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Perhaps it is because of what the Spirit has sensitized me to in my study of Colossians. Perhaps it is because I’ve had substantially the same conversation with a number of people over the past few days. Although I cannot be sure where origin of the impetus is, I find myself uncomfortable with how followers of Jesus are gravitating toward pursuing life by addressing the issue of “the idols of the heart.”

I have no doubt that even suggesting that there might be an imbalance in how this is being discussed and explored puts me at risk of being seen to be contrarian and out of touch. But I am concerned with how those I end up talking with are trying to do life in Jesus through this particular, popular “lens.” I wonder if there a risk that this approach makes “discovering your idols” idolatrous–it becomes almost defining for life in Christ.

The teaching comes from lots of books and from many directions. But there appear to be common emphases. There seems to be an insistence that in order to draw near to God, one must really understand his or her “idols.” Without understanding the “alternative gods” which call for our attention, we will not be able to get free and get close to the true God. There seems to be an insistence that for our souls to experience the renewal of the Spirit, the specific “patterns of idolatry” that are at work in our hearts must be known, exposed, and addressed. Without understanding our particular “pattern,” we will not be able to find renewal and refreshment. Specific idols are identified–intimacy idols, power idols, idols of comfort or idols of pleasure, even idols of avoidance and idols of religiosity. And the invitation extended in these conversations come across as if apart from identifying and addressing such idols, the follower of Jesus will remain stuck.

I am not arguing there is nothing to be learned from such teaching. I am concerned about how it seems to be playing out in the lives of many.

From what I have read and studied, part of the conceptual framework for these ideas is the thought that sin is not simply about the behavior but is a matter of the heart. The heart is pictured as running after things other than God. This is described as idolatry. Thus, in order to deal with the root cause of our sinful behavior we must address the idols of the heart.

But what is compelling to my way of thinking is that I find almost nothing in the New Testament that would give rise to this model for growth in the spiritual life. There is no talk about finding, discovering, or addressing the “idols of the heart.”

Perhaps the most obvious place to find at least some mention of this idea would have been Paul’s experience in Athens (Acts 17). Luke tells us that “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (17:16). But when Luke does tell us what Paul proclaims to these idolators, the apostle’s focus is God himself and, ultimately, to Jesus whom God has appointed to judge the world having furnished proof of this through Jesus’ resurrection (17:31). Provoked by the idolatry, he doesn’t specifically address it. He points people to Jesus.

Paul does make mention of idols in his letter to the Thessalonians, but it is more about the Thessalonians’ initial response to the proclamation of the Good News about Jesus rather than about their ongoing growth in the Christian life. The Thessalonians, having received the ministry of the word through Paul, “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

As I think about the conversations I have been having recently and the search these friends of mine are on to “discover their idols” and the introspection that seems to be encouraged and the emphasis on needing to uncover their patterns of idolatry if they ever want to be free, I recall what Paul wrote to the Colossians:

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument. . . Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.  (Colossians 2:1-8)

Paul’s call seems to be a bit different.

You came to life because of Jesus. By the Spirit and through grace you turned to him. Do not be distracted from that focus. The way forward is to look to him. Do not be taken captive by anything else. Do not be deluded by persuasive arguments. Don’t give in to philosophy and tradition. Turn your attention wholly to Christ Jesus.

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12 Comments

  1. It is sad that such a “sin focus” is sprending like a disease. Thank you for faithfully pointing us to JESUS.

  2. My impression–and that is what I mean, I’m not claiming I fully see what is going on–is that this teaching leans in the direction of providing a “method” for addressing the sin problem by putting the focus on “know you sin problem” rather than “know Jesus.” At least that is how those who I am talking with who have been on the receiving end up such teaching are living it out. Personally, I’d rather have my attention captured by Jesus himself rather than learning more about my personal “idolatry patterns.”

    • In Pursuit of Grace
    • Posted February 24, 2012 at 1:31 pm
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    • Reply

    I agree. Being constantly focused on identifying one’s ‘sin problem’ takes the focus off of Jesus and, I feel, somewhat negates that we are new creations in Christ…”the old is passed away…”

    As Christ followers we still sin, but sin does not always equate with idolatry…although I see how one could make such an arguement. I can agree with the view of idolatry as a consistent, repetitive sin that we have placed at a higher value than Christ and that we remain willingly unrepentant of…but even this description does not describe the Christ follower to me.

    Keep the focus on Jesus…allow the Spirit to bring repentance to our hearts and to open our eyes. Continually renewing our hearts and minds with the Word and remaining humble and open to the Spirit’s leading seems to be the answer here…not consistent introspection in an effort to seek out possible sins. That practice in itself seems able to quickly lead us onto a path of self-perfecting…self-healing…self-motivated efforts at heart-cleansing…easily leading us into self-righteousness.

  3. This makes sense to me. While it may be valid to be aware of things you might be turning into an idol, seems like it is much better to focus on Jesus, build the relationship with him, let him do the convicting about an idol if necessary, and proceed together. I haven’t heard about the personal idolatry pattern thing, but it sure seems like it is like putting the “emFAHsis on the wrong syLAHble”.

  4. I was struck some years ago by something that I read in a devotional. The writer said that anything that we pursue other than God, even holiness, can become an idol. Concerning Phil. 2:12 Oswald Chambers wrote, “It is a snare to imagine that God wants to make us perfect specimens of what He can do; God’s purpose is to make us one with Himself.” . . . “I am called to live in perfect relation to God so that my life produces a longing after God in other lives, not admiration for myself.”

    Thank you for reminding me to focus on God through following Jesus and not to spend my energies on myself.

  5. In general I think there is a right way of thinking that “anything we pursue other than God . . . can become an idol.” But even if we grant that, I am not sure that the way forward in growth in Jesus is to put our attention on the “idolatry” as much as it is to turn our attention to Jesus himself.

  6. I agree that idolatry and the uncovering of it should never be our focus. I do believe however there is much idolatry among Jesus’ current day disciples and it is not a waste to bring the subject to light. Sin and idolatry can blind us, capture our attention, sway our emotions, cause us to believe lies, and take our focus off of Christ. As a wise teacher of God’s Word recently said, “we don’t need to go on a sin hunt; we need to repent of the sin the Spirit reveals to us.” Similarly, I don’t need to go on idol hunts, but I need to recognize when my life is at odds with Jesus and ask Him to reveal the causes of my estrangement from Him. At such times, He has been gracious to reveal sin and idolatry I would never have recognized no matter how hard I hunted for it….because only He gives sight to the blind. And when my eyes are opened, oh how beautiful Jesus is to me, how exhilarating the freedom of living in step with His Spirit once again, how intoxicating God’s love is to me!
    You said in this post: “I am not arguing there is nothing to be learned from such teaching. I am concerned about how it seems to be playing out in the lives of many.” I hope you have misunderstood what your friends have been saying or that they simply have not expressed their thoughts clearly. I would urge you to give them an opportunity to clarify.

  7. Ellen, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I do agree that sin can blind us and capture our attention and take our focus off of Jesus.

    I celebrate with you the freedom and joy you have been finding in fresh ways as Jesus has led you into new experiences of life. I would affirm that when the Spirit puts his finger on something in our lives, when the Scripture calls our attention to some sin, when Jesus graciously points out what needs attending, we should attend to it!

    I will continue to listen to, talk with, care for those I have been in conversation with. It is possible that I have misunderstood them. I will seek to listen well. I would not want anyone to misunderstand what I have been reflecting on in this post, either. I really am most interested in keeping the main thing the main thing: Jesus rescues us!

    A little red flag goes up in my soul when I find conversations centering on “patterns of idolatry” rather than centering in on Jesus. I don’t mean to be simplistic or reductionistic. I don’t deny that Jesus is so creative and wise that he uses a variety of things to draw us deeper into the life he has purchased for us. But where does the converstation go? What fills our thoughts and shapes our discussions?

    I know there is much I don’t see . . . about the Christian life, about my own life, about the truth of Scripture. But I do find so much greater hope for holiness and growth and so much more of an anchor in Scripture in making Jesus the center of my conversation. I am not defined by the sin (or “idolatry”) that he is saving me from; I am defined by Him! (I am not suggesting, in any way, that you do not feel this way. You make it clear that you really want Jesus to be the main thing!)

    But I hear a lot these days from Christians–wherever they get it–about how they are “idolators” and about the struggle they have with “idols of the hearts” and how they feel they must discover their “idolatry patterns” to find freedom. And that saddens me.

    In speaking to the the followers of Jesus in Thessalonians, Paul wrote that they had “turned to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Writing to the Romans about what God had done in them through Christ, he explained that “though you were slaves of sin . . . and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:16-18). This must mean that in the most basic sense of who I am I am not an idolator, I am not a slave of sin. When I sin, I am sinning “out of character”–inconsistent with the new life that is mine. I am defined by the grace that comes to me through Jesus by the Spirit because of the Father’s good pleasure.

    How this translates into life for me is that the way forward–growth in holiness, freedom from sinning, increasing delight in life in God–is that I fix my eyes on Jesus who is the author and finisher of my faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). I don’t know that it matters–at least in the way I have been growing in grace–that I understand how or why I am not looking to Him.

    If the Scriptures make much of Jesus, if the Spirit glorifies Jesus, if the Father puts the Son on display, if we decide to boast in nothing save the cross of Christ and Jesus Himself, if we hang around others who make much of Jesus, then I think my eyes go to him, and I begin to see how “treasureful” he is, and my heart goes to him in love.

    I would not diminish the work of grace that you have experienced, Ellen. Let’s celebrate his goodness to you and others in how he brings freedom. I welcome the ongoing conversation, Ellen. Let’s keep seeking to think well of how it is that we can keep in step with the Spirit and live in the freedom that belongs to the children of God. Thank you so much for thinking “out loud” about these things.

    If our conversation can but help (through the Spirit) to make Jesus grand and glorious and good and amazing in the eyes and hearts of others, then I am delighted.

  8. Thank you so much Brian for teaching over the years that, “ I am not a slave of sin. When I sin, I am sinning “out of character”–inconsistent with the new life that is mine.”
    For years the “father of lies” would torment me with the thought, “YOU are just a sinner and you will never be free from this!” But then the Holy Spirit taught me through you and some other godly teachers that I have been given a new life! I am a child of the King! He has purchased me at great cost and adopted me as His own son! Praise be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!!

  9. Thank you for this post. I remember reading an article written by a prominent Christian author and exclaiming to a friend, “I don’t think it’s possible for this man to write anything without mentioning the word ‘idols’!” When the problem (idols) leaves a bigger impression than the solution (Jesus), that is itself a problem!

    As Ellen rightly notes, many Christians today are following idols, but I think a focus on discovering the idols in my life reveals a confusion of means and ends. My end is Jesus–always, only Jesus. As I pursue Him, two things happen. First, idols lose their appeal in the light of His glory and grace. And second, where there is need, the Father–not I, but the Father–will prune away what is not fruitful (Jn. 15:2). My only responsibility as the branch is to remain in the vine so that Jesus and the Spirit can produce fruit in my life.

  10. LSW, I think you’ve captured what is at the heart of my concern in posting these thoughts. “When the problem leaves a bigger impression than the solution, that is itself a problem.” A good word, a great invitation: Let’s pursue Him.

  11. This is an interesting reminder about the possible danger in “catch phrase Christianity.” We seem to have the latest popular words that almost create their own movement. I’ve struggled from time to time in recent months with the increasing popular use of the word Gospel in various teachings and written materials. I understand it is a biblical word and it represents Jesus. I’m warming to its use I admit. Yet, I wonder if it isn’t becoming a buzzword like “idol,” etc.


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