I have creeped into my third year of seminary with the goal of becoming a Biblical Counselor. The love of Biblical counseling developed this particular trajectory of my life. This love was influenced by a remarkably biblically insightful man, David Powlison.

Dr. Powlison went home to be with the Lord on June 7th, 2019 succumbing to pancreatic cancer.

One of the topics Dr. Powlison often addressed was the issue of “needs” discussed among secular psychologists, sociologists, and the like. When I first read his article, “Revisiting Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”, in the Journal of Biblical Counseling (27:3 2013), my eyes were opened to the heart of many of my own issues. It revolutionized the way I view life and has brought tremendous freedom. The struggles will always be there but a greater understanding of my own heart helps in the fight.

Below is an interview from Christianity Today where Dr. Powlison addressed this issue. I hope that it helps you to begin to clarify a confusing topic and bring some freedom in your own life.

Needs and Idols: An Interview With David Powlison

Christianity Today 38:6 (May 16, 1994), 21

[As a leader in the “biblical counseling” movement and editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, David Powlison is a critic of much of what passes for Christian psychotherapy. He is also an innovative thinker about rooting counseling in Scripture. At Westminster Seminary, Powlison teaches that the Bible has much to say about the subtleties of our inner lives. Senior writer Tim Stafford interviewed him at his office.]

Many psychologies assume people are driven by needs—for love, significance, self-esteem. You have written that people do not have needs.

I am perfectly willing to use the word need. But I would say, if we start from the Scriptures’ view of people, the two great commandments define our fundamental need. We have a need to love God with heart, soul, mind, and we have a need to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet we don’t love God, we don’t trust God. We trust, love, serve, want any of thousands of other things. So we also have a need for the gospel— for forgiveness, for change.

Surely people have other needs.

Writers and counselors are fumbling the ball by not making a distinction that classic Protestant orthodoxy has long made. There are such things as natural affections, or natural desires, which some confuse with “needs.” We want people to like us; we want to be loved; we want to succeed; we want our kids to turn out okay.

What gets us in trouble is that those affections become “inordinate desires.” They become lusts, or what the Bible calls, “the lusts of the flesh.”

Take the desire to have my children turn out a certain way. That is a natural desire, but if it rules me—if it becomes “I need this”—it becomes a source of mischief and sin. It creates parents who are suspicious of their children, or who are manipulative, who jam Bible verses down their throats, or who antagonize them, who push them or control them.

Research reveals that children who grow up in one-parent families are more likely to have social, educational, and psychological problems. Doesn’t this demonstrate a need for love, and that if one doesn’t receive that love from other human beings . . .

One is destined for a life of crime and misery.

Well, not destined, but . . .

See, that’s where the crux comes, because if they aren’t destined, then it’s not need in the absolute sense. I think it would be more accurate to say that parents who don’t love their children, who abuse them, or are manipulative, throw all sorts of stumbling blocks in a child’s path. They tempt a child severely. Yet you will always have the exceptions: those who had the exact same upbringing but turn out differently.

Instead of needs, I would argue, the conditions of our environment produce certain typical temptations. It’s no surprise that those who are abused struggle with rage and mistrust, for instance.

What radicalized me was thinking about what happens when parents are very good. They’re loving, they’re caring, they cherish their children. Do the children grow up sin free? Of course not. Being affirmed brings a whole different set of temptations.

In your writings on psychology, you use the terms idol and idolatry. Could you explain what you mean by these terms?

If lust of the flesh is the typical New Testament term for our sinful motivations, idolatry is the typical Old Testament term. An idol is anything that replaces God. Let’s say I’m a preacher and what is controlling me and giving me ulcers is “What are my peers going to think of me?” What you could ask that preacher is “Who is in the place of God?” Well, those people. I’m living my life in their eyes, by their approval and rejection.

You’re saying we need to understand our sinful motives, our idolatries, and not see sin as merely external activities.

Yes, and this enables me to understand myself before God. It’s not just that I am anxious about giving a speech, where I pray, “Lord, help make those anxious feelings go away.” It’s the very fact that God doesn’t like what is on my mind, and God has something to say about it. My prayer becomes, “Lord, forgive me for being ruled by what someone else thinks of me.”

Does explaining how the Bible sees these issues help anxiety-ridden or depressed people who want counseling?

One of the common phrases in New Testament usage is “the deceitfulness of the flesh.” That implies that people are blind. People don’t know what’s wrong. One of the tremendous joys of biblical ministry is turning on the lights for people. Psalm 119:130 says, “the entry of your words brings light.” I see that so often in counseling.

So psychology has been correct in saying motives must be probed. We must understand the internal life. Psychology has pushed us to ask the right questions, but it teaches us the wrong answers. Psychologists, sociologists, historians, newspaper reporters, your pagan uncle who lives down the street, they can all be extremely astute observers of life. Where the rub really comes is how you explain what you observe. It’s the system, it’s the theory, it’s the interpretive matrix. That interpretive framework, if it’s not premised on the fear of the Lord and who God is, is false. Because you’re trying to explain behavior without understanding what behavior really has to do with. Behavior does have to do with God. Emotions have to do with God. Thoughts have to do with God.