Why did my administrative assistants keep resigning? My first assistant had stayed with me four years, but the other two had lasted only two years. I was mystified: This is a wonderful job. It has purpose, meaning, excitement, and reasonable pay. I am a kind and gracious boss. So what is wrong with these women? Why did they not appreciate what they had?
I thought the problem was with them.
I was determined to hire more carefully, looking not just for godliness and talent, but commitment. The next assistant told me she was with me for the long haul! Finally, I thought, I’ve found the solution.
But after two years, she resigned. She felt led to take a job at a bank. Really? I was stunned.
That next weekend I was sharing the platform at a women’s retreat with my friend Jan Silvious. Over dinner I lamented to Jan, venting my frustration, hoping for heart-warming sympathy. Instead, Jan peered at me through her funky rhinestone glasses and said, “Seems to be a pattern in your life, Dee.”
What? Was she implying the problem was with me?
Faithful are the Wound of a Friend
That was the first red flag that there might be something wrong in my heart. Others can often look into the dark waters of our soul and see what our own deceitful hearts have kept us from seeing. It is like when you look in a mirror and think, I look okay. We know how to look in a mirror, so we see what we want to see and avoid what we don’t want to see. But then someone hands us a photograph and we think, NO! I HAVE TO LOSE WEIGHT, CHANGE MY HAIR, NEVER WEAR THAT AGAIN!
Others can often look into the dark waters of our soul and see what our own deceitful hearts have kept us from seeing
Jan’s comment hurt me, but I also knew her to be a wise woman who loved me. Dawson Trotman, the founder of Navigators, said that whenever he received criticism he went to his prayer closet and asked God to sift out anything false and leave any kernel of truth.
So I asked the Lord, Could the problem really be with me?
Hidden Idols of the Heart
Nine years ago my dear husband was struck in his prime with colon cancer. His death plunged me into an icy river of grief. I clung to the Lord desperately, asking Him to help me make it through, for I had three daughters still at home.
I began to listen to sermons from Tim Keller, beginning with his series on Job (“A Path Through Suffering”) and his messages on the psalms of lament. Soon I was listening daily, often several times to the same message. Today, nine years later, I’m still listening. I began to hear many messages about idolatry, but it was a fresh look at idolatry — not concentrating on visible idols such as statues or money, but on the invisible idols of the heart that Ezekiel mentions. Like the silent cancer that attacked my husband, invisible idols are particularly deadly. It is vital that we see them before they destroy us, for destroy us they will.
Keller gives three main categories of heart idols:
These are desires we all have — desires God can meet. He wants to be our comfort and security, and He wants us to trust that He loves us and that He is in control, even when it seems like He is not. When we do not trust Him, we come up with “self-salvation” strategies, often turning His gifts into gods. Though we may claim, for example, that God is our refuge, we may run first to friends, food, or Facebook. I began to see how I did this in my grief. Instead of turning to the God of all Comfort, I provided my own means of comfort by turning to food, trying to anesthetize my pain. It helped at first, but my weight gain took a toll on my physical and emotional health. When I turned from my idol, He began to come. Food had not rescued me from my grief, but intensified it. But now, as I was turning from my idol and toward the Lord, I began to sense His presence more strongly. Instead of running to the pantry, I began to run to Him, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to my seething soul. And slowly, the churning waters of my soul began to calm.
But the heart idol I had not yet seen was control/power. Jan’s comment was my first wake-up call. When I asked God to show me if the problem was actually with me, He came to me with a story to slip past my defenses, much as Nathan came to David with a story. David had been blind to his sins of sexual abuse and murder but was able to see the other man’s sin in the story. Then Nathan told him: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7)
I noticed a sermon on Redeemer.com from Pastor Jim Om entitled “Models of Manipulation.” I thought, this should be interesting. I know some manipulative people.
Martha the Manipulator
Om’s sermon was on that familiar account of the sisters in Bethany: Mary is hanging on Jesus’ every word while Martha is angrily banging the pots about in the kitchen. I certainly thought I’d gleaned everything possible from this story. Yet that day I heard something new.
Om said that Martha was a manipulator and that manipulators attempt to produce guilt in others — perhaps through sideways comments or body language. In Luke 10:40 Martha comes barreling out of the kitchen carrying a load of guilt for Jesus (Lord, do you not care …) and a sideways comment for her sister (that my sister has left me to serve alone?) Then she very inappropriately gives an order to the One who made the universe (Tell her then to help me.)
I began to feel uncomfortable. I knew I used guilt. I also had come to believe that sideways comments were a good idea — kinder than speaking directly. But when I looked at Martha, I certainly didn’t see her as being kind. I saw her as sneaky and temperamental.
And I saw myself. But rather than the harsh “You are the woman!” I sensed a gentler “Dee, Dee,” as Jesus had said, “Martha, Martha.” He knows the pain our idols bring and longs to gently help us turn from them and toward Him.
I listened to the sermon again, this time taking notes. Jim Om began to ask which deep heart idol in Martha was producing the bad fruit of manipulation. He thought it might have been affirmation/approval. Perhaps she really was the Martha Stewart of biblical days, and this was her chance to shine. She was going to put on quite a feast for this most important of guests, and people would notice and praise her.
Om said that Martha also might have had a heart idol of control, for leaders often think they know what is best. Even when they pray, they are telling the Lord how to do things. They are continually trying to control the people in their lives. Different situations began to parade through my head. Gaye, my first administrative assistant, had asked for time off to be with her best friend during her young son’s (who was also Gaye’s godson) surgeries and recoveries. I let her have the time off, but I also managed to make her feel guilty with my body language or sighs about all the work that had to be done. I thought about how often I used sideways comments with all my assistants.
The Word of God is piercing, and it revealed an ugly pattern in my life.
Seeing your idol is half the battle. Now repentance is possible. But the next step is faith, for you must relinquish your “self-salvation strategy” and allow God to move into its place. Instead of trying to control others in underhanded ways, I needed to pray that God would work in their hearts. If I needed to confront, it needed to be loving, direct, and grace-filled. Could I trust God to be in control? I wanted to do that, and I prayed for Him to change my heart.
Seeing your idol is half the battle. Now repentance is possible. But the next step is faith, for you must relinquish your “self-salvation strategy” and allow God to move into its place
Hiring my Son-in-Law
I began to consider hiring my son-in-law David. My daughter Annie had mixed feelings about this. She was both excited for the opportunity for David and fearful it could end badly.
We prayed together. I told them I had seen my idol of control and would walk in repentance and faith. As we continued to seek God, we felt a peace, and David became my new administrative assistant.
David is godly, gifted, and gracious. I found retreat coordinators loved working with him, and I did, too. I was determined to give grace and speak the truth in love if I felt it was necessary. No sideways comments, no manipulation, and no micromanaging. For the first 18 months, everything went so well!
However, as John Calvin observed, “our hearts are idol making factories.” My control idol began to regenerate when David and Annie came up to our cabin for two weeks that summer. He was going to work on the ministry and also his website business half-time, and vacation the rest of the time. It sounded good, but I began to watch him, and even though summer is a light time for the ministry, I began to feel anxious that he wasn’t giving it enough time. Anxiety is a red flag for a heart idol, but I ignored it. Counselor David Powlison says that when anything bad comes out of our heart or mouth, we should ask where our trust is, for it is probably not in God. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I made a few sideways comments to David, but found they just flew over his head. (Generally speaking, men are less likely to catch sideways comments.) Finally, one evening I told him I had concerns and asked that we talk in the morning.
He seemed surprised but graciously agreed.
All night long I reverted to my old habit of going over in my mind why I was right and David was wrong. Even in the morning, instead of being with the Lord and seeking Him, I continued going over my grievances in my mind. It wasn’t until just before David knocked that I finally asked: “Lord — is this me again?” And immediately the Lord reminded me I had not even been with Him that morning. I had been going through a devotional by Paul Tripp called “Whiter than Snow”about David’s penitential Psalm 51.
David knocked, and I asked him to come back in 10 minutes. I opened the devotional to where I had left off and read:
I am so skilled
At mounting plausible arguments
to make me feel okay
about what I think
what I desire
what I say
what I do
That was my “Dee, Dee” from Jesus. I need Him to create in me a clean heart.
David knocked again, and I asked him to come in. I was in tears, and he looked puzzled. I said, “It’s not you, David — it’s me.” I held out the page for him to read. He read it, and immediately his face softened. He said, “Oh Dee, I’m the same way. I’ve been justifying myself all night.”
With His Spirit no longer grieved, He came to us, and David and I had the conversation believers are supposed to have: no guilt, no manipulation, no sideways comments. We spoke the truth in love so that any misunderstandings could be cleared up — and they were.
God met us beautifully.
I know I am different. And though it is humbling, everyone is telling me I am different. My eldest daughter says, “Mom, you are so much better!” Yet I know it is true.
When you cherish an idol in your heart, it grieves the Lord, much as Gomer grieved Hosea in running after her lovers. But when you turn from that idol, God is so eager to embrace you. I am experiencing more of the presence of the Lord, the clouds have parted, and I sense the warm sun on my face.
When I tested these truths on my Bible study blog and again in actual pilot studies, I found the same dramatic changes happening in the lives of mature Christian women. Instead of attacking the symptoms of their sin, they were getting to the root problem, the cancerous tumors of heart idols. As long as you ignore those, it is hard to get better. When you see it and submit to the surgery of the Great Physician, healing can finally occur.
Our souls are not quiet ponds. They are dark, churning waters. Solomon compares them to deep dark waters, Jeremiah says they are deceitful, and Ezekiel says idols are hidden in them.
We filmed the video curriculum for “Idol Lies” in Door County, Wisconsin. In one scene I am standing high on a cliff where as children we used to jump into the Lake Michigan’s churning waters. It was very dangerous, for hidden below those waters are jagged rocks that we were quite sure we could avoid. Now there are signs warning parents to supervise their children because of the hidden danger below.
Heart idols are like those jagged rocks. We may think we can avoid having them hurt us, but we can’t. Just as the false gods of the Old Testament like Chemosh and Baal demanded a sacrifice, so do our heart idols. They take our health, our peace, our joy, and our intimacy with God. They cut us to pieces.
Why would we run to them when we have a God who was cut to pieces for us?
Dee Brestin is the author of “The God of All Comfort”and of “IdolLies (Facing the Truth About Our Deepest Desires).” She is also involved in prison ministry. Though Dee loves the whole body of Christ, she has found great strength and truth in Reformed theology. She is the mother of five and grandmother of 10.