I recently was reminded of an influential article David Powlison wrote for The Journal of Biblical Counseling almost 30 years ago, titled “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair.’” The article proposes that the biblical category of idolatry is a more thorough, more effective, and more Christian way to address the difficulties and hardships we face than the various other approaches to counseling or psychology, Christian or secular.

He explains the concept of idolatry like this:

If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift. Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings…. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.

While many secular forms of therapy may correctly identify problems, and even get at some of the contributing factors, they fail to see that the root factor involves the individual in relationship to God. Behind and among and through the dynamics of family history, social influences, biology, and various other very real considerations are myriad of idols, things we trust, love, fear and worship in place of God (even as Christians).

Powlison gives an example:

The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well…. In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.

The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth.

Like in this example, Powlison argues that we typically have various idolatrous desires intertwined with one another, and they arise both from within our heart, and are exasperated and fed by the world around us, including the people around us. We are complex.

In language I often use, we are a complex mixture of sinners and suffers. We suffer from the sin of others against us, and we respond in sinful ways, often unintentionally. A classic example is the child who grows up vowing to not repeat the same sins of their parents, but ends up being blind to a whole different set of sins, perhaps equally damaging to their own kids.

One of the values to using the biblical category of idolatry is that it takes into account both personal responsibility and external, social influence. Idolatry is both something we give ourselves to and something writ large in our society, enticing us. Furthermore, idolatry helps us to see that our problems are never merely behavioral; they begin in the heart, which is an “idol factory,” as John Calvin wrote.

On the one hand, this guards against the tendency (typically in secular settings) to only address external factors (a harsh upbringing, a nagging spouse, difficult children, unrealistic pressures at work), and ignore personal responsibility. On the other hand, the concept of idolatry also guards against the tendency (often in Christian settings), to only address personal factors, and to do so only at the level of behavior (stop looking at porn, be more patient with your kids, open yourself up to more relationships, be a good steward of your money), and ignore the complex mix of inner and outer idolatries at play—inordinate desires, fears, trusts, loves, etc.

In an extended footnote, Powlison explains the implications of this:

It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem…then repentant faith in Christ is the solution. This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the…literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases. That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people….

The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.” The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ! Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).

So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner. Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God. Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.

Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.

Our purpose in this life—given to us by our Creator—is not to secure “temporarily happy lives,” through whatever idols “work” for us, even idols that in many respects seem “Christian”: family, hard work, an appearance of respectability or religious seriousness, knowledge of doctrine, etc.

Our purpose is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37). This is a love which involves trust in his goodness and care, rest in his sovereignty, a concern to fear and please him over any man, and submission and obedience to his good will.

And all the ways that our hearts deviate from this, and love, trust, rest in, fear, seek to please, submit to and obey something or someone else, are called idolatry.

(You can find the full article here. It’s long, but worth the time.)