Insights from Idolatry Nature, nurture or the Bible? In fact, it’s all three
One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is how do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the Bible and Christian tradition with the insights of the behavioural sciences? Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.
One sort of question is a Bible-relevancy question. Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is by far the most discussed problem in the Scriptures. So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshippers still bow to images?
The second kind of question is a counselling question, a “psychology” question. How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behaviour? In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially shaped?
These questions — and their answers eventually intertwined. That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counselling of troubled people.
Motivation and conditioning: The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry. But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament, which long troubled me. The last line of 1 John, woos then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word? Is it perhaps a scribal emendation? Is it an awkward faux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language? Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked on to the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles? Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.
Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualisation, the motivation question is the lordship question.
Who or what “rules” my behaviour, the Lord or a substitute? The undesirable answers to this question — answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid — are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6 and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological”, the “psychological”, and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.
The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self — centredness, the wants, hopes, fears, expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts. The externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17, 4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies. The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior — determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10, 5:19), standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world.
In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “Beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3, 4:7-5:12). The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.
An internal problem: The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods. But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here. First, the Bible internalises the problem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God. “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors, which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behaviour: hands, tongue, and all the other members.
The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving — terms describing a relationship to the true God — is continually used in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters. 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.
The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalises the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic”. It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7. 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.
A social problem: Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and moulds us. The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behaviour with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart. Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbours, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society ... and, ultimately, his own heart?
That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counselling questions. Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data. Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behaviour and mutual influence under the microscope. The “lack” is only in specific application. The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system — or any other size or kind of social grouping — work and influence one another for good or ill. For example, the life patterns often labelled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry”. In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship”, then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other. They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.
The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well. There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods. 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 saviour 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 behaviour might combine playing the martyred saviour 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. Each of their idols (and consequent behaviour, thoughts, and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live. Their idols sometimes are modelled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girlfriends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting ... hell on earth.
Spiritual counterfeits: Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, saviour, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth. Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only ... then...” For example, the wife’s “enabling” behaviour expresses an idolatrous playing of the saviour. This idol promises and warns her, “If only you can give the right thing and can make it all better, then your husband will change. But if you don’t cover for him, then disaster will occur.”
Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in misery and accursedness. Idols lie, enslave, and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning.
The simple picture of idolatry — a worshipper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone — is powerfully extended by the Bible. Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning. The idols of the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways. They manifest and express themselves everywhere, down to the minute details of both inner and outer life.
In sum, behavioural sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods”. The problem in human motivation — the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes — is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry. Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.
This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset. This second question is a consoling question. How on earth do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioural sins. Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do — if I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.
Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. People suffer and are victimised and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do. These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modelling of attitudes and the like. These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimisation. My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems. If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems. Third, behaviour is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving pattens of thoughts, desires of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us. My behavioural violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me. “You might hurt me so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.” My behaviour is a strategy which expresses I: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs”. Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.
How are we — and those we counsel simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behaviour without any factor cancelling out the others? That is the question of the social and behavioural sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God). It is also the question that any Christian counsellor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind. The Bible’s view of man — both individual and social life — alone holds these things together.
A three-way tension: Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “springs” of life and the telic “goals” of life. The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features. All psychologies grapple with these issues. But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behaviour, a shaping social milieu, and a heart, which is both self-deceived and life determining.
Here are some examples. Moralism — the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street — sticks with responsible behaviour, underplaying complex causes. Behavioural psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens. Both responsible behaviour and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted. Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfilment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination. Both responsible behaviour and the power of extrinsic forces are muted. Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalised social contingencies. But the present milieu and responsible behaviour are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.
Unity ‘with respect to God’: The Bible — the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words — speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision. There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count. There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind. “Idols of the heart”, “desires of the flesh”, “fear of man”, “love of money”, “chasing after...”, “earthly-minded”, “pride”, and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals.
There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us. The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us. Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death. They sin against us. God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations. I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.” I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneously true?
The answer, which all the psychologies and psychologies miss, is actually quite simple. Human motivation is always “with respect to God”. The social and behavioural sciences miss this because they themselves are idolatrously motivated. In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.
Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society. Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psyche-social or psyche social-somatic. It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these. These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon, which is essentially religious or covenantal. Motivation is always God-relational.
Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue. It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry. The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshipping creatures, willy-nilly. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behaviour.
The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?” The final question is, “Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behaviour?” In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another People do not have needs. We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan. The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god? Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviourists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.
Hunger as idolatry: When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behaviour. I — “the flesh” — have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears. The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioural sciences see as a “primary drive”. Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on. But the Bible’s conceptualisation differs radically. I am not “hunger-driven”. I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven”.
We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously. I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behaviour and attitudes. Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving. The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry — gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like — make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart. Problem behaviour roots in the heart and has to do with God.
The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological. Perhaps my father modelled identical attitudes. Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety. Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice. Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed. Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements. The variations and permutations are endless.
Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another. Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms. A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food. For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs. Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength, which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death. Food — the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption — is a register of social status. Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms. Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularises the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimised irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger. Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost. I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry. For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!
In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.