If you ever meet Mike Wilkerson, thank him. In his concise book Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, released in February, he has diligently summarized the best evangelical theology has to offer on idolatry, as well as the best biblical counseling has to offer on addiction, abuse, recovery, and healing. The footnotes and bibliography alone are worth the price of the book.
As Wilkerson notes in the opening pages, “Why me?” has probably been on the lips of every victim and “What’s wrong with me?” on the lips of every desperate addict. He begins with the very real felt needs that drive those questions and doesn’t waste any time moving to the unfelt needs underlying them.
Among our unfelt needs, probably none is more unfelt than our need to be set free from our idols. Wilkerson shows how the theme of idolatry elegantly unites both the abuser and the abused, both the addict and the victim, under one banner, by asking one question: What are you delighting in more than God? or What do you want more than God? Whatever we want more than God is automatically an idol. Whatever we want more than God is what we worship, and what we worship is ultimately and inevitably what masters us. While idolatry may not always be the most talked about problem in the average counselor’s office, idolatry is the most talked about problem in Scripture.
In light of these things, Wilkerson concludes that—irrespective of the contributing and interlocking factors of history, brain chemistry, psychology, and sin—addiction is ultimately a worship dysfunction. Wilkerson starts from that premise, and the results are piercing. “[T]his brings us all the way back to the core of our problems and therefore to the brink of the solution. We love the wrong things, so our worship is distorted. We have exchanged the worship of God for golden calves. The solution: renewed worship.”
In other words, Wilkerson is arguing that at the root of all our addictive patterns of sinful behavior lies the simple truth that we desire the wrong things, and our desires motivate us to act to satisfy them by any means necessary. Thus, we need transformation of not only our behavior, but even more urgently, our deepest desires. Wilkerson, channeling the best of Tim Keller, David Powlison, and others, uses the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus as a framework for retelling our stories of addiction and abuse redemptively. He writes:
The Israelites didn’t have just a natural desire for food; they wanted food, and they wanted it on their terms, and they disbelieved that God would provide… [T]heir desire wasn’t simply for a daily fill of bread. That was merely a thin cover over a bottomless pit of desire to have life on their terms. They wanted bread, and they wanted it now. Gathering it a day at a time wasn’t good enough; they wanted to stockpile.
God set the Israelites free from physical slavery, but they soon discovered that their hearts were still enslaved to a myriad of sinful desires that were repeatedly exposed whenever they encountered suffering and hardship.
It’s important to note that this framework Wilkerson offers for walking the wounded and addicted through recovery in the context of a local church has worked on the ground. You can hop a plane to Seattle and see for yourself. Redemption began its life as a biblically-based recovery curriculum that Wilkerson wrote out of a desire to unite all of the vastly different recovery ministries at Mars Hill under one coherent, consistent framework. What took Driscoll, Wilkerson, and the rest of the Mars Hill pastoral staff years to distill into an effective recovery curriculum, Wilkerson has diligently hammered into a very readable 170 page book. As a result, Redemption is earthy, pragmatic, and imminently practical.
My favorite kind of wisdom is this kind of hard-won wisdom. As C.S. Lewis cautions in the conclusion of The Four Loves, “Those like myself, whose imagination far exceeds their obedience, are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have really reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there.” Redemption has possibly avoided that pitfall by being slowly formed from years of recovery ministry in a local church.
Wilkerson kindly works a number of other minor miracles along the way. He condenses the core of Tim Keller’s important book on idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, driving home the concept of idolatry as the most talked-about problem in Scripture with broad, deft strokes. He makes Owen’s magisterial Mortification of Sin seem accessible. He concretely explains repentance and forgiveness in a few pages. He provides thought-provoking discussion questions at the end of each chapter. As a result, Redemption could be used equally well in one-on-one counseling or a small-group.
Before concluding, Wilkerson, quoting Powlison, carefully circles back around to caution the reader against two equal and parallel dangers that we can fall into in this process of finding and fighting our false gods: “idol hunting, the danger of being caught in the vortex of self-analysis, probing for the heart’s lusts, peeling an onion whose layers are infinite; and hurt hunting, the endless obsession with one’s sorrows, sufferings, and disappointments.”
He also sternly reminds us that we must want something besides “getting better” if we are to get better. In other words, God’s goal is not to make us happy, well-adjusted idolators. We catch ourselves doing this whenever we become jealous of others’ sins, simply because their sins happen to be more socially acceptable than our own. As Piper reminds us in God is the Gospel, the good news of the gospel is that we get God! Wilkerson helpfully exposes the confusion in our hearts of exactly what we ultimately ought to want in fighting to be free from our idols and our wounds when he asks:
Would you be satisfied to go to heaven—have everybody there in your family that you want there, have all the health and restoration of your prime, and everything you disliked about yourself fixed, have every recreation you’ve ever dreamed available to you, and have infinite resources of money to spend—would you be satisfied… if God weren’t there? If you were completely free from the urge to look at porn and were totally fulfilled emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and sexually, would you be satisfied without Jesus? If you were finally assured that your friends, your spouse, and your pastor had your best interests at heart, loved you, and would never hurt you, would you be satisfied without Jesus?
God’s not interested in empowering us to better manage our sin by selecting and discarding sins based on our own alternating revulsion or blasé tolerance. Rather, God’s growing us up into Christ through a fierce fight for our affections. Throughout Redemption, Wilkerson repeatedly reminds us that God demands our worship—and nothing less will set us free from both our idols and our wounds.