The Sophisticated Idolater

Diagnosing the Four Chambers of the Idolatrous Heart

The moment Adam and Eve surrendered to the serpent’s seduction, they severed themselves from the umbilical cord of life in God (Ephesians 4:17-19). They shriveled up and died. As their spiritual heirs, at birth we inherit their corrupt nature. That means that relationally we are still wired for worship, but we worship anything but God. We are lovers who are far too easily infatuated with a cardboard cutout of the real deal.

 

For a robust understanding of heart idolatry, we need a biblical understanding of the heart. Biblically, the heart consists of four chambers: we are relational, rational, volitional, and emotional beings. For a relevant understanding of the fallen chambers of the heart, we’ll develop four portraits of the sin-sick heart of the Prodigal son and the Pharisaical son.[1]

Fallen Heart Chamber # 1: Relational Corruption—Spiritual Adulterers

When Adam and Eve fell, they retained their relational, rational, volitional, and emotional capacities. These capacities still existed but were twisted. Deprived of connection with God, their capacities degenerated.

As bad as this is, there’s something much worse. They were dead. The moment Adam and Eve surrendered to the serpent’s seduction, they severed themselves from the umbilical cord of life in God (Ephesians 4:17-19). They shriveled up and died.

As their spiritual heirs, at birth we inherit their corrupt nature. That means that relationally we are still wired for worship, but we worship anything but God. We are lovers who are far too easily infatuated with a cardboard cutout of the real deal.

We can picture fallen worshippers like this:

  • We’re worshipping beings created for communion with God.
  • We’re dead worshipping beings separated from connection with God.
  • We’re deprived and depleted: starving, hungry, thirsty worshipping beings.
  • We’re depraved and decadent: crawling anywhere but to God to quench our thirst.

What is a sinner? Sinners are spiritual adulterers who reject God their Maker and Husband (Isaiah 54:5) for anything but God.

Freud mistakenly hypothesized that we are psycho-sexual beings. He believed that the root of all issues was sexual. He identified a symptom of our problem as our core problem. True, many people turn to sex and sexuality as a false god in their frantic attempt to quench their sense of alienation. However, sexual sin is simply a symptom of spiritual sin. We are worshipping beings or psycho-spiritual beings—souls related to God. We need God; we reject God; we pursue non-god substitutes.

When I’m counseling someone struggling against sin, my mind is not focused on, “What psycho-sexual issue lies beneath their cluster of symptoms?” Instead, I’m wondering, “What worship disorder lies beneath their cluster of symptoms? Where does Christ fit into their soul?” I’m pursuing causes of their pursuit of non-God substitutes.

Looking for love in all the wrong places, sinners find nothing to fill their empty spaces. Rejecting dependence upon the Holy Spirit—the stream of living water flowing within—they’re parched. As Cornelius Plantinga insightfully states, “If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished.”[2] Now what? Needy but empty, sinners’ stomachs demand self-sufficient self-satisfaction.

Now we’re ready for a comprehensive diagnosis of the fallen relational being:

  • Fallen spiritual beings experience alienation from God and pursue false lovers of the soul in their desperate attempt to quench their thirst apart from God.
  • Fallen social beings experience separation from one another and manipulation of one another and dig broken cisterns in their endless quest to use one another to quench their God-sized and God-shaped thirst.
  • Fallen self-aware beings experience disintegration within their own souls and yield to destructive habits of the will and controlling passions of the affections in their futile attempts to quiet their inner restlessness and fill their inner emptiness.

Imagine that you’re providing biblical counseling for the Prodigal son and the Pharisaical son. Though very different from each other, they each share a fallen relational heart. You could use the relational chamber of the fallen heart to diagnose and treat each brother. Some of your heart probes might include:

  • Why and how is each son fleeing from the Father? What is each son clinging to and trusting in instead of God?
  • What counterfeit lover/love is each son pursuing? What false cistern is each son trying to drink from?
  • What self-sufficient satisfaction is each son demanding? Why is each son rejecting God-satisfaction? How is each son’s source of nourishment leaving him starved and poisoned?

Fallen Heart Chamber # 2: Rational Corruption—Heart Idolaters

Relationally, sinners retreat from whole-hearted worship of God and move to corrupt-hearted love for false gods. Rationally, sinners move from spiritual eyes that perceive God’s good, generous, gracious heart and move to foolish lie-believers who arrogantly suppress the truth of God’s holy love. We can summarize sinful relational capacities using the language of false love, impure affections, and spiritual adultery. We can summarize sinful rational capacities using the language of fleshly, foolish mindsets and heart idolatry.

We all have a golden calf (or two or more) that we bow before and worship. In our fallen state, we all worship ourselves and created reality (Romans 1). As Calvin famously explained, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.”[3]

To understand this process, we need to connect the links in the chain of faith, false love, foolish idols, and the fallen imagination. Faith is the core of the original human personality. God originally designed human beings as faith-in-God-beings, but now people are faith-in-anything-but-God-beings. Luther provides the insightful connection.

A god is that to which we look for all and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.[4]

By Luther’s definition, every person has a god. There is no such thing as an atheist, for everyone must put trust in something, or some combination of other persons and things.

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