In our previous article “Syncretism & PsychoHeresy” we pointed out how Christianity has been syncretized with twentieth-century psychotherapy. Instead of the care of souls being a function of the church by grace through faith in Christ and the Word of God, the “faith once delivered to the saints” has been syncretized with the man-made systems of psychotherapy. This contaminating syncretism has infected Christian schools, seminaries, pastors, denominations, churches, mission agencies, and what is called “biblical counseling.”
Those who call themselves “biblical counselors” may deny that they are behavioristic or “psychoanalytic” and claim that they are being wholly biblical. However, because America is a psychotherapeutic society with a psychotherapeutic mindset saturating the hearts and minds of its people, even those who call themselves “biblical counselors” have naively absorbed and adapted some of the psychotherapeutic world into their work. This syncretism is most obviously seen in their problem-centeredness.
Popular author, speaker, and counselor Paul Tripp is an example of this syncretism. His counseling and teaching approach skillfully blend the psychological and biblical to the degree that few bother to notice his syncretism. Tripp, like psychotherapists, has been a problem-centered counselor, charged for his counseling, counseled women, and served in a separated-from the-church counseling center. Not one of these activities has any biblical justification, no matter how much of the Bible is ignored or twisted. Furthermore, Tripp’s major approach, using the “idols of the heart,” is more psychoanalytical than biblical.
Tripp’s background includes years at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). He is currently a pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and has his own ministry named after himself.1 We have a section in our book Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! in which we reveal the kinds of information he gleans from his counselees to illustrate violations of biblical admonitions against evil speaking, dishonoring parents, and other sinful communication that is typical of problem-centered counseling.2 In this article we discuss additional problems with Tripp’s syncretistic, analytical, insight-oriented, idols-of-the-heart “biblical” counseling.
“Identity and Story”
Tripp’s article “Identity and Story: A Counseling Transcript,” published in CCEF’s Journal of Biblical Counseling, demonstrates what typically goes on in idols-of-the-heart counseling. The case involves a couple, Frank and Gina, with Tripp focusing on three things regarding Frank:
1. I wanted to hear his story in a bit of detail. The only way I can help them make sense out of the details of their story is if I also know those details….
2. I wanted to know how Frank and Gina were relating to one another in the middle of their trouble….
3. I wanted most of all for them to be able to look at the mess of their lives and see God, so they could begin to clean up the mess.3
Tripp evidently believes that he must obtain lots of information (complaints) before he can minister, because he has to know a counselee’s so-called idols of the heart. In his book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Tripp says, “If we fail to examine the heart and the areas where it needs to change, our ministry efforts will only result in people who are more committed and successful idolaters.”4
One of the most difficult things to communicate to biblical counselors is that it is not necessary to know the details of problems or to know about their anger, defensiveness, and arguments, as in the prior example. Neither is it necessary “to look at the mess of their lives” in order for them to “see God.” God can be better seen without focusing on “the mess in their lives.” The amazing inner work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who so effectively matured believers throughout the centuries of the church, is still at work, but often seems to be ignored as problems are discussed week after week and month after month. Particularly egregious is the fact that Tripp had been using the idols-of-the-heart approach with Frank and Gina for over a year and had previously been counseling Gina by herself for some time (IS, 60).
Analyzing the Heart or Putting On the New Man in Christ?
Tripp is quite typical of CCEF in his problem-centeredness and analytical idols-of the-heart methodology, which is limited to working with the old man or the flesh since only God truly knows anyone’s deceitful heart. And this is the crux of the matter. Are believers going to examine and attempt to change a heart filled with idolatrous desires, which can only belong to what Scripture calls “the old man” or the “flesh”? Or are they going to put off the old man every time it raises it ugly head through either internal or external expression?
Tripp and others in the idols-of-the-heart insight camp will say that they are helping people to walk according to their new life in Christ, but their psychologically inspired methodology is limited to the flesh. Christ’s life in the believer through the indwelling Holy Spirit does not have idols. Any idols or forms of idolatry are limited to the old man or the flesh. To get rid of idols according to the idols-of-the-heart system, one must be searching out idols in the old man or the flesh. If self is central with the domination of the flesh, idols may be exchanged and shifted around in such a way that the person becomes even more deceived. Unless believers die to self by reckoning themselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11), they are still under the wrong ruler, both inside and out.
Tripp’s methodology has to do with seeking out the inner man, the heart. In answering the question of why people do what they do, Tripp quotes Luke 6:43-45 and says that “the roots of the tree equal the heart. They are underground and therefore not as easily seen or understood” (IRH, 61). He wants to discover the idols of the heart, the desires and motivations, just as insight-oriented psychotherapists attempt to search out the possible whys and wherefores of their counselees’ behavior, with the belief that these hidden depths within the psyche are directing his feelings, thoughts, and behavior outside their conscious awareness.
The way Tripp connects the heart with the motives and endeavors to cause the person to gain insight into his own heart is very similar to the psychoanalyst’s attempt to expose the hidden regions of the unconscious with its so-called unconscious determinants of behavior. Psychotherapeutic methods of insight and interpretation lead one into the most subjective realm of psychology, which is actually an offshoot of philosophy and ends up being what Scripture calls “philosophy and vain deceit” (Col. 2:8), because this kind of psychology relies on much imagination, speculation, and subjectivity.
Tripp gives central importance to the heart (the inner person) and says, “There is an undeniable root and fruit connection between our heart and our behavior…. Therefore, the heart is our target in personal growth and ministry” (IRH, 64-65). In his article titled “Wisdom in Counseling,” Tripp says, “We have seen that sin reduces us to fools; the nature of that foolishness is idolatry; and we need to be rescued from our foolishness. To that end, counseling must always deal with the idolatries of the heart.”5 Tripp evidently believes he can be both a fruit inspector and a heart inspector. His focus is on diagnosing the heart by searching out the so-called idols of the heart, which can only rule the old man or the flesh. This ends up being a piece-meal project that may simply adjust the flesh into a more Christian-like appearance. The focus continues to be self-centered rather than Christ-centered. In this process individuals are trying to change themselves by gaining insight into their deceptive hearts through the help of another Christian, who is also plagued with a deceptive heart. Instead of saying “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), Tripp says, “Until the idol is removed, it will distort and obscure everything else in the person’s life” (p. 68).
Tripp identifies an “idol of the heart” as “anything that rules me other than God” (IRH, 66, italics his) and contends that “this idolatry is hidden. It is deceptive; it exists underground” (IRH, 67). However, one does not have to analyze the heart through hunting out a myriad of idols in order to walk according to the Spirit. These so-called idols (motivating, ruling desires, etc.) are only inner expressions of the flesh or “the old man.” Jesus took care of the matter fully and the New Testament clearly tells believers all they need to know about walking according to the new life in Christ, without extensive analysis of possible idols lurking in the hidden depths, because they can only be lurking in the flesh, the old man, which is corrupt and must be put off (Eph. 4:22).
Tripp says, “Whenever counseling forgets the idols of the heart and focuses solely on horizontal human problems, needs, and difficulties, then counseling itself becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution. It will tend to strengthen and institutionalize that idolatry” (WC, 8). In response we would say that whenever counseling searches the inner man for the idols of the heart and spends lots of time talking about “horizontal human problems, needs, and difficulties” then counseling harms human relationships and strengthens the flesh. Much attention is paid to the flesh in order to find the ever shifting, expanding, and aggrandizing idols of the heart.
In looking for these idols, much conversation ends up focusing on the very thing Tripp says is not enough: “horizontal human problems, needs, and difficulties.” Moreover, in looking for idols much conversation ends up being ungodly and unbiblical with possibilities of talebearing and dishonoring parents, just as with insight therapy. Focusing on the idols of the heart ends up being a fleshly activity that may identify all sorts of desires that rule the fleshly heart and thereby disguise the fact that the person is walking according to the flesh rather than according to the new life in Christ. Nevertheless, Tripp is committed to this practice and says, “Because idolatry operates in the subtle shadows of the thoughts and motives of our hearts, most committed idolaters have no idea that this is their problem. But the influence is powerful just the same” (IRH, 69).
Tripp attempts to make his search for idols in the heart biblical by quoting Ezekiel 14:1-5 where God says that these men have their idols in the heart. However, God was simply accusing them of loving their idols. Moreover the Lord alone is the One who knows what is in a person’s heart. What Tripp identifies as idols are merely expressions of a deeper problem of walking according to the flesh rather than according to the Spirit, because what he identifies as idols can only operate in the realm of the flesh, which is the old way of life under domination of self and Satan (Eph. 2:2-3).
What believers need to do is put off the flesh, which is continually deceptive. Tripp may identify all kinds of these expressions of the flesh by listening to complaints about parents, spouses, and others, but in revealing these to his counselees, he will be enabling them to strengthen their flesh and even their own self-deception. As they begin to see what Tripp thinks he sees inside them, they may think they truly know themselves but be even further from the truth than they were when they first became his counselees.
Tripp says,” “The heart of every person is a fount of competing desires. We rarely do anything with one simple motive” (IRH, 79). That is certainly one reason to believe God—that the heart is so deceitful that only He can know it. We fool ourselves to think we can know another person’s set of competing desires at a given moment, because, in addition to there being competing desires at any one moment, there are many more moments of many more competing desires. One could build a high tower with all the possible idols of desire, but they shift around so much that they are not always static enough to stand.
God created our minds in such complex ways and sin adds confusion to the complexity to the degree that the question, “Who can know it?” is spoken with the understanding or the implication that no one but God can truly know the human heart.
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 (Jer.17:5-10).
In the context of Jeremiah 17:9-10 the Lord is saying that a person is cursed if he trusts in man because the heart of man is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Therefore, trusting in another person to direct the ways of your heart is a sinful way to go, because this is God’s territory. The trust is misplaced and the deceived heart of another person will not be able to diagnose the deceitful heart of one who is seeking anything outside of God.
Counseling that seeks to delve into another person’s heart is in competition with God. The person is turning in the wrong direction. To minister Christ’s life to one another is one thing, but to look to another person to discern the condition of one’s heart is trusting in man. The people who do this for a living as Tripp has done (for money) may earnestly desire to lead people in the right direction, but if they propose to diagnose and treat the heart, they need to recognize that this is the Holy Spirit’s prerogative and to see that their problem-centered, psychoanalytically-sounding counseling is psycho-syncretism.
(In Part Two we will be looking at Tripp’s syncretistic methodology of diagnosing blind hearts, his data gathering that elicits evil speaking, and his disdainful one-upmanship.)
2 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2011, pp. 79-87.
3 Paul David Tripp, “Identity and Story: A Counseling Transcript,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2004, pp. 59ff. Hereafter references will be indicated with IS and page number in parentheses.
4 Paul David Tripp. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002, p. 68. Hereafter references will be indicated with IRH and page number in parentheses.
5 Paul Tripp, “Wisdom in Counseling,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter 2001, p. 7. Hereafter references will be indicated with WC and page number in parentheses.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, March-April 2011, Vol. 19, No. 2)