THE RAPTURE: “A MESSAGE OF COMFORT” – 1Thessalonians 4:14-18



This article is a lightly edited transcript of Dr. Bill McRae’s audio message on the Rapture. Appreciation for the transcription work goes to Marilyn Fine.


Once again, we would like to welcome you to our adult Bible class this morning. We are delighted to have you. If you are here for the first time, we give you a special welcome. You are here at the beginning of a new series. During this month we are going to study together in four Sundays the subject, or part of the subject at least, of the doctrine of the Rapture of the church. So, we are going to begin with this as our first study in a topical, prophetic study. Let us open our Bibles, shall we, to I Thessalonians 4. We shall lean on it as our central passage for our exposition this morning.

Our subject for our first lesson this morning is “The Rapture: a Message of Comfort.” That title, of course, is rooted in what we shall see in I Thessalonians 4. However, before we come to that passage and look at it in detail, there are some preliminaries that we should note. Certainly, one of the surest words in all of the Bible is that Jesus is coming again. Someone has said that there are at least 1,527 Old Testament references and 380 New Testament references to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Take the New Testament alone. We are not just limited to the personal testimony of our Lord who said, “I will come again,” but listen to the words of the angels who were present at the moment of His ascension when they announced to those anxious disciples, “This same Jesus which is taken up from you shall so come in light manner as ye have seen Him go.” It is the apostle Paul who refers to the Second Coming as a “blessed hope.” When the apostle Peter writes he reminds us that our faith someday shall be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of our Lord Jesus. When the apostle John writes to us he exhorts us to so live so that we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming. When the writer to the Hebrews pens his epistle, he speaks in a chronological significance and says that unto them that look for Him He shall appear the second time. So, the uniform testimony of the New Testament writers, as well as the Old Testament writers, is that Jesus is coming again.

Now, the Second Coming of our Lord, which is one single event, can be looked upon as taking place in two phases or two aspects. Just at the conclusion of the church period, the first aspect of the Second Coming shall occur and it will be at that first aspect that our Lord shall return from the heavens to the air. He shall come privately and He shall come for His Church. It is at that moment that the Church will be caught up to meet him in the air.

The second aspect of the Second Coming will be when He shall return to the earth and this shall be a public coming and He shall come with His saints or with the Church. Between the two aspects of the Second Coming, there will be a seven-year period or the Great Tribulation period. Now, there are several words— some in the scriptures and some in theological language— that will help us to understand the aspects of the Second Coming of our Lord. What I would like to do by way of introduction is outline for you five major words that are used to delineate certain aspects of the Second Coming or to describe the significance of each of these aspects.

Five Major Words

The first word that we want to talk about very simply and briefly is the word, coming. That is a word that comes from a Greek verb that occurs oftentimes through the New Testament and the Old Testament to describe this very significant event. It is a very general term and has no particular technical significance. The verb “the coming” is used to refer to both aspects—the first aspect and the second aspect. The Lord Jesus said in relation to the communion service and the Lord’s Supper, “this do ‘til I come.” On again another occasion He says, “Behold I come quickly.” So, that verb “come” is used many times in relation to the first aspect. He shall come through the air and He shall come for His Church. The same verb is used on many occasions for the second aspect of His coming. Matthew 24 and 25 give us the details of that second aspect and frequently through those two chapters you have the use of that verb “come.” So, when we speak of the Second Coming we are speaking of one single event that has two aspects to it. The verb “coming” neatly ties together these two aspects and they give us the one single event.

The second word that we want to note is really a transliteration of a Greek word and the word is the Parousia. The “Parousia” is a transliteration of the Greek word “parosea” which means basically “presence.” This was a cultic expression that was used for the visit of a hidden deity who would come and visit and by his visit make his presence known. In that cult, they would either celebrate his presence in the cult or they would be aware of his presence by some supernatural divine demonstration of power. When they referred to the presence of that deity, they spoke of it in terms of the “Parousia” or the “parosea.” It also was an official term or an official expression for the visit of a person of high rank like a governor or an emperor or a king who would visit a province in an official state visit. The arrival of that official for that official state visit would be described in terms of the “parosea” or the “Parousia”— The Presence of that dignitary.

Now, when you come to the New Testament, that same word is used in relation to the Second Coming of our Lord. What it does is anticipate the arrival of a dignitary. It emphasizes the presence of this dignitary who now has been absent. Strikingly, this word is used of both aspects of the coming of our Lord. In I Thessalonians 4, as we shall read in a few moments, we find it in verse 15 when the apostle Paul speaks of those who shall be alive at the coming, and that is that word “the Parousia”— the coming of our Lord or the presence of our Lord. In II Thessalonians 2:1 and 8, it is used in relation to His coming to the earth with His Church.

So, the Parousia, I believe, is a term that draws together both aspects of the Second Coming and considers the whole advent event as one. The Parousia or the Greek word “parosea” suggests then the presence of a dignitary who has been absent and that is exactly what shall transpire when our Lord returns. He who has been absent for 2,000 years shall become present. The event that will initiate the presence again of our Lord on this earth will be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. So, when we use that word, “parosea” or “Parousia”, we are thinking particularly of His presence. I think it draws together both aspects and considers it as one event.

The third word that we should know and that will help us in our understanding of this subject is the word, Rapture. Now the word “Rapture” is the only one of the five words that we are going to speak on which does not occur in the New Testament. However, the word, Rapture, is an English word derived from a Latin translation of I Thessalonians 4:16-17 where we read that “we who are alive and remain shall be caught up, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds.” The Latin translation of that verb is “rapio.” That is the root verb from which the translation comes and we have derived an English word from that Latin word. The English word that we have derived is “Rapture.”

Now, the Greek word that is used here for “caught up” is a very picturesque word. It is a word that suggests two primary thoughts. The first thought is the idea of a robbery. It is used in Matthew 12 when the Lord talks about thieves breaking into a house and stealing something. That is the idea. There is a connotation of robbery that is involved. Also, the second thought is that of something that is violent, something that is sudden and something that is almost catastrophic. The Lord anticipates that usage when He uses this very word in John 6:15 where we read that when he perceived that they would “take Him by force” to make Him king He departed from them. He uses this same word. So, the word that is used here suggests the idea of a robbery and something that is taken away by force. That, of course, is exactly the significance of the Latin verb “rapio.” It means to come and to seize and to carry off. And, therefore, we have used, we have derived an English word from that— and the English word is “Rapture.”

Now, the Rapture fits in as a descriptive phrase for the first aspect of the Second Coming of our Lord. The first aspect is the Rapture. It is at that moment that He shall come to the earth and He shall seize and carry off those who are believers in Jesus Christ. They shall be caught up together with Him. It is going to be a robbery. It is going to be something that will be violent and sudden and that is why it is described as that which initiates the day of the Lord which, in I Thessalonians 5, is described as coming as a thief in the night. The thing that is going to initiate the day of the Lord will be the Rapture of the church. That will take place as a thief in the night. The Lord shall come in the air and He shall, in an act of sudden robbery, snatch away from the earth those who are believers in Him. So, when we use the word Rapture we are speaking of the first aspect of the Second Coming of our Lord. He shall come in the air privately for His saints in the Rapture.

The fourth word that we want to speak of is a word that is oftentimes attached with the names of churches. That word is epiphany. The word “epiphany” is again a transliteration of a Greek word— “Epiphania”— which means appearance. This is used in several occasions in relation to the second aspect of the Second Coming. It is used, for example, in that beautiful text in Titus 2:13 where Paul says, “Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing.” That is the word. It is the appearing of our Lord. It was a technical term that was used in the days of the New Testament for the visible manifestation of a hidden deity.

So, when the apostle Paul and the Spirit of God takes this word out of its secular use and applies it to the coming again of our Lord Jesus, the connotation is that that hidden deity someday shall appear and He shall be seen. That will take place in the second aspect of the Second Coming of our Lord. This will be an “epiphany.” It will be an appearance of the Lord. That makes it in contrast with the Rapture because the Rapture shall be something that will be private. That shall be unseen by the world. In the second aspect, He shall appear and the world shall see Him. Revelation tells us that every eye shall behold Him and so the “epiphany” is the appearance of Jesus Christ on earth before the eyes of the world. This will be the next time that the world sees Him. The last time they saw Him was on a cross and the world never saw the resurrected Christ. The world shall never see Him until that moment when He appears in the second aspect of His Second Coming.

The last word that we should notice also describes the second aspect of His Second Coming and that is the word revelation. This is used on many occasions also in the scriptures to refer to the Second Coming of our Lord. One of the most beautiful is in II Thessalonians 1:7 where we read, “And He shall be revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels.” This will be a revelation. He who has been now hidden and unknown by the world shall be revealed to the world. The word “revelation” suggests an unveiling. The unveiling shall take place when Jesus Christ returns to the earth. He who is rejected by the world, He who is unknown by the world shall someday be revealed to the world. That is what the Second Coming shall be. It is in that moment that the “revelation” takes place and the world, then, shall realize He is God. It is at that moment that the Jewish nation shall recognize He is their messiah and they shall mourn over Him whom they have crucified. So, the second aspect of the Second Coming of our Lord will be an appearance. He shall visibly appear and it will be a “revelation.” He who is unknown and hidden from the world shall be revealed to them and they shall know Him to be the Son of God to be the messiah and to be the savior of the world.

Now, if we can keep in our minds these words, then we will be able to use them intelligently when we speak of the Second Coming of our Lord. The Second Coming is one event with two aspects. The first aspect is a Rapture. The second aspect is a revelation and an appearance. Together, they form the Parousia which initiates the presence of the absent God. He shall then become present on the earth and establish his millennial kingdom and reign on earth for 1,000 years.

Now, what we would like to do for these four lessons we have together is to focus our attention upon the first aspect of the Second Coming. That is the Rapture. We would like to do it by studying this morning the Rapture as a message of comfort. Next week we would like to study the Rapture as a subject for controversy. We are going to consider the major controversy related to the Rapture next week whether it takes place at the beginning of the tribulation, at the middle of the tribulation or at the end of the tribulation and who is that will be Raptured when the Rapture takes place whether it will be all of the church or just part of the church. There are four major views in relation to the Rapture. There is the pre-tribulation, the mid-tribulation, the post-tribulation and the partial Rapture theory. What we would like to do next week, then, is to consider these four views and we shall spend our time considering it as a subject of controversy. Then, our last two lessons on this subject will be the signs of His coming. We would like to go through the scriptures and pinpoint many of the signs that indicate, I believe, that we are on the very threshold of the Rapture for the conclusions of the church age and we can well expect, I believe, the Rapture to take place very, very soon.

Message of Comfort

This morning, though, we are going to be studying it as a message of comfort. We will be reading from I Thessalonians 4:13-18. In these verses, the apostle Paul in discussing the Rapture and this is the central passage on the subject, gives us three things. In verses 13 and 14, he gives us a bold declaration. Listen to it.

“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are asleep that ye saw not even as others who have no hope, for if we believe, or because we do believe, that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also who sleep in Jesus, or who sleep through Jesus, as it literally is, those who sleep through Jesus will God bring with Him.”

That is his bold declaration. Now, in verses 15 through 17, you have a very explicit explanation of how this shall take place.

“For this we say unto you, by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain unto the coming,” (there it is, “Parousia”) “of the Lord shall not precede” (the old King James uses an old English word, prevent, which means precede) “them who are asleep for the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with a voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. The dead in Christ shall rise first. Then, we who are alive and remain shall be Raptured” (That is the way the Latin translation renders it— shall be Raptured, or shall be seized and carried off) “together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Verse 18 gives us His very direct exertion,

“Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.”

What we would like to do then in our exposition of this passage is look at the declaration, at the explanation, and the exhortation as they are given to us in these verses.


The declaration in verses 13 and 14 is based upon a very serious question that has come to the minds of the Thessalonians. It will be obvious to us that this question concerns them who are asleep. That is exactly what we read in verse 13, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are asleep.” The question they have in their mind is concerning them who are asleep. Now, this verb “to be asleep” is only used in the New Testament of believers. It suggests the peacefulness, the tranquility of a person who has died believing in Jesus Christ. We would speak of it as phenomenal language. That is from our point of view, from the point of view of a person who is alive on earth. One who has died believing in Jesus Christ has fallen asleep. That is, I think, exactly what is implied in the phrase in verse 14 when he speaks of those who “sleep through Jesus.”

The imagery is that of a mother who is rocking her little baby off to sleep in a rocking chair after having given the baby the bottle and singing a song or two and reading a little story. Then, she leans back in her chair and she lulls her baby off to sleep. That is exactly the imagery that Paul is picturing of the death of a believer. He has lulled off to sleep by Jesus. It is these persons that the Thessalonians are very concerned about. Their concern somehow seems to be concerning the relationship of those who have been lulled off to sleep believing in Jesus who have died as believers in Him and their relationship with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. When Paul was in Thessalonica, he certainly and obviously spoke much of the Second Coming of Christ, but, apparently, he never spoke of the relationship between someone who dies as a believer and that Second Coming of Christ.

Now, in the absence of the apostle Paul many have died. Now the question has come what shall be the relationship of those who have died as believers, those who have been lulled off to sleep by Jesus and His Second Coming to establish the kingdom and to reign on earth? These people had suffered for the sake of the kingdom. Some perhaps had been persecuted and even had been martyred for the cause of Christ. Now, the question in the mind of the Thessalonians is this, “shall they miss out on the kingdom?” “Shall they miss out on all the glory of His Second Coming?” “Shall they have no part in the great honor or seeing Him establish His kingdom and reign on earth?” That was the thing that was concerning them so desperately.

One can imagine a wife or a husband or a parent who has been lulled to sleep by Jesus or has been martyred for the cause of Christ. As soon as they return home after the funeral services the question that would immediately rise in the discussion is what shall be the relationship of that person with the coming of our Lord to establish His kingdom. He preached the kingdom. He suffered for the kingdom. He prayed for the coming of the kingdom. Now, is he going to miss out on it? Shall he not see the Lord establish it and reign on earth? That was the thing that was concerning these Thessalonians. It was a very serious question because it was tending toward a grief or a sorrow that was like the sorrow of a pagan who had no hope. That is why Paul was concerned about this question. Apparently, it had not reached that type of sorrow, but it was tending toward that sorrow. The pagan world in the days of the Thessalonians and Paul had no hope. The Romans and the Greeks had no concept of the resurrection of a body after a person died. They had very little hope for the soul. There was a conditional existence after death, but even that was only temporary. So, to describe the pagan world as having no hope for life after death is very accurate.

Now, Paul recognizes that this question in the minds of the Thessalonians is a very serious question because it is causing them to be grieved and to sorrow so that their grief and their sorrow is tending toward the same type of hopelessness that characterizes the unbelievers who, in fact, have no hope. So, Paul says I do not want you to be like those unbelievers. I do not want you to be grieving and sorrowing as those people who have no hope. Let me tell you exactly what the relationship shall be of those who have been lulled to sleep in Jesus and His Second Coming and establishment of the kingdom. He makes his declaration in the concluding phrase of verse 14 when he says, “Even so them also who sleep through Jesus will God bring with Him.” So, Paul’s declaration is very simple. He has completely answered their question. The answer is that when Jesus returns God will bring with Him those who have slept in Christ. They shall return to the earth with Him and they shall share in the kingdom and they shall see all of the glories of His kingdom reign. That is the answer that Paul offers to the Thessalonians. When He returns to the earth and establishes His kingdom, they shall be with Him and they shall see the glory of the millennial kingdom and they shall share with Him in that glorious millennial reign.

He has answered their question. Only, of course, to raise a hundred other questions. How can it all take place? What will be the sequence of events? They have died, but how shall they come back with Him? So, in order to explain how this shall take place, Paul gives us his explanation in verses 15 through 17. It is in this explanation that he tells us the sequence of events, the course of events that shall take place whereby those who sleep in Jesus shall, indeed, come back with Him. The explanation, then, is covered in verses 15 through 17. I think we can divide the explanation in two. In verse 15, you have a general statement. Then, in verses 16 and 17, you have the explanation in detail. Let us look at his explanation in general in verse 15. “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord,” so he introduces His explanation with this statement that what he is about now to tell us is by the word of the Lord. “This, we say unto you, by the word of the Lord,” and anyone, of course, who is a reader of the Old Testament scriptures just revels in a phrase like that because the entire connotation of that phrase is that this is a direct revelation that is given by God to the prophet. We read it all through the prophetic books. The word of the Lord came to… and he stood up and he preached. “And the word of the Lord came upon,” and he delivered the message. Paul says what I am about to tell you, the sequence of events that I am about to explore, the revelation that I am about to give to you has come by a direct revelation from God. This we speak unto you by the word of the Lord.

The second thing he gives us in his general statement in verse 15 is that the living saints at the time of the coming of our Lord shall not precede them who are asleep. That is, he is simply telling us that the translation of the living saints shall not precede the resurrection of the dead saints. Now, that is a very important thing for these Thessalonians to realize. If the translation of the living saints preceded the resurrection of the dead saints then it suggested that the dead saints may miss out on the advent to the earth and the establishment of the kingdom. Paul says no such thing is possible and the reason why it could never happen is because the resurrection will take place before the translation. Those who sleep in Jesus shall be raised before those who are alive at that time shall be translated to meet Him. So, in the general statement in verse 15, then, he has said two things. He has told us that what he is going to give us in detail in the next two verses is by direct revelation from God. The second thing is that those who are living will not precede the resurrection of the dead. Rather, the resurrection of the dead shall, in fact, precede the translation of the living saints.


Now, what does it all mean? Well, let us put it together in verses 16 and 17 as the apostle Paul does for us. In verses 16 and 17, then, we have the specific events, the specific details. Really, you have a sequence of events that will take place whereby when our Lord returns to the earth in His epiphany and revelation those who have died in Christ shall come back with Him. What will be that sequence of events? If you look carefully in these verses you will find there are five events given to us in a sequence of order.


The first event in verse 16, “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God.” That is the first event in the sequence. It is, of course, the descending of Jesus Christ. That is what is suggested on our chart here as the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven. Now, we know from the later text that He does not descend to the earth. He descends only into the air, but He shall descend from heaven to the air and the text says it will be the Lord Himself who shall descend to the air. Three things, apparently, will accompany that moment of descending. The first thing is that He shall descend with a shout. That is a very graphic word in the original language. It means a shouted command just as a command would be shouted by the captain of a ship to his oarsmen or as a command would be shouted by a hunter to his dogs or as the command would be shouted by the general to his troops. So, someday Christ is going to descend with a shouted command. What will the command relate to? It shall relate to the resurrection of those who are asleep in Jesus. He shall descend to the air with a shouted command that will command those who are asleep in Jesus, speaking of course of their physical bodies, to be raised again from the dead. This was what was predicted in John 5:28 when our Lord says, “All who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come out.” This is the moment that it shall take place. I think it was illustrated at the tomb of Lazarus. He had been dead now for some days, Our Lord comes and He stands by the tomb of that man whom he loves so dearly, wiping the tears from His eyes and strengthening His voice. It says in the scriptures that He shouted with a loud shout. That is. A shouted command, “Lazarus, come forth.” And Lazarus came forth. It was the restoration to life. That is a very faint illustration of what shall happen when our Lord descends to the air and He shall issue His shouted command. It will be directed toward those who are asleep in Jesus and it will be His command for them to come forth.

The second thing that will be associated with that descension is it will be with the voice of an archangel. The archangel perhaps is Michael, the only archangel named in scripture. The voice of the archangel I suggest to you perhaps may be the thing that will gather together from all the courts of heaven and all of the corners of the earth, the angelic forces. I argue this because in every massive movement of Jesus Christ, through His life and after His life, as well as on many of the momentous events of the Old Testament, there was angelic accompaniment. Now, there is no specific indication in the scriptures that when the Rapture takes place our Lord shall be accompanied by angels. But, as you know from the life of Christ and in relation to the epiphany and revelation, He shall be accompanied by angels. So, I suggest that that will also be true of the Rapture. The thing that will congregate the angels around Him for the wonderful moment of descension from heaven to the air will be the voice of the archangel. The archangel, Michael, shall give his command and all of the angels in heaven and earth shall all gather around Him and they shall accompany the Lord in that wonderful moment of descend.

The third is the trump of God. Have you ever noticed that whenever God appeared to Israel, especially in moments like Exodus 19 to reveal Himself to them that it was the sound of a trumpet that gathered together the nation of Israel to hear what God would say to them. It was the sound of a trumpet that gave commands to Israel to break camp and to start the procession in their march. In the days of the Roman army it would be the sound of a trumpet that issued the commands for the soldiers to stop or for the soldiers to move forward or for the soldiers to make camp. The sounds of the trumpet. The trump of God shall be sounded and I suggest to you that it will be this trumpet that will be the calling signal for all of the living saints on earth to respond to this moment of our Lord’s descension. When He descends in this first act that comprises the Rapture, when He descends to the air, it will be with a shouted command directed to those who are asleep in the graves. It will be with the voice of the archangel congregating the angels. It will be with the trump of God directed to the living saints, gathering them together and issuing the command for them to come and to meet Him in the air. That will be the first event. It is the descension of our Lord.


Verse 16 carries us quickly into the second event in this sequence of events. It is stated in the concluding verses of verse 16, “and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” So, after the descension comes secondly the resurrection and this will be the resurrection that will take place in accompaniment with the Rapture. Several things should be noticed about this resurrection. The first is that it is the resurrection of those who are dead in Christ. That is a very technical phrase. It is a phrase which applies only to people who have believed in Christ during the church age. One becomes in Christ by means of the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit, I Corinthians 12:13 and other verses. So, when it says that the dead in Christ shall be raised first, it is referring to persons through this church period, not in the Old Testament period. Persons in the church period who have died believing in Jesus Christ. If you have a mother or father or even a child or a husband or a wife or a loved one who was a believer in Christ and who has been lulled to sleep by Him, then that person is included in this event. It is the resurrection of those who are dead in Christ during this church age. It is a resurrection only of the bodies of these persons as, of course, we must note. When a believer in Jesus Christ today dies, it is for him in his spirit and soul to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. It is only the body that is, so to speak, asleep in the grave. The fact of being asleep does not suggest soul sleep. It does not suggest that the soul is asleep. That soul and spirit is with the Lord immediately upon departure from the body. But it will be a resurrection of the body of those who have died in Christ.

It will be a resurrection to a resurrection body. This is going to be, in my estimation, one of the most dramatic demonstrations of divine power anywhere ever to be demonstrated. He shall resurrect those who have died in Christ and give to them a resurrection body. I Corinthians 15describes that resurrection body as being identical in identity with you today, which means that we shall recognize each other in heaven. I do not think there is any question about that, although the body shall be different in essence or different in its qualities, it shall be identical with the identity of a person today. It certainly shall be different in its qualities. It shall be a perfect body. All the marks of sin shall be removed from the body. It shall be a spiritual body. It shall be a body that will take on incorruption and immortality. It will be a new, miraculous work of God. I think this is going to be one of the greatest demonstrations of God’s power ever. He is going to take the ashes that have been sprinkled over the oceans and He is going to resurrect that body. He is going to take the ashes from cremations that are put in little boxes and He is going to resurrect that body so that the identity will be identical, although the qualities will be different. It undoubtedly is going to be one of the greatest demonstrations of the power of God anywhere. I think it is more miraculous than even the work of creation itself. The resurrection of the saints. This is going to be a resurrection that will precede the translation of the church and that is, of course, why He says the dead in the Christ shall rise first. He is again plugging in to the problem of the Thessalonians. Those that you are concerned about shall be raised first before the translation of the saints. They surely shall not miss out on the blessings of the kingdom when He shall return to establish it.


That brings us to the third event and the third event in the sequence is in verse 17 where we read, “Then, we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds” and that is the translation of the saints. This is going to be a forceful snatching away of the believers in Jesus Christ from the earth. My friend, if it happened at this moment it would be much like lowering a magnet upon a table that had on that table a sprinkling of matches and nails. That magnet would attract the nails and the matches would be left behind. When our Lord returns, He is going to give a command and the sound of the trumpet so that in response to the command the dead in Christ shall be resurrected and leave in the graves those who have died without believing in Christ for the judgment of God. He shall give the sound of a trumpet to which all of those who are believers in Christ will respond and will be immediately snatched away and will meet the Lord in the air. It is at this moment that they shall receive their transformed body. Paul says that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye we shall all be changed. If it should happen at this very moment, my friend, those of us who are believers in Christ would respond to the trumpet and in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we would be transformed. We would receive bodies that are identical in identity, but that are different in quality and we would have that spiritual resurrected body that would be delivered from all of its sins.

The striking thing, I think, about this whole phrase is that this translation will be accompanied by clouds. Notice, it says, “They shall be caught up together with Him in the clouds.” Have you ever noticed that clouds invariably are associated with divine manifestation? We do not have time to demonstrate it. Clouds oftentimes are associated with the Second Coming of the Lord. Zachariah 1, Daniel 7Joel 2Revelation 1, in every case say that when He shall come it will be with clouds. I believe it will be with literal clouds. I do not think there is any reason at all for suggesting anything other than literal clouds at this moment. When He returns one of the things that will characterize the day then will be a cloudy phenomenon. That may explained how the Rapture takes place without the world knowing it. That may be the means whereby the hidden departure of the saints will take place. There will be such a cloudy phenomenon at that time that the Rapture will take place unknowing to the world and every indication is that that is so.

After the Rapture takes place the believers obviously will be missed, just like Elijah was missed. They searched for him, but there is no indication that there will be a repentance on the part of the unbeliever after the Rapture. Salvation during the tribulation period will be as a result of the ministry of the 144,000 to whom the gospel message will be revealed by God. There is no indication that the Rapture will cause a great turning to God so that if it took place today every indication from the scriptures is that our children would not immediately repent or the neighbors that we have been witnessing to would not immediately put their finger on it and identify this as the Rapture and turn and believe the Word of God. There is no indication that that is what shall be the result of it.

Therefore, I am rather inclined to believe, and this is purely speculation, that the Rapture of the church could very well be accompanied by some kind of natural catastrophe that will cause a great cloudy phenomenon to encompass the earth so that the disappearance of the church will be explained away naturalistically, rather than theologically. So that when the world sees that the church is gone, they will explain their disappearance naturalistically rather than recognizing this is the Rapture and, therefore, repent. I do not think that there is going to be a great newscast all over the country saying the church has gone and the believers have all disappeared. There is no indication in my estimation that this will be the response. By the way, we have a good illustration of this.

If you were around in 1947, then you will remember the great tragedy that took place in Texas City when those ships exploded. Do you remember that great tragedy? They did not expect the ships to explode. There were men who were working around the men in the explosion of the ship. There was a great catastrophe. The repercussions of it were felt for hundreds of miles. Four hundred bodies were discovered as a result of that tragedy. Over 500 people were listed as missing. Now how do you explain the discrepancy? It was officially explained that those 100 plus people were blown to pieces and that is why the bodies were not found. But several of the news commentators in writing on this incident said in all likelihood many of that 100 plus people used this catastrophe as an opportunity to drop out of society. Men who had great bills to pay, people whose marriages were on the rocks used that catastrophe to drop out. That has happened since that time in many occasions and we know that is the way the world works. What I am suggesting is this. Just as probably the disappearance and the dropping out of some people was explained naturalistically in relation to the catastrophe of the blowing up of the ship in Texas City so I am rather inclined to believe the disappearance of the church will be explained. Man has a facility to explain naturalistically supernatural things. One of the things that perhaps may permit him for such a naturalistic explanation will be the accompaniment of clouds and I am rather thinking that there just may be some kind of a cloudy phenomenon occurring into which the church will be raptured and disappear and that will be the naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of the church.


Well, I am going to have to close real quickly by pointing out to you that the next event is a great rendezvous. It is for a meeting of the Lord in the air. It is not to meet, but it is for a meeting. That is the Greek text. It is for a meeting of the Lord in the air and the word that is used here is a very technical word that suggests the welcoming committee going out to welcome a dignitary. When Paul came to Rome in Acts 28, the brethren from Rome came out for a meeting. The same word is used. They were an official delegation coming out to welcome him. That is a beautiful picture of the church. Here it shall happen. Those who are dead in Christ and those who are alive believing in Christ shall be caught up together with Him in the air and they shall be caught up for a meeting. So, I picture then the Rapture of the church as an official delegation going out from the earth to be the welcoming committee for the Lord as He returns to the earth. There shall be a seven-year interval during which time the Judgment Seat of Christ shall be held, but the Rapture is a beautiful picture of the faithful, the remnant, on earth and in the grave going out to welcome our Lord as He returns to establish His kingdom.


The last is a permanent association and that is what you have in verse 17. “So shall we ever be with the Lord.” The permanent association is that we shall be with Him during the seven-year period in the air. We shall be with Him when He returns to the earth to establish His kingdom. We shall be with Him during the 1,000 years of His kingdom reign on earth. We shall be with Him throughout all of eternity. That, of course, is the great message that Paul has for these Thessalonians. As a result, his exhortation in verse 18 is “wherefore, comfort one another with these words.” Those that you are so anxious about and so concerned about surely shall not miss out in the kingdom. They shall be with Him when He returns to the earth and the way that that shall be accomplished is seven years prior to it they shall be resurrected before the church is translated. The living saints are translated. Together, they will go in the air for a meeting of the Lord and they shall be with Him when He returns to establish His reign on earth. That is the message of the Rapture. It is a message of comfort.


Down through the years, these chapters and verses have been a message of comfort for untold thousands of believers and that is exactly what the chapter is for us this morning. It is a word of comfort. Imagine for a moment the tremendous comfort that is found here in the prospect of a great reunion with those who have gone on before us, believers in Christ. I have a brother that I am going to meet in that day. It is going to be a grand reunion. Oftentimes when I stand beside a graveside and I commit a body to the earth, those are the words that I read. What great comfort there is if that person was a believer in Jesus Christ. There is going to be a great reunion that shall take place. Imagine the comfort that there is in the prospect of the great joy of being part of the welcoming committee. You are going to be part of that, my friend, if you are a believer. You will be part of a welcoming committee that you will want to welcome Him when He comes back to the earth. Imagine the joy, the comfort that there is in the prospect of the great glory of being with Him while He reigns on earth. Just think of the great joy, the comfort in the prospect of being with Him throughout all eternity. That is the message of the Rapture.

There also is the comfort, I believe, the great comfort that comes in the assurance of a great deliverance from the Tribulation period. That is that the church shall be raptured and delivered from the earth before the great Tribulation breaks upon this earth. That is a message of comfort and we shall demonstrate next week why we believe this is so. Of course, if you are not a believer in Jesus Christ this morning there is no comfort in these words. They seal your eternal doom to be without God and without hope for ever and ever. So, we encourage you this morning, my friend, if you have never believed in Jesus Christ personally as your Savior that you trust Him and accept Him as your Savior so that if it occurred today you would be with Him and like Him forever and ever.

Let us bow and pray, shall we. Father, we do ask thy blessing now upon this message and we thank you for the comfort that there is for us today, as well as for those of old in the great promise of the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the translation of those who are living and believing in Him. We pray that Thou will help us to look for that day and to live this week in the light of the fact that it may be today. For we ask it in Christ’s name, amen.

*SOURCE: Published April 5, 2010 @


Dr. Bill McRae graduated from D.T.S. in 1970 (ThM) and 1983 (D.Min). After 5 years of ministry in Dallas at Believer’s Chapel, he returned to his home in Canada where he continued in a pastoral ministry. In 1983 he was appointed President of Tyndale University College and Seminary located in Toronto, Canada. While president, he taught in the Pastoral Theology department and the Bible department. He continues to be their President Emeritus engaging in an itinerant Bible teaching ministry. From 1990 – 2000 he was the chairman of the Vision 2000 evangelism committee of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. For several years he taught annually at the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism. His wife is Marilyn and together they have 4 married children and 13 grandchildren. His books include: Preparing for your Marriage (Zondervan) Dynamics Of Spiritual Gifts (Zondervan) A Book To Die For (Clements) It’s a study of How we Got our Bible with a Prologue containing the story of William Tyndale.

The Power of the Gospel Over Idolatry in the 21st Century

Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”

A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison

One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral 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 frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question.  How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior?  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 counseling of troubled people.


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 awkwardfaux 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 onto 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 behavior, thoughts, and feelings.  In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question.  Who or what “rules” my behavior, 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.2

The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self-centeredness, 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 internalizes 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.3 “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 behavior: 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 utilized 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.4 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 internalizes 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.5

A Social Problem

Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and molds us.  The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6Bunyan’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 behavior 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, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society…and, ultimately, his own heart?7

That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions.  Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 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 behavior 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 labeled “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 savior 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 behavior might combine playing the martyred savior 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 behavior, 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 modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends 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, savior, 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” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the savior.  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 a hangover of 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.  They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper 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.  Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life.  The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries.  These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.

In sum, behavioral 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 counseling question.  How on earth do we put together the following three things?  First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins.  Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 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 victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do.  These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like.  These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization.  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, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views 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 behavioral 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 behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: 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 behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?!  That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God).  It is also the question that any Christian counselor 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 “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 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 behavior, 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 behavior.  Complex causalities are muted in toto.  Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens.  Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted.  Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination.  Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted.  Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies.  But the present milieu and responsible behavior 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 sociologies miss, is actually quite simple.  Human motivation is always “with respect to God.”  The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” 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 psycho-social or psycho-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 worshiping creatures, willy-nilly.  Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.

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 behavior?”  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 behaviorists 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 behavior.  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 behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.”  Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on.  But the Bible’s conceptualization 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 behavior 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.12 Problem behavior 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 modeled 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.13 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 particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized 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!

Security as Idolatry

Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower” the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals.  Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals.  But the same critique applies.  When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious behavior.  Rather than serving the true God, the god I serve is the approval and respect of people, either myself or others.  I am an idolater.  I am not “motivated by a need for security.”  I am “motivated by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.”  Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.”  Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation.  They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.

Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous.  “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger.  Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them.  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.14

Idols: A Secondary Development?

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created.  Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs.  The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need.  In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs.  Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs.  Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ.  Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor.  We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor.  We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are.  We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people.  The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.

Humans lust after all sorts of good things and false gods—including love—in attempting to escape the rule of God.  The love-need psychologies do not dethrone the inner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry.  Structurally, the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the “health and wealth” false gospels.  Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.

It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols.  Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money.  A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.

The Bible is simpler.  Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous.  Idols can be compounded on top of idols.  But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.

The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior.  The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry.  Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.


Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.

Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years.  They have two children.  He is a highly committed Christian.  He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor.  He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage.  He became enraged and beat her up.  Then he ran away, threatening never to come back.  He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.

The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness.  Wally has no close friends.

Several years ago Wally became involved sexually with a woman he was working with diaconally: “I know it was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how rough she’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort her physically.”  He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; but both acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt and mistrust.

He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and the deep freeze.”  On the one hand he can be abrasive, manipulative, angry, and unforgiving.  On the other hand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, and afraid of people.  He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s “bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting me or listening to me” and depression at his own sins.  Her patterns and his create a feedback system in which each tends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.

Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family.  He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42.  By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born.  Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please.  “If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’  If I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”

After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became “much more mellow; and, with my having become a Christian and trying to forgive him, our relationship wasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.”  His mother was “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimidated by my Dad.”  Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo” in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeois values. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, too shy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”

Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast.  “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.”  His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating.  He loves Jesus Christ.  He believes the Gospel.  He desires to share Christ with others.  He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped.  “I just react instinctively.  Then I feel guilty.  You know the pattern!”

Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off.  They are not extravagant spenders, but they face continual financial decisions: Dental work for the children?  Should we buy a house?  Should we take a vacation or work side jobs to earn a little extra money?  How many hours a week should Ellen try to work outside the home?  Can we really afford to tithe?  Should we accede to the kids’ desire for a VCR?  They live month to month, and the bill cycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.

How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?

“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry

Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions.  They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda).  Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma.  Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure.  If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.”  There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.

His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.”  Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand.  “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.”  “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side.  We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned.  “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.”  Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him.  At the same time Wally bought the idol.  He is simultaneously a victim and guilty.  He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system.  He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.

Relationships are rarely static.  There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion.  At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself.  At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.”  At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father.  He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.”  Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.

At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands.  He pitted his will against his father.  Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel.  In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use.  One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17

There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture.  His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father.  Idols are fluid.  The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead.  But rebellion is not unmixed.  It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies.  “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me.  At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”

Wally’s father was not static either.  In his later years he mellowed considerably.  Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the relationship.  It became peaceable but never warm.  Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves.  A demanding father became a less demanding father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement.  Our hearts also evolve.  A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled.  The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death.  Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.

Multiple Idols

We become infested with idols.  The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships.  Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church.  He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children.  Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship.  He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.

We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections.  We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail.  His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen.  The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy.  He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them.  He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded.  He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed.  All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.

Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream.  Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods.  In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme.  First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures.  Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture.  Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.

“Who can understand the heart of man?!”  And who can understand the world that negotiates with that heart?!  Wally and the myriad forces which impinge on him elude exhaustive, rational analysis.  Yet we can describe enough of what goes on in his complex heart and complex world to minister helpfully to him.  And the Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not the Wally of some prior point in his personal history.  Biblical counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can be given.  Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue, can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, and Wally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.

Many other idol systems and sub-systems impinge on Wally.  Some are the same players Bunyan described in his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, and opportunities which circle around money, sex, food, power, success, or comfort.  Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcohol industry—woo him with temporary compensations and false, escapist saviors from the pressures generated by his slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslave and whip him along at other times: “I must perform. I must prove myself.  Everyone I respect must like me.  What if I fail?”

Some of the other idol systems which daily impact on Wally are found within the marital system and the family system.  Ellen’s and the children’s values and desires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways.  If Ellen worries about money, if the children get swept up with complaining when they do not get what they want, if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic behavioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry, compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or whatever else, depending on how he interfaces with the particular micro-society that is constraining him.19

This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.”  False gods are highly catching!  With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like.  Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them.  False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates.  “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.

If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention.  These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins.  But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions.  They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences.  Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others.  Both tempt me, and I must battle both.

Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility.  But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives.  In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded.  The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely.  But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.

Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry

At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own.  He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems.  But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values.  His life implicitly validates many lies.  His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols.  Is he a Christian?  Yes.  But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ.  There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life.  But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.

Idols are rarely solitary.  Our lives become infested with them.  Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods.  For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois.  The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior.  They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes.  Your performance in my eyes.”

Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life.  At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure cooker he creates.  Alcohol abuse, TV watching, video games and pornography provide fleeting escape.  At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people.  He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.”  Of course, this is only a sampler.  Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.

The real Wally is irreducibly complex!  Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties.  This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case?  Yes, there are.  Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes.  He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him.  Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally.  “Pride” (I play god) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial.  One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way” and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly repeated in Wally’s life.  Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight.  Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in a different counselee might be greatly intensified.

It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif, in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life and do not speculate abstract typologies.  The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view.  In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses of Wally and others according to a typology.  He is a type-A person.  He is a Pleaser.  He is a Controller.  He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments.  He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family.  His root sin is anger.  His problem is low self-esteem.  In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth.  Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge.  In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.

Root Idols?

Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people, it might be expected that we could say something like, “His root idol is….”  But the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!”  For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth.  A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.

But sin is creative as well as habitual!  We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods.  The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience.  Typologies are pseudo-explanations.  They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power.  At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people.  At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual.  At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.

How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like.  Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:

Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple.  It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult.  While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning.  The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes.  It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25

 ‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair

How do individual styles develop?  Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols.  It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart.  Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail.  Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.

Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us.  For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal.  For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement.  His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports.  The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people.  For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.

Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate school education, first-born or eighth-born, male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960, and the like.  Much individual variation is due to hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth.  In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.

The diagnostic categories which pierce to the commonalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,” which we are using here.  These alone can embrace both the fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world, flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who has saved Wally.  They apply toevery person in a way which is simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all the complexities.  For all our differences, the Bible speaks to every one of us.


As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry.  The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment.  Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes.  The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world.  But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.

Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living.  “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers.  Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods.  Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally.  Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism?  Decidedly not.  But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s.  The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil.  Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer.  But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.

The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people.  Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like.  This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.”  “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.

Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally.  His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle.  Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component.  The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences.  Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity” of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the “quality” of his problems.  A tense irritability can flare into rage and cursing.  A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair.  A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse.  Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins.  It does not create new kinds of sins.

The Role of the Will

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable.  As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility.  Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent.  Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right.  He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.”  He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.

Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil.  The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices.  One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly.  Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences.  Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, and growing love for people.  He has had other “high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love, and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.

But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random.  These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life.  Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change.  His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief.  One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative.  In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them.  It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion.  He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world.  The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.

My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!).  A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive.  But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”

The Lordship Question

There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole.  The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention.  But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God.  This can be looked at through numerous lenses:

  • Lordship through the lens of our hearts: The grace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versus the rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.

  • Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group, socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).

  • Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters: The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.

  • Lordship through the lens of somatic influences: living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.

  • Lordship through the lens of volitional choices: Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s will versus believing and choosing according to my spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the way that seems right to a man.”

  • Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.

Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it.  Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world.  The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes.  Wally is fully responsible for what he does.  Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions.  Wally is continually being conditioned from without, tempted, tried, and deceived.  Wally is also a Christian.  The Spirit and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.

Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people?  But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment.  The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.

One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively.  There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this.  The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived.  But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people.  What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life.  People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.

How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns?  But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ.  Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable.  I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior.  Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior.  The heart issues are typically misread, however.  “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God.  Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic status than they have in the biblical view.

These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotional problems.  “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.”  The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you.  Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.”  Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.

What is the Gospel?

What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped?  “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures.  The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.”  Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are.  God has unconditional love for you.”  That is not the biblical Gospel, however.  God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large.  A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.

The Gospel is better than unconditional love.  The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.”  Christ bears the curse you deserve.  Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness.  Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.”  He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.”  The center of gravity is different.  The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself.  Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please.  But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel.  The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me.  It loses its force as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin.  “The wound of my people is healed lightly.”30

Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem.  Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins.  The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated.  Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically.  In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.

Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu.  Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts.  Human responsibility would be compromised.  But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ.  Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully.  As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us.  We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power.  We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.

Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation.  Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.”  But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning.  The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration.  There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs.  Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us.  Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31

I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences.  People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-buyers, and idol-sellers.  We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee.  But there is a bigger Gospel.  At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:

Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.  Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.  Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33

Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart.  He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.

The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies.  The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior.  The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.

Article published on October 9, 2009 @


David Powlison

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at:

1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or three commandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to the Lord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appears vividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges, Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.

2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.

3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for what determines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. See Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc.  The metaphor of “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to “idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity is employed to portray the inward motivational dynamics which the outward act reflects.

4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.

5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.

6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.

7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols.  If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that.  I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.

I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry.  The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.

8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound.  This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior.  This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.”  Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations.  But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation.  Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.

9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution.  This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases.  That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people.  The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.

The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.”  The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ!  Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).

So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner.  Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God.  Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.

Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.

The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confident people build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as perceptively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obviously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).

10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal problems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsibility only to oneself, family, and society.  “Sin” implies a primary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal and social responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.

11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives.  Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals.  Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.

12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are four passages, among many, which work out these themes in greater practical detail.  Notice how the language of relating to God—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—can be applied to relating to food.

13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”

14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.

15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us.  The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.

Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblical analysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included— rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman, idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.

16 Mark 10:42-45.

17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.”  It could equally be said that they boil up around us.  There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.

18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for this felicitous phrase.

19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle?  There may well be.  In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling?  Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships.  The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).

I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling.  Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins.  My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children.  That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out.  His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues.  But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.

20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature.  It plays itself out in an endless variety of forms.

21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced.  Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics.  Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship.  The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif).  In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship.  For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.

22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.

23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.

24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power.  It is purely descriptive.  It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”

25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.

26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer.  Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers.  James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.

27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.”  Satan is the arch-deceiver.  We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu.  Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.

28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation.  See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3 (1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christian counselors.

29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible!  Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without.

30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).

31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith.  Psalm 23—like many portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in.  Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude, from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions).  Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.

32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents.  There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.

Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart and behavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects in his family and church.  We have emphasized the negative side of social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.

33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.

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Dr. Tim Keller on “The Christian’s Happiness” – Romans 8:28-30

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30)

Cheer Up Christian: “Your bad things turn out for good, your good things can never be lost, and the best things are yet to come.” – Tim Keller


If you’re a Christian, you know that Christianity is supposed to be about joy. You probably also know that you’re supposed to experience joy in spite of circumstances. The Bible clearly teaches that joy is available that should make us happy no matter the circumstances. There’s a joy that the deepest trouble can’t put out and, if properly nourished and nurtured, can even overwhelm the greatest grief.

When Jesus prays to the Father in John 17:13, he prays for us—his followers. He says, I pray that “they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” One chapter before, he says to his disciples, “You will rejoice. and no one will take away your joy” (16:22). That’s pretty amazing! He’s talking to the twelve disciples, men who are going to be persecuted. They’re going to be robbed of everything they own, tortured, and put to death. Yet Jesus promises to give them a joy that will withstand all that. Nothing—not disease or persecution or alienation or loneliness or torture or even death—will be able to take it away.

I often wrestle with that concept. I have to ask myself, “Why do things affect me so much? Why is my joy not relentless?” Sometimes I wonder, “Do we have that kind of impervious joy?” I’m afraid not. I don’t think we understand the nature of this joy.

Romans 8 is all about living in a suffering world marked by brokenness. Paul talks about trouble and persecution and nakedness and poverty and how Christians are supposed to live in a world like that. In 8:28–30 he offers three principles for finding joy in suffering. Paul tells us that if we follow Christ, our bad things turn out for good, our good things cannot be lost, and our best things are yet to come. Those are the reasons for our joy.

Our bad things turn out for good

Verse 28 says: “For those loving him, God works together all things for good.”

There are three implications of this first principle.

First, this verse says that all things happen to Christians. That is, the Christian’s circumstances are no better than anybody else’s. It is extremely important for us to understand this if we’re going to experience relentless and impervious joy. Terrible things happen to people who love God. Many Christians explicitly teach—and most Christians implicitly believe—that if we love and serve God, then we will not have as many bad things happen to us. That’s not true! Horrible things can happen to us, and believing in and loving and serving God will not keep them from happening. All the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to people who love God. “All things” means all things, in this text. In verse 35 Paul says, “What can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, poverty, danger, or sword?” Those are terrible things. Paul is saying all the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to us, even if we love God. It’s very important to realize that.

The second implication of this point is that when things work together in your life, it’s because of God. Notice Paul does not say, “Things work together for good.” Things never work together for good on their own. Rather, if anything good happens, it is because God is working it together.

Earlier in Romans 8, Paul discusses how things fall apart because the world is burdened with evil and sin. Things are subject to decay. Everyone will eventually experience the decay of their bodies; that’s the nature of things. The little grains of sand on the beach used to be a mountain. Everything falls apart; things do not come together. This verse tells Christians to get rid of the saccharine, sentimental idea that things ought to go right, that things do go right, and that it’s normal for things to go right. Modern, Western people believe that if things go wrong, we should sue, because things ought to go right. But Christians have to discard that idea completely. Christians have to recognize that if our health remains intact, it is simply because God is holding it up. If people love us, if someone is there to hug us or squeeze our hand, if someone loves us in spite of all our flaws—if someone loves us at all—it’s because God is bringing all things together. God is holding it up. Everything that goes well is a miracle of grace.

The third implication of this principle is the most basic: Although bad things happen, God works them for good. This verse does not promise that those who love God will have better circumstances. Nor does this verse say that bad things are actually good things. Rather, it acknowledges that these are bad things, but it promises that they’re working for good. That means God will work them to good effect in your life.

The story of Jesus standing before the tomb of Lazarus is an endless source of insight for me. As he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was not smiling. He was angry. He was weeping. Why? Because death is a bad thing! Jesus wasn’t thinking, “They think that this is a tragedy, but no harm done! I’m about to raise him from the dead. This looks like a bad thing, but it’s not. It’s really a good thing! It’s a way for me to show my glory. It’s really exciting! I can’t wait!” He wasn’t thinking that. Jesus was weeping at the tomb, because the bad thing he’s about to work for good is bad. The story of Lazarus does not give you a saccharine view of suffering, saying bad things are really blessings in disguise or that every cloud has a silver lining. The Bible never says anything like that! God will give bad things good effects in your life, but they’re still bad. Jesus Christ’s anger at the tomb of Lazarus proves that he hates death. He also hates loneliness, alienation, pain, and suffering. Jesus hates it all so much that he was willing to come into this world and experience it all himself, so that eventually he could destroy it without destroying us.

There’s no saccharine view in the Christian faith. The promise is not that if you love God, good things will happen in your life. The promise is not that if you love God, the bad things really aren’t bad; they’re really good things. The promise is that God will take the bad things, and he’ll work them for good in the totality.

Keep in mind that verse 28 says all things work together for good. That doesn’t mean that when something bad happens, we can decide to give God a week to show us how the situation is going to turn out for good. In fact, don’t wait a month. Don’t wait a year. Don’t wait a decade. The promise isn’t for a month or a year or a decade. The promise is not that we will see how every bad patch in our lives works out for our good. The promise is that God will make sure that all the bad circumstances will work together for your life in its totality.

The best summary of this lesson that anybody has ever come up with is John Newton’s. He said: “Everything is necessary that he [God] sends; nothing can be necessary that he withholds.” What John Newton and Paul are saying is that if God has withheld good things—things that you think are good—they would only be good in the short run. In the long run, they would be terrible. They would be good in the partial but not in the whole. On the other hand, God will only bring bad things into your life—things God knows are bad—in order to cure you of things that can destroy you in the long run. The premise is, the things that really hurt—foolishness, pride, selfishness, hardness of heart, and the belief that you don’t need God—are the only things that can hurt you in the long run. In the short run selfishness and self-deception feel great, but in the long run they will destroy you.

Your joy will be impervious if you hold onto these three principles. Bad things will happen to you. We shouldn’t be shocked or surprised when bad things happen. One of the main reasons a lot of Christians are continually overthrown is not simply because bad things happen to them. At least half of their discouragement and despondency is due to their surprise at the bad things that happen to them. Do you see the distinction? Fifty percent of the reason we get so despondent is that we’re shocked. We say, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” We may say life should be better, but that’s not what the promise is. Or we say we love God, therefore, surely we will have more good circumstances. That’s not the promise either. Until you understand what the promise is, you’re going to be continually shocked and even overthrown.

Our good things can never be lost

The second principle in this passage is that the good things we have cannot be lost. If you’ve been a Christian for any period of time, you know that Romans 8:28 is a very famous verse. People use it all the time. It’s what I call a “blessing box” verse. A blessing box is a collection of verses you rip out of context and recite without concern for what came before and after the verse. It feels good, so you use it. For example, people use Romans 8:28 to assure themselves that when bad things happen, then surely good things will happen. You might think, “I didn’t get into the grad school I wanted to get into, but that’s because there’s a better grad school for me somewhere.” Or, “I didn’t marry the girl or guy I wanted to marry, but that means there’s a better one for me somewhere.” That’s not the promise.

There’s a little word between verses 28 and 29 that indicates the verses go together. The little word is for. “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, for those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed into the likeness of his Son.”

God does not promise you better life circumstances if you love him. He promises you a better life. Grad school and marriage are circumstances. We’re talking about a joy that goes beyond circumstances. How dare we interpret verse 28 as a joy that is dependent on those things! Here is an important principle: Jesus Christ did not suffer so that you would not suffer. He suffered so that when you suffer, you’ll become like him. The gospel does not promise you better life circumstances; it promises you a better life.

Romans 8:29 tells us the goal toward which all our circumstances are moving us. Paul uses the word predestined. He’s not introducing the word to confuse you—he doesn’t intend to explain the doctrine of predestination or address the issues that arise when that word is mentioned. He uses this word to comfort us. Something that is predestined is fixed. What Paul means is that if you love God, you can count on a promise that is absolutely fixed, no matter what. That’s all he’s trying to get across.

What is it that is predestined? That we will be conformed to the image of Christ. The Greek word here is morpha, from which we get the word metamorphosis. Paul is saying that God promises to “metamorphosize” us. He promises to change our very inner essence into the very inner essence of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to become passionately in love with the character of Jesus. You read about him in the Bible and are amazed by the truth and love you find in his life. You see wisdom and utter conviction. You see incredible courage, brightness, and radiance. The good that God is moving you toward through everything that happens in your life—whether externally good or bad—is your transformation into Christ’s nature. If you love God, everything that happens in your life will mold you, sculpt you, polish you, and shape you into the image of his Son. He is making you like him. He’ll give you Christ’s incredible compassion and courage. God is working everything that happens in your life toward that magnificent goal. It’s predestined. It’s guaranteed.

One of the most astounding things in Romans 8:30 is this: “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Glorified is in the past tense. Shouldn’t Paul say, “The ones he foreknew he predestined, and justified, and will glorify”? Because the apostle is so absolutely certain that you are bound—that God is going to make you as beautiful as Jesus and give you all these incredible things—he writes of the glorification as an accomplished fact. He talks about it in the past tense because it’s as good as done. God is not going to let anything in life get between you and that goal. You are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.

In Romans 8:29 Paul calls Christ “the firstborn among many brothers.” That means we are all sons of God. We are all adopted into the family. When Paul alludes to adoption, he’s talking about a practice that was common in the Roman world, but one that’s quite different from the way we think of adoption. In the Roman world, most people who were adopted were adults. When a wealthy man had no heir and didn’t want his estate to be broken up when he died, he would adopt an adult male, usually someone who worked for him whom he trusted. By adopting that adult male, he made him his son. The minute the legal procedure took place, their relationship was changed from formal to intimate, from temporary and conditional to permanent and unconditional. All the debts the man owed before his adoption were wiped out, and he suddenly became rich.

Being completely conformed to the likeness of God’s Son is something that we look forward to in the future, although the transformation is happening now gradually. Being adopted among many brothers is something that we have now. The minute you become a Christian, you have intimacy of relationship. You have an unconditional relationship. You become wealthy, because everything that Jesus Christ has accomplished is transferred to you. You become beautiful and spiritually rich in him.

Some people are put off by Paul’s language of adoption because it’s gender insensitive. They argue, “Wouldn’t it be better to say that we become sons and daughters of God?” It would, but that misses the whole point. Some time ago, a woman helped me understand this. She was raised in a non-Western family from a very traditional culture. There was only one son in the family, and it was understood in her culture that he would receive most of the family’s provisions and honor. In essence, they said, “He’s the son; you’re just a girl.” That’s just the way it was.

One day she was studying a passage on adoption in Paul’s writings. She suddenly realized that the apostle was making a revolutionary claim. Paul lived in a traditional culture just like she did. He was living in a place where daughters were second-class citizens. When Paul said—out of his own traditional culture—that we are all sons in Christ, he was saying that there are no second-class citizens in God’s family. When you give your life to Christ and become a Christian, you receive all the benefits a son enjoys in a traditional culture. As a white male, I’ve never been excluded like that. As a result, I didn’t see the sweetness of this welcome. I didn’t recognize all the beauty of God’s subversive and revolutionary promise that raises us to the highest honor by adopting us as his sons.

Our adoption means we are loved like Christ is loved. We are honored like he is honored—every one of us—no matter what. Your circumstances cannot hinder or threaten that promise. In fact, your bad circumstances will only help you understand and even claim the beauty of that promise. The more you live out who you are in Christ, the more you become like him in actuality. Paul is not promising you better life circumstances; he is promising you a far better life. He’s promising you a life of greatness. He is promising you a life of joy. He’s promising you a life of humility. He’s promising you a life of nobility. He’s promising you a life that goes on forever.

 The best things are yet to come

That brings us to the third point. Why can you be joyful no matter what? Your bad things turn out for good, your good things can never be lost, and the best is yet to come. If you understand what is to come, you can handle anything here. What amazes me is that even Ivan Karamazov, the atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, understood how knowing what is to come helps a person endure present circumstances. He said:

I believe that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world’s finality, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that’s been shed, that it will make it not just possible to forgive, but to justify all that’s happened.

I don’t want you to think that this talk about glory and about heaven trivializes suffering. In fact, Ivan Karamazov said that this hope is the only worldview that takes our brokenness seriously. Our souls are so great and our suffering is so deep that nothing but this promise can overwhelm it. Glory does not trivialize human brokenness. It’s the only thing that takes it seriously. What else could possibly deal with the hurts of our hearts? Your soul is too great for anything but this. Don’t you know a compliment when you hear it?

 About the Author

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including The Reason for God, King’s Cross, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.

The sermon above was adapted from a collection of Sermons in a book entitled “Sunday’s Best” published by Hendrickson Publishers in Peabody, Massachusetts, 2011.





God’s 3 Powers At Work Within Us from Ephesians 3:20-21 by Crawford W. Loritts JR.

“God’s Got You Covered”


“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

I recently took my ten-year-old nephew J.J. on a speaking engagement. He was overwhelmed when we got there. It was a huge auditorium, thousands of people were there, and television cameras were everywhere.

It made me smile to see J.J.’s reaction to everything, but after a while he asked me a question that made me chuckle. He looked at me and, with a look of concern, on his face, he said, “Uncle C.W., do I need some money for food?”

“No, buddy,” I said with a smile. “You don’t need anything. The folks here have taken care of everything. As long as you’re with Me, you don’t have need of anything.”

It’s a truth we take from the written Word of God: He has us covered! The apostle Paul addressed this issue when he wrote: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

What an amazing promise! This means that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead rests within us, ready to enable us to rise to any challenge we may face. No matter what task is ahead, no matter what problem lies before you, God has promised that the power that lives within us through the Spirit of God is more than enough for us to emerge victorious.

In this verse, the verb “work” is in the present tense, meaning that God did not just do the work in us at the time we first received salvation, but continues to work within us. That’s right! God’s power is at work in you at this very moment.

 I want to highlight three ways that God’s power works within us:

  • The first is His conforming us to the image of His Son, meaning He is working in us to make us more like Jesus. God uses the problems we face in this life, combined with the power of His Spirit, to change us and make us into reflections of Christ.
  • The second way that His power works within us is by enabling us to do that which, in our own efforts, is impossible. For example, that power enables us to overcome even the most stubborn habitual sin, and it enables us to speak with authority to others about the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Third, that power is at work to sustain us. We all go through times of trouble and trial, times when we don’t know what we are going to do next. The power of God works within us during those times to keep us and give us balance.

My friend Joseph Garlington likes to say, “God’s power is getting you ready for what He already has ready for you.” Another way to say that is, no matter what your needs are, no matter how desperate a situation God is taking you through, you will always have the power to be victorious.

Always remember, God’s got you covered!


CRAWFORD W. LORITTS JR. (B.S., D.Th., Philadelphia Biblical University; D.Div., Biola University) is the senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, Georgia. He has served as a national evangelist with the American Missionary Fellowship and the Urban Evangelistic Mission, and as Associate Director of Campus Crusade for Christ. He co-founded Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas. He is a frequent speaker for professional sports teams, including three Super Bowls and the NCAA Final Four Chapel, and has spoken at conferences, churches, conventions and evangelistic outreaches throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. He is also the host of Living A Legacy, a daily radio program.

Dr. Loritts has written numerous articles and is the author of six books, including Leadership as an Identity, Lessons from a Life Coach, and For a Time We Cannot See. He co-authored Developing Character in Your Child with his wife, Karen. Dr. Loritts and his wife have four grown children and live in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

Article above adapted from Crawford W. Loritts JR. Lessons From A Life Coach: You Are Created to Make a Difference. Chicago: Moody Press, 2001, pp. 136-137.

H.J. Berry on the Question: “Why Does God Send Trials Into Our Lives?”

Series: Word Studies in New Testament Greek #1 – Testing: for Good or Evil? 

James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” In verse 12 of the same chapter he wrote, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. However, a problem arises when the next verse is read, because it says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one’” (James 1:2,12-13).

On the one hand it seems that temptations are sent to us from God and we are to consider it a privilege to pass through them, but on the other hand we are told that God does not tempt any man.

In order to understand these verses, it is necessary to know the meaning of the words that are translated “trial” and “tempted.” The same Greek word is used in all three of the verses quoted from James (vv. 2,12-13). Yet there are different shades of meaning intended by the author. The word is used in its noun form in verses 2 and 12 and its verb form in verse 13. The noun is peirasmos and the verb us peirazo. The root word of these forms has such meanings as “test,” “try,” and “prove.”

The matter of significance about peirazo is that it is used in both a good sense and a bad sense It can have the idea of testing with the purpose of bringing out that which is good, or it can have the idea of testing with the purpose of bringing out that which is bad.

When the word is used in regard to Satan, it has the bad sense of brining out that which is evil or soliciting to evil. Satan himself is known as “the tempter” (Matthew 4:3a). Satan thought he could get Christ to respond to evil, but because Christ is God, there was nothing in Him which answered to evil. Christ told Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7). Satan was not trying to bring out that which was good in God but was endeavoring to solicit Him to evil.

When Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount they had received for their land, Peter asked Sapphira, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (Acts 5:9). They were not trying to bring out that which was good in the Lord, so the word is used in its bad sense in this context.

The word peirazo is used in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where Paul told the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” In this context the Corinthians were obviously to look at the good as well as the bad in their lives. So the word is also used in a good sense. This, in the Book of James, the “trials of various kinds” have a good purpose in view—to bring out that which is good in the believers. This is also true regarding James 1:12. However, the word is used in its negative sense in verse 13, as is evident from the words, “for God cannot be tempted with evil.” In the phrase “and he himself tempts no one,” it is with reference to “with evil.” Therefore, God never solicits a person to do evil but rather He brings tests into a person’s life that will bring out that which is good in him.

First Corinthians 10:13 uses both peirasmos and peirazo in their good sense: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” God sends tests and trials into our lives to bring out that which is good in us, and He always provides the strength necessary to bear up under the tests.

Another Greek word was frequently used when the writer wanted to emphasize a testing with the purpose of bringing out that which is good. This word is dokimazo. Whereas peirazo could be used in either a good or bad sense, dokimazo is used only in a good sense. In this regard it has to do with “proving” or “examining.” In fact, of the 23 times dokimazo is used in the New Testament, it is translated “prove,” “examine,” or “discern” ten times (depending on the English translation).

One such occurrence is Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern (dokimazo = “prove,” or “examine,”) what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Dokimazo is also translated “examine” in Luke 14:19: “And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ The excuse this person used for not attending the great supper was that he wanted to try out his yoke of oxen to see how good they were.

In 1 Corinthians 3, which tells of the Judgment Seat of Christ, dokimazo is translated “will test” in verse 13: “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” This helps us to see that at the Judgment Seat of Christ the emphasis will be on discovering that which is good so it might be rewarded. Only those who have received Jesus Christ as Savior will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ. The purpose of the judgment will be, not to condemn, but to reward that which is good. The believer has been delivered from all condemnation through faith in Christ.

The understanding of this Greek word also helps us to see what God’s purpose is in sending trials of our faith. 1 Peter 1:7 says, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The word “tested” is a noun form of dokimazo. Thus we see that the purpose for the trials of our faith is that God might bring out that which is good and that it might become mature Christians.

Because peirazo has both good and bad meanings, it can be used in regard to both God and Satan. However, dokimazo can never be used for Satan because he never tests to “prove, discern, or examine” that which is good but rather to solicit to evil.

 About the Author:

Harold J. Berry specialized in Theology and Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary and graduated in 1960 with his Th.M. He was for many years the personal assistant to Dr. Theodore H. Epp (the Bible Teacher of the Back to the Bible Hour before Warren W. Wiersbe became its primary teacher). He was known as an outstanding professor of Greek in various Institutions. The Word Study above was adapted from a publication by Berry entitled “Gems From The Original” published by Back to the Bible Broadcast in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1972. The outdated language has been updated where necessary, and the more familiar ESV has been used instead of the KJV.