism,” Parts 1, 2, 3: https://www.pamweb.org/tripp_syncretism_1.html, https://www.pamweb.org/tripp_syncretism_2.html, https://www.pamweb.org/tripp_syncretism_3.html; book review of Idols of the Heart: Learning to Long for God Alone: https://www.pamweb.org/idols_heart.html,
11 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. PsychoHeresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity, Revised and Expanded. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2012, Chapters 6 and 7.
12 Thomas Szasz endorsement. Martin & Deidre Bobgan. The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1979, back cover.