Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Reviving Lust and Idolatry

A few weeks ago, on Justin Taylor's recommendation, I listened to a sermon by C. J. Mahaney on James 4:1-2 called "Cravings Underlie Conflicts" and I encourage you to do likewise. It was very timely as I'm team teaching an adult class at our church using a video series from Peacemaker Ministries on biblical principles for resolving relational conflict and that week the lesson, "Conflict Starts in the Heart," focused on the same passage.


Both Mahaney and Ken Sande (President of Peacemaker Ministries and author of The Peacemaker) discuss how our interpersonal struggles emanate from intense desires or lusts that captivate our hearts and become substitutes for God. Sande describes the process by which a desire, even for something which is good, can progress into an idol. Desire becomes demand. When those around me fail to meet those demands, I judge them and resolve to punish them in some way. This might be through overt anger or some more subtle expression of displeasure that we display until our demands are met.


Biblical counselors frequently employ the concept of idolatry to answer questions about what motivates us to act in certain ways but not all find this satisfying. Jim Beck, for example, professor of counseling at Denver Seminary, characterizes biblical counseling in the following manner in a paper he wrote on the importance of integrating psychology and theology:
It only appears, we are told, that the Bible does not address issues such as anorexia, paranoia, or panic attacks. If we dig deep enough into the teachings of Scripture we will uncover the true underlying causes of even the most recent of diagnostic categories. By “probing the unfathomed depth and breadth of Scripture”.... biblical counselors can find relevant material for every human struggle. They accomplish this feat in large part by reductionistic strategies that collapse most all psychogenic pathologies to some form of idolatry.
Beck insinuates that biblical counselors exaggerate the part idolatry plays in our behavior. Of course, it would be overly simplistic to boil all kinds of emotional, behavioral, and relational problems to idolatry. But Beck's comments make me wonder. If biblical counseling is charged with making too much of idolatry as an explanatory category, cannot the opposite charge be made against so much of what goes on in the name of Christian counseling? Why is such a recurrent biblical emphasis so glaringly absent from so much popular Christian literature about the nature of our problems?

In preparation for the class I'd be leading I turned to an article by David Powlison which I consider one of the most thorough treatments of the subject of lust that I've ever come across. (Incidentally, Mahaney cites Powlison as the "living guy" from whom he's learned the most about indwelling sin and progressive sanctification, John Owen being the "dead guy" who's taught him the most about those subjects.) I first came across it about ten years ago when it appeared as a chapter ("How Shall We Cure Troubled Souls") in The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel, edited by John Armstrong. A more recent and somewhat revised version appears as Chapter 8 ("I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire") in Powlison's book Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.

Powlison notes that while "lusts of the flesh" (sometimes called cravings or pleasures) is a summary term for the divine diagnosis of what is most wrong with us, the understanding of "lust" held by most Christians is both narrow and shallow:

...the term "lust" has become almost useless to modern readers of the Bible. It is reduced to sexual desire. Take a poll of the people in your church, asking them the meaning of "lusts of the flesh." Sex will appear on every list. Greed, pride, gluttonous craving, or mammon worship might be added in the answers of a few of the more thoughtful believers. But the subtleties and details are washed out, and a crucial biblical term for explaining human life languishes. In contrast, the New Testament writers use this term as a comprehensive category for the human dilemma! It will pay us to think carefully about its manifold meanings. We need to expand the meaning of a term that has been truncated and drained of significance. We need to learn to understand life through these lenses, and to use these categories skillfully (Seeing With New Eyes, p. 148).
To support his claim concerning the centrality of "lust" to understanding motivation and bad behavior, Powlison offers a brief sampling of New Testament passages:

For example, 1 John 2:16 contrasts the love of the Father with "all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life." (See also Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:16-17; Eph. 2:2 [actually, v. 3]; 4:22; James 1:14-15; 4:1-3; 1 Peter 1:14; 2 Peter 1:4.) This does not mean that the New Testament is internalistic. In each of these passages, behavior intimately connects to motive, and motive to behavior. Wise counselors follow the model of Scripture and move back and forth between lusts of the flesh and the tangible works of the flesh, between faith and the tangible fruit of the Spirit (p. 148).
As I've noted before, I am persuaded that a major contributing factor to our unfamiliarity with the biblical language of lust is the fact that we have become more conversant in the language of need as taught by secular psychological theorists. Our self-understanding has been largely shaped by views depicting our essential problem as being emotionally and psychologically unfulfilled as opposed to being captives of our cravings. Sadly, some of the most effective tutors in the language of psychological needs are Christian authors.

Related: Justin Taylor's Five Lust Languages?

1 comment:

Rosemarie said...

I can't thank you enough for this post, Keith. It is so right on the money.