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Do you have more than one God?

Do you have more than one God?
Posted on June 10, 2019  - By Godly John

On June 7, 2019, Dr. David Powlison passed on to glory after succumbing to pancreatic cancer. While David was not well-known among Evangelicals and Protestants, he was deeply influential in the Biblical Counselling movement and led the Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) for over 30 years. My acquaintance with David comes from his writing that has shaped the way I approached dealing with sin, repentance and sanctification in my life.

David wrote on several subjects, but one that struck me powerfully was his exposition of professed gods and functional gods. This topic was built on the idea that, when dealing with sin, we need to start with a spiritual diagnosis of the root causes of our sinful thoughts, desires and actions — as opposed to just dealing with its superficial reasons.

And how does this diagnosis happen until we examine and compare our values and desires against God’s? Paul doesn’t allow us to assume that we have our thoughts or reasoning right. Instead, he compels us to “test yourself’ (2 Corinthians 13:5). Just as John Calvin famously began his seminal book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, with the declaration that “Nearly all wisdom we possess… consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves”, David helps us to understand our true selves by identifying who we actually consider to be God in our lives that we, knowingly or unknowingly, substitute for the true, living, Triune God.

When dealing with sin, we need a spiritual diagnosis of the root causes of our sinful desires and actions — as opposed to just dealing with its superficial reasons

Uncovering our gods

In his influential article, published in The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Vol 18, No 1), titled “X-ray Questions: Drawing Out the Whys and Wherefores of Human Behavior”, David helpfully clarifies the approach to uncovering idols in our lives. He explains this using two terms: ‘functional gods’ and ‘professed gods’. Professed God — as the title indicates — is the God to whom we profess allegiance, but ‘functional gods’ are the ones that actually dictate our thoughts and actions.

In every situation, our desires and actions arise from convictions that drive us internally. David focuses on uncovering these convictions in the light of God’s Word and bringing us face to face with the idols of our hearts. In doing so, he points us back to God through the grace of His Son.

Think about it: any form of unhealthy obsession or pursuit can quickly destroy our lives. Overindulgence in food or drink can easily lead to obesity, alcoholism or related health issues. Gambling, excessive shopping and drugs may offer fleeting thrills but quickly turn to addictions. Why do we do this in spite of knowing fully well that it is destructive? It is because while we profess to love and obey God, our real convictions find their hope in something else. Whatever drives our actions or our desires is our functional God.

David goes on to say:

“As a Christian, you profess that God controls all things, and works everything to His glory and your ultimate well-being. You profess that God is your rock and refuge, a very present help in whatever troubles you face. You profess to worship Him, trust Him, love Him, obey Him. But in that moment — hour, day, season — of anxiety, escape, or drivenness, you live as if you needed to control all things. You live as if money, or someone’s approval, or a “successful” sermon, or your grade on an exam, or good health, or avoiding conflict, or getting your way… matters more than trusting and loving God. You live as if some temporary good feeling could provide you refuge, as if your actions could make the world right. Your functional god competes with your professed God. Unbelievers are wholly owned by ungodly motives. True believers are often severely compromised, distracted, and divided. But grace reorients us, purifies us, and turns us back to our Lord.”

When our focus is on the living God, the incarnated God who died on the cross, we no longer serve our own sinful desires — but submit them to the One who is our Lord, because our convictions of who our God is has been corrected. When Christ is Lord and our motivations arise by being renewed in Scripture, we begin to love people rightly, because the love of God through the Spirit in us enables us to do so.

Why do we pursue fleeting thrills, knowing fully well they are destructive? Because while we profess to love and obey God, our real convictions find their hope in something else

Identifying our gods

David helps us to distinguish between our professed God and our functional gods by laying out a set of 35 questions that help us uncover why we do some things — and what that says about what we desire most in our life apart from God. “The questions aim to help people identify the ungodly masters that occupy positions of authority in their heart,” he explains. “These questions reveal ‘functional gods’, what or who actually controls their particular actions, thoughts, emotions, attitudes, memories, and anticipations.” Here are just five of those:

  1. What do you love? Hate?

This “first great commandment” question searches out heart, soul, mind and might. There is no deeper question to ask of any person at any time. There is no deeper explanation for why you do what you do. Disordered loves hijack our hearts from our rightful Lord and Father.

  1. What do you want, desire, crave, lust, and wish for? What desires do you serve and obey?

This summarises the internal operations of the desire-driven “flesh” in the New Testament epistles. Sometimes, another person’s will rules you (peer pressure, people pleasing, slave-like, or chameleon behaviour). In such cases, your heart’s craving is to get whatever good they promise and avoid whatever bad they threaten: “I crave to be included, appreciated, accepted, admired by you.”

  1. What do you seek, aim for, and pursue?

This particularly captures that your life is active and moves in a direction. We are purposeful. Human motivation is not passive, as if hard-wired needs, instincts, or drives were controlled from outside us by being “unmet,” “frustrated,” or “conditioned”. People are active verbs.

  1. Where do you bank your hopes?

The future dimension is prominent in God’s interpretation of human motives. People energetically sacrifice to attain what they hope for. What is it? People in despair have had hopes dashed. What were those shattered hopes?

  1. What do you fear? What do you not want? What do you tend to worry about?

Sinful fears invert cravings. If I want to avoid something at all costs — loss of reputation, loss of control, poverty, ill health, rejection, etc. — I am ruled by a lustful fear.

Intrigued? Take some time out of your schedule, and work through the article by reading through each point to understand what David wants us to grasp through each question. Answering these questions honestly will help you see your true self. By seeing your true self, you will see the true God for who He is and the hope is that it will lead you to realise how futile our thoughts are, unless we think after God and seek to honour Him in all things.

David helped us to do this in the desire to encourage us to walk closer to the Lord. Now he is free from these idols because he is in the presence of our God and Saviour, where there is no sin. Until we have the same blessing, let’s continue to test ourselves, examining our lives daily, repenting of our sins and turning to God in hope that His strength is made manifest in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that our faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5).

Godly John

About Godly John

Raised in the Middle East, now living in Melbourne, Australia, Godly John is married with one son. A former agnostic, he is now involved in lay teaching ministries at his local church, and loves thinking about the intersection between reformed theology, philosophy, culture and ethics.



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