Ever been to a dinner party with a let’s-find-your-idol theme? Probably not, and for good reason. Here is the predicament.
- Biblical counseling is not shy about identifying the idols of our hearts, and
- Biblical counseling takes place among friends in everyday conversations.
These frequently occurring principles of biblical counseling seem incompatible. No one talks about idols of the heart in everyday conversations.
If a friend said, “please, identify my idols,” maybe we would try to help. Otherwise, it’s just not done, or hardly ever. I have talked with friends about their idols, maybe twice, which works out to about one time every eighteen years or so.
How many people have spoken to you about your idols? I hang around with people who know about idolatry, and I am guessing they know plenty about mine, but no one has ever talked to me about them — except my wife . . . multiple times, and she does it well. If my friends spent much time talking to me about the idols of my heart they wouldn’t be my friends after a while.
So, though it is a good thing to know your idols, it is not a good thing to make it a habit of identifying them in other people. Are we contradicting ourselves here? No — and here are three reasons why:
First, we aren’t biblically compelled to talk about every sin. At any particular moment, my heart leans toward greed, comfort and blatant selfishness. Juicy idols all. But when I read Scripture those are rarely thrown up in my face. Instead, I find comfort, encouragement, grace and mercy. There are times, of course, when the Spirit shines his light on one of these sins and I am wonderfully undone by it. Normal, everyday life, however, rarely consists of me having my sins plastered in front of me, and I am not alone.
The woman who met Jesus at the well (John 4) is one example of how Jesus didn’t lead with a sin list. The disciples are another. We would have wanted to illumine them (often!) about their doltish and self-seeking ways, but instead, Jesus extended patience and redirected their attention to what was most important.
Years ago I asked a pastor from our church if we could meet for lunch. I had one purpose in mind: I wanted him to list my sins. I was quite nervous, because I attributed unusual spiritual insight to this pastor, and I knew I had lots of sins, but I was committed to hearing what he had to say.
It took me until our last bite of lunch to finally ask.
“Believe the promises,” was all he said.
My relief, I’m certain, was evident. Another bullet dodged. Later, as I tried to parse his Yoda-like insight, I was sure that he meant, “Welch, you wretched person, you don’t believe the promises of God and are guilty of the sin of unbelief, which is one of the worst.”
But he meant, “Believe the promises.” Know Christ more and more, rest in him, be amazed that he makes so many promises to you and keeps them. He wasn’t trying to let me off the hook. He was giving what was most important.
Second, there are differences between public and private ministry. When we read biblical counseling material there are times when the insight it brings to the idols of our hearts is penetrating and, ultimately, refreshing. The Spirit uses these insights to change us. And to this we say, bring it on! We prize any sermon, book or blog that brings conviction of sin.
But what if a preacher spoke to you over a one-on-one lunch the same way he preached? No recipient of such exhortation would be eager to pick up the tab. There is a difference between public ministry and private ministry. After a good sermon we can say, “He was preaching just to me.” But if he really was preaching just to you, and he was getting worked up about a particular sin, then you would not be pleased, and rightly so. The apostle Paul wrote a different letter to the church than he did to a personal friend. Compare his letters to Timothy and Philemon to his letters to the churches. All his letters are personal, but his exhortations are in his public letters more than his private ones. Public ministry is to the church corporate. Private ministry is to a particular person.
So, in biblical counseling, what you find in written material does not always mean that you should speak to another person in exactly the same way. We try to merge public and private ministry as much as possible, with the aim being that you can pass on the message of what you read to another person and he or she would be blessed. But when you read David Powlison’s “X-ray questions” and are convicted by them, you might offer the list to someone else, but you won’t walk around the narthex asking anyone who will make eye contact, “And what are you worshipping today?”
Third, idolatry isn’t at the heart of biblical counseling, Jesus is. Biblical counseling is not a process of lying in wait for the idols of someone’s heart. It is the application of the good news to everyday life, especially to the stubborn trials and sufferings of life. As such, the death and resurrection of Christ is the one thing that is always in view. It animates all encouragement, wisdom, illumination, trust, love and hope. Ask biblical counselors how what they are saying connects with idols of the heart and, at times, you should get a blank stare, but ask how it connects with the gospel and the links should come fast and furious. Jesus Christ and his gospel is the heart of Scripture; it must be the heart of counseling ministry.
Yet there are times when you do talk to a friend about sin. The gospel guides us to such things. We all need this. Our blindness to our own sins compels it. How do we do it? How do we talk with a friend? With humility, with a sense of “we” in that you can identify the same sin in your own heart, with wisdom that chooses apt words, with a heart that wants to encourage rather than tear down. And though you might have these conversations more than once every eighteen years, no one should have their primary reputation as an idol-exposer.