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The Sophisticated Idolater

Diagnosing the Four Chambers of the Idolatrous Heart

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. There is no such thing as an atheist, for everyone must put trust in something, or some combination of other persons and things. Click To Tweet

But how does my heart manufacture the specific idol(s) I carve and worship? First, I create sub-biblical images of God—contemptuous images that have no awe of God, no sense of the attractiveness of his beauty and awesomeness of his majesty (Jeremiah 2:5, 19). Then, with God dismissed, I give birth to idols in my own image to make my life work without God. Stephen Charnock connects contemptuous images of God and arrogant images of self:

All sin is found in secret atheism. Every sin is a kind of cursing God in the heart. A man at every sin aims to set up his own will as his rule, and his own glory as the end of his actions. Every sin is an effort to turn from the worship of God to the worship of self. At root, sin is self-worship.[5]

I start by saying, “God is not good enough for me.” Then I conclude, “I am sufficient for myself.”

What does this imply for biblical counseling with the Prodigal and Pharisaical sons? Loosening sin at the motivational level requires detecting the characteristic roots and shape of foolish mindsets (Romans 8). We need biblical wisdom to perceive the specific false route(s) each son is pursuing to satisfy the specific thirst of his soul.

This requires exploring with them what motivates them, what they believe about God, themselves, others, and their world. It means engaging their souls so deeply that you can begin to sense who they are, how they relate to you, what drives them, and what they trust in to make their lives work apart from Christ. Some of your heart probes and interventions might include:

  • What faulty, foolish, and contemptuous beliefs and images about God, life, self, and others is each son believing? What fabricated sub-versions of God are guiding each son’s mindset? Where has each son lost his awe of God?
  • What specific, unique sinful idol has each son carved in his mind? What is each son uniquely taking refuge in?
  • How is each son suppressing the truth of God, Christ, grace, the gospel, the redemptive narrative?

Fallen Heart Chamber # 3: Volitional Corruption—Enslaved Destroyers

God, who freely wills and powerfully purposes, designed us with the capacity to choose—we are purposeful, volitional. God created us not as animals controlled by instinct, computers controlled by chips, or souls controlled by lusts.

How tragically far we’ve fallen. Now we’re unable to have dominion over our own passions, much less God’s planet. Titus describes us as enslaved destroyers. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3, emphasis added).

Notice the first link in the chain—foolishness. Our wills obey our minds, which obey our thirsts. If we’re convinced that God is our Supreme Good, then we’ll pursue him with a steely will. If we’re persuaded that God is not good, then we’ll pursue non-god substitutes with an enslaved will.

Peter’s haunting words portray that enslaved will. “For a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him . . . A dog returns to its vomit, and a sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:19, 22).

Consider the enslavement cycle:

  • We were created for a relationship with the infinite God of the universe.
  • Only God can satisfy our soul.
  • We reject God as our source of life.
  • We retain the God-shaped and God-sized vacuum in our soul.
  • We seek to fill that vacuum in non-God ways and through non-God means—through the finite.
  • Filling our soul’s emptiness becomes our god.
  • It takes an infinite amount of finite “food” to fill the infinite, God-size vacuum in our soul.

We’re driven to quench spiritual thirsts with physical water. We try to feed our infinitely hungry souls through finite morsels for our stomachs (Jeremiah 2:13).

Picture the infinite goodness of God as a huge dotted line indicating that he is without limits, boundless, utterly immense, immeasurable, and endless. Only his infinite Being could ever quench our thirst.

Now picture our petty substitutes as puny dots, a period at the end of a sentence, a pinprick, speck, or grain of sand. Pornography, lust, power, promotions, pleasure, money, an affair, acclaim, people-pleasing—these are smaller portions than a crumb off the table. How many crumbs will it take to fill the God-sized hunger in my soul? How many grains of sand are required to fill the ocean-sized desire of my heart?

James helps us to understand the connection between enslaved wills and destructive relationships when he asks the age-old question, “What causes the fights and quarrels among you?” (James 4:1). His answer: “Don’t they come from the desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it” (James 4:1b-2a).

Since desire itself is not evil, volitional sin involves our sinful responses to our unmet desires. I want my wife to respect me. She doesn’t. How do I respond?

“You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight” (James 4:2b). What do I do with my frustrated desires? I covet. I attempt to manipulate you into meeting my need. “Perhaps my wife will respect me if I’m a successful businessman or the world’s best dad.” What drives such thinking? A servant’s heart? No. The motivation is self-centered. “I must be respected by my wife!” As James says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3).

Wrongly motivated, empty, what happens if my wife does not comply? I kill. I retaliate. “I want what I want and I want it now! Give it to me or else!” If my wife does not meet my need, then I’ll retaliate. “I’ll either get back at you or hold back from you.” Perhaps I’ll be cruel. Or perhaps I’ll be aloof.

What’s going on in my soul? “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2c). The sin in our home (human relationships) is always ultimately due to the sin in our heart (relationship with God). The root cause of all human quarrels flows from a Divine problem. We refuse to humbly ask God; we refuse God-dependency.

“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:5). Spiritual adultery causes every relational problem. An enslaved will is always a destructive will.

The Prodigal and the Pharisaical sons were both enslaved and destructive—each in their own unique ways. In counseling them biblically, you must identify the root source of their enslavement by identifying the core thirst they are trying to quench apart from God, exposing the central foolish beliefs and images that are motivating their futile attempts, and specifying the habitual enslaved path they are following to quench their thirst. To do so you might ponder the following heart probes:

  • What cistern are they digging in their attempt to replace God the Spring of Living Water? What God-sized and God-shaped vacuum are they each trying to fill with “finite dots”?
  • What does their pattern of behavior indicate about their beliefs about the true source of life?
  • What heart issues might be motivating their manipulation and retaliation? How are issues in their heart impacting issues in their home?

Fallen Heart Chamber # 4: Emotional Corruption—Ungoverned Users

God designed our emotions to connect us with Him. The psalmists illustrate repeatedly that emotions, used well and wisely, can be a thermometer helping us to assess our spiritual temperature and to encourage us to be God-dependent people who soothe our soul in our Savior. God also designed our emotions to connect us with one another—weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. And God gave us the gift of emotions so we can connect with our own responses to the world—being alive to life and experiencing life with depth.

Then it all went wrong when sin entered the human heart. Paul, in Ephesians 4:17-19, offers a not-too-pretty picture of the four chambers of the fallen heart. Relationally we’re separated from the life of God, rationally we’re darkened in our understanding due to the futility of our thinking, volitionally our hearts are hardened, and emotionally we’ve lost all feelings and given ourselves over to sensuality.

In Ephesians 4:19, Paul chooses a very rare Greek word to describe the emotional condition of the fallen heart. The NIV translates it as “having lost all sensitivity.” It means to be “past feeling” or “having ceased to care.” We cease to care about our spiritual state and about soothing our soul in our Savior, preferring the pleasure of sin for a season. We cease to care about others and being sensitive to their emotions, preferring instead to use others to meet our every emotional need. We cease to care about experiencing life with depth, preferring shallow and fleeting emotional highs.

Paul’s word literally means “a-pathos”—without the ability to use our passion as designed by God, without sensitivity to God and others, focused only on ourselves. When we focus our emotions only on ourselves, we become obtuse to emotional messages, we lack emotional intelligence, and we’re insensitive and callous to shame. Rather than givers, we’re consumers—taking anything that will make us feel better in the moment.

Paul, as a skilled spiritual heart surgeon, next diagnoses the inevitable result of emotional insensitivity. We give ourselves over to “sensuality.” We’re ungoverned, out of control, sensually triggered to indulge in every possible pleasure. We become addicted to anything that might somehow quiet the screams of emotional pain and spiritual shame. We give ourselves up to lewdness to work uncleanness in all greediness, with a continual lust for more.

Instead of using emotions to experience deeply the life God grants us, we misuse our emotions to try to suppress the pain in our soul and the sin in our heart—so that we do not need God. We pursue whatever pleases us for a season. We live as if this world is all there is.

Emotions are meant to drive us to God—either in desperate grief or in joyful celebration. Emotions are meant to drive us to God—either in desperate grief or in joyful celebration. Click To Tweet Instead, we do everything we can to run from God. We would rather our souls starve to death than surrender to God’s grace.

The Prodigal and the Pharisaical sons had two very different ways of handling their moods. Yet they were each, in their own way, ungoverned users. Each disrespectfully demanded of their father. Each was tone deaf to their insensitivity and dishonorable treatment toward their father. Emotional heart probes with these callous sons could include:

  • How is each son misusing emotions to quiet the pain in his soul and the sin in his heart?
  • How is each son ungoverned in their use of their emotions?
  • How is each son living an emotionally demanding life that uses and consumes others?
  • How is each son lacking emotional sensitivity?

God’s Diagnosis of the Sin-Sick Heart

What’s the root source of our heart problem? We can answer that question in a tweet-size summary. Sin is what personal beings imagine, think, choose, do, and feel from the depth of their heart as they desire and love anything or anyone more than Christ.


[1] This discussion is developed from Bob Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling, 150-     169.

[2] Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 122.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 55.

[4] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, 1.

[5] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God , 171.

Bob Kellemen

Bob Kellemen is the Pastor of Counseling and Equipping at Bethel Church, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Academic Dean at Faith Bible Seminary in Lafayette, Indiana, and Founder and CEO of RPM Ministries.


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