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We’re all part of something greater than ourselves, and we are shaped, motivated, and controlled by that more significant thing. The Christian assumes my presupposition and would quickly inform you that the “greater thing” is God.
Though this is how it ought to be, it’s not how things are all of the time. Even the Christian, who understands how he is part of something greater, has a hard time submitting to God in every way.
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers (Isaiah 40:22).
Acknowledging Him as Lord and submitting to Him as such are two different things. This challenge makes the things that can exert control over our lives worth exploring. I’m going to share six of them with you.
Discipleship is a “business” of recurring themes. After a while, the discipler will see it all. Though a person’s story may have a unique element to it, the controlling influences are not uncommon. We’re all the same.
Maybe each snowflake is different, but there are common qualities about all of them. They are small, wet, cold, white, temporal, and will melt in your mouth. If you line up 1000 snowflakes, you could say they are different. You could also say they are the same.
Humans are like this. We all came from the same place, created by the same person (Genesis 2:7). There is a commonality in the human family. This perspective is essential for disciplers who think they can’t relate to a person who is struggling.
It depends on how you want to relate to them. If you’re trying to connect to the uniqueness of your friend’s story, you will have a hard time. There are only so many people who are like you.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
If you’re trying to relate to the controlling and shaping dynamics of the heart, you can connect with any person. Jesus did not smoke a cigarette, marry a woman, wreck a car, have an abortion, or flunk high school.
Still yet, He can relate to any person, show sympathy, as well as speak into their lives in such a way that could transform them (John 4:29). Why is this so? Because He understands the commonality of man.
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 (1 Corinthians 10:13).
In my discipleship experience, I have discovered six common elements that are the struggles of the human family. If these six things become the primary controlling influences in your life, the individual will relegate the Lord to a lesser position.
If you want to relate to a person in a discipleship context, you must learn how to connect to them according to your commonality. Don’t be intimidated because their story is not your story.
On the surface, you may be different, but you want to go deeper than the superficial. You want to relate to folks where it matters—the place where real change must take place—the heart, soul, mind.
If they don’t change internally, there is no hope for altering the behaviors in such a way that are sustainable and God-glorifying. The good news is you can relate to any person, which means you can help anyone change (1 Corinthians 3:6).
I’m calling these common themes or elements idols because they function as God-replacements. Anything that replaces God in your life is an idol. I’m listing them in an inverted order—from last (the result) to first (the cause). This ranking means there is an order in how these idols line up in your heart. They do not just show up randomly without symmetry, order, or purpose.
Even a disease has to line up and work in a certain way to bring harm to the body. Idolatry works similarly. There is no haphazardness when it comes to false worship. This process is a good thing because your counsel should be systematic, precise, and without guesswork.
When it comes to matters of the heart, it’s not as complicated as you may think because we’re all the same. Regardless if you’re 7-years old or 77-years old, male or female, you can receive the help of God’s Word.
The first common struggle with humanity is our desire to be self-sufficient or self-reliant. This natural default was the result of Adam’s fall. You’re either trusting God or trusting self. There are no other options. You’re either doing things God’s way or you’re doing things your way.
Adam chose to do things his way. He believed a lie. Adam volitionally stepped outside of God’s sovereign care and became a sovereign man. Adam decided he wanted to rule his world.
Self-reliance is an alluring idol. It can make sense, especially if you have been hurt or disappointed. I’m going to use two illustrations—Mable and Biff—to unpack these six tempting prospects of idolatry.
Mable was put down by her father. That is the main thing she remembers from her young life at home. Because she was a child, impressionable, and had an immature faith, the put-downs had a lasting effect on her.
She has struggled with the fear of man all of her life (Proverbs 29:25). She’s forty-two years old today. She is an excellent interior decorator, and anytime she is asked to help someone, she obliges. She always says it’s her gift and will tacitly acknowledge she can’t refuse to help when asked.
Mable does not know how to trust God practically, choosing instead to do it her way (self-reliance). Other people run her life and her calendar. She is always tired, in a hurry, and generally snippy toward her husband.
She is overly concerned about how people think about her. Her condition is the fruit of her father’s unrelenting negative critique of her. He also kept an emotional distance from her.
For Adam to reject God, choosing to be self-reliant, he had to take control of his world. The “idol of control” will always be riding just underneath the self-sufficient person. Sometimes we call this kind of person a control freak.
Part of what it means to be self-reliant is to be in control. The reason for this is that self-reliance is an illusion. It’s not real. To be self-sufficient, you have to pretend; you do this by choosing only the things that you can manage.
You can’t control all things, which is why the word self-reliance is a misnomer. Only God is genuinely reliant. Only God is sufficient in all ways. For a man to be self-reliant, he has to whittle his world down to only what he can manage.
This need is why control becomes a big-time idol in his worship factory. Biff likes to pawn himself off as a self-reliant person. He wants to create a perception that he is what he isn’t. After you spend time with him, you see why he is that way.
Biff’s dad was a passive, hen-pecked man who did not lead his wife. His wife ruled the roost. Biff’s mom was a bear to live with, a woman who had a detrimental effect on Biff’s life. Biff counted the days until he could get out from under her thumb. She was mean, condescending, angry, bitter, and critical. Biff had already dismissed her by the time he was 10 years old.
Biff had a strong will and had determined he would be nothing like her or his father. From an early age, he began plotting the course for his life. Biff knew what he wanted to be when he grew up—a person radically different from his mother. And he knew how he was going to accomplish these goals.
He carefully vetted his wife. He planned the lives of his children before he had children. He knew how he would train them and how they would turn out. Of course, Biff is mostly blind to these things.
Like Mable, he will tacitly agree he is self-reliant, but he does not understand the depth of his controlling ways or the deception of his heart. The residual effect of his mother’s behaviors motivated him to the point where his strengths have become his most significant weaknesses.
At some point in our lives, we settle into what is comfortable for us. We figure it out eventually and begin to strive toward our desired comfort zone. This pursuit is dangerous thinking, especially if you don’t have a robust, sound theology of suffering.
The call to die and the craving for comfort are antithetical. While Jesus calls us to a cross, the devil is calling us to question God’s goodness. Too many times, we succumb to the idol of comfort. In many cases, we don’t even realize what we’re doing.
Mable and Biff have done this. Their parents have affected them so much that they can no longer see how they are being driven by what happened to them. It is interesting how both of them are the same, even though their stories are different.
Mable will not say “No” to anyone because she fears rejection. The idol of comfort plays out in her life by being the world’s interior decorator, or at least her church’s decorator, who is always on call.
Unlike Mable, Biff is not concerned about being rejected by anyone. He can be calloused at times, or insensitive. The idol of comfort plays out in his life by accomplishing a few predetermined goals, which are antithetical to his parent’s ways of being married and rearing children.
For Mable and Biff to live within their respective comfort zones, they must be in control of their lives. They must do it their way (self-reliance). Both of them are working within their strengths. Mable over-fills her life with decorating. Biff fills his with the perfect wife, kids, family, vocation, and lifestyle.
It should be self-evident how fear motivates both Mable and Biff. Mable is afraid of being rejected, put down, criticized, or receiving an adverse opinion. Biff is fearful of turning out like his mother or father.
These scenarios are the irony of self-sufficiency. Looking from the outside, Mable and Biff come across as omnicompetent people. Folks can’t stop gushing over Mable’s ability to whip a house in shape. They say, “If you want it done right, call Mable.”
Biff is the envy of many men because of his submissive wife, managed children, the perfect job, and the desired lifestyle. There is no question that Biff has it all together. It would shock the less discerning to find out Biff’s house of cards is standing on a fear-motivated platform.
As you continue your journey into the depths of the heart, the next stop will be guilt and shame. This construct was what happened to Adam as soon as he decided to stop trusting God, choosing a self-reliant path instead (Genesis 3:7).
I like to call shame the “internal awkwardness” that we carry deep in our souls. We’re born this way (Romans 2:14-15). We all know there is something wrong with us, which is why the temptation is to mask it like Adam and Eve. (They used fig leaves to cover their shame.)
If you don’t lead a child to God as the solution to the guilt/shame complex that they feel, the strings of self-reliance will begin to wrap their hearts. Adam and Eve chose autonomy rather than trust, which led to a fearful search for comfort. This “anatomy of Adam” is the process for the self-reliant person:
Guilt/shame causes fear, which motivates a person to find comfort. Once they land in their comfort zone, they seize control and refuse to relinquish what feels right to them. They are now self-sufficient or self-reliant.
Mable and Biff were born with a sense of shame. They knew something was wrong with them. Their parents exacerbated their preexisting Adamic problem. Rather than leading them to God for a solution, their parents poked a stick at their Adamic nature. This provocation pushed them toward their natural strengths, which led to self-reliance. Read 2 Corinthians 1:8-10; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
Throughout this article, I have talked about a lack of trust in God. Un-trust or disbelief is the core problem and the main idol upon which all the others stand. Mable and Biff are Christians who do not completely trust God. In some ways, they do not trust God at all.
They are not entirely sanctified, particularly regarding Mable’s decorating issues or how Biff operates his family. They have never brought these two areas under the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). They have been captivated by these life-dominating strongholds.
Christians can act like unbelievers; I’m not talking about their salvation but their sanctification. None of us are entirely sanctified. God’s Spirit is progressively sanctifying us by His power and Word. Our goal is to be incrementally controlled by God alone, which will ultimately happen when we’re in heaven.
As you think about yourself and your friends, watch out for these six idols. This teaching can revolutionize how you disciple others. These idols are common to all of us. Look for them. Learn how to help others to repent. Begin with yourself. If you need more help in these matters, please ask.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).