Image Theology and Idolatry

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of God—

“So God created man in his own image [בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ], in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 ESV)

—may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) For example, how time or money each week do you spend in different activities? How does God stack up in this list of priorities?

The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶ֣֙סֶל], or any likeness [תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exod 20:4-6)

The focus on “carved images” suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them”. Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god. Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Is this statement hyperbole? Not all all. If we worship idols, they let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy.

Think about the priorities in the United States today. If your number one priority is work and you loose your job, what happens? Even a casual observer knows that anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are rampant in the United States.

The issue of suicide is indicative because suicide is currently at historically high levels. Two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest idols that have crashed.

For every suicide there are probably another five or ten people suffering miserably. If psychiatric problems, such as anxiety and depression, have a spiritual root (idolatry), then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem.

To sum up, if we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy arises for our advantage. God’s jealousy is not vanity; it is part of his care for us. Love for God, as the prayer goes—

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

—actually serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.


Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Image Theology and Idolatry

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Doldrums Prayer for Strength and Guidance

Doldrums, Sand Dune in Ocean City, MarylandBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Holy Spirit,

Remain especially near to me in the doldrums of life,

when the wind is not in my sails and

the sea remains placid and listless, devoid of life.

Let me not sin out of boredom,

let me not wander into danger for lack of direction, energy, or anxiety.

Give me a fishman’s sense of when to cut bait and when to go fishing.

Let me innovate when stuck in the middle of a transition,

when the good old days have passed and

the future remains uncertain.

Teach me to number my days aright that I might a heart of wisdom. (Ps 90:12)

That I might live into my baptism each and every day.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Doldrums Prayer for Strength and Guidance

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The Audition

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Count it all joy, my brothers,
when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith
produces steadfastness. (Jas 1:2–3)

The Audition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the end of my second summer working as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout Camps, I pooled my summer’s earnings with savings and bought a new Conn 88h trombone, which classified as a base trombone. The Conn 88h differed visibly from the tenor trombone, a Silver Bach Stradivarius dating from the 1930s, that I had played since the fifth grade because it had a Remington mouthpiece, a trigger for outer register notes, and a distinctive, mellow sound. Shortly after getting my new trombone, I auditioned and won a coveted first chair in the Prince George’s County Youth Orchestra and I began practicing an hour a day.

During my last two years of high school, I also played first chair in both the Parkdale Symphonic Band and the school orchestra. During my senior year, few other instrumentalists enrolled in the music composition class or competed in county and state solo competitions. Meanwhile, at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, I sang in the Youth Choir and took voice lessons from choir director. I also took private lessons from the tubist with the National Symphony Orchestra. My favorite photograph from senior year shows me performing in a jazz ensemble with “shades,” which suggests how much music meant to me.

Music obviously played an important role in my social life and I enjoyed modest success as a player. But what was less obvious was that music taught me personal discipline and served as a metaphor for God’s presence in my life. At one point, I began aware of my lack of Sabbath rest and prayed to God that, because I could not set aside my commitments, he allow me to honor the Sabbath as I slept. God honored that prayer by waking me each morning to the sound of joyous music.

I started to consider music as a career possibility. As I prepared to apply to colleges in the fall of 1971, I announced to my parents, friends, and teachers my plans to audition for the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.

At that point I did not understand the seriousness of my decision to audition for music school, either in terms of the talent or the commitment required. College seemed a long way off so I assumed naively that picking a course of study in high school allowed plenty of time to prepare. While this assumption might have been true for academic majors, music required a higher level of preparation and I had only a couple months to prepare for the audition.

My music teacher and adviser expressed concern about my preparation for this audition, probably motivated by the fact that I saw music as more of a social activity than a professional aspiration. Professional musicians practice many hours a day to reach a level of perfection seldom attained by amateurs. I had only recently moved from half an hour to an hour a day of practice daily, not a professional level of commitment.

By year end 1971, I started practicing closer to two hours a day and my teacher arranged for me to study with a colleague of his, a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. The new instructor adjusted my embouchure to account for my over-bite, which would help me play with a wider range in the upper register. This reconfigured embouchure required the use of new muscles in my mouth and the old muscles to be used differently, which initially reduced my performance range. Of course, the new, more vigorous practice schedule, embouchure change, and new teacher excited and overwhelmed me as I prepared to audition.

Also overwhelmed was my father, who saw music as a great hobby, but doubted that my modest talent could blossom into a viable career. In fact, he had confidence that the music department at Indiana University would reach the same conclusion, but he encouraged me to prove that I too could live with the result. We agreed that, if I passed the audition, I could study music, but if I failed, I would focus my studies elsewhere. My father’s advice about the audition seemed sound enough and I promised to accept it.

When the time came to audition, I traveled alone to Bloomington on a Friday and stayed the night in one of the dormitories. A friend, who studied viola and whom I had met the previous summer at a church retreat, invited me to dinner in the cafeteria and she introduced me to some other students. Tired from the trip, after dinner I took a shower and went to bed early.

On Saturday morning, I walked over to the music building early to warm up. After warming up, I waited with students coming and going—horns blowing, strings playing, flutes piping—as auditions ran late. Jazzed up, overstimulated, and anxious beyond words, when my turn to play arrived, I could not play a Bb scale. Having given the judges no reason to pass me, I failed the audition hands down.

When I returned home, I remained active in the music program in high school and spent the spring and early summer preparing for a concert tour in Europe with the Parkdale Symphonic Band in July. Meanwhile, I accepted admission at Indiana University and prepared to enter as a freshman without a major.

After the band returned home in early August, I needed some time to myself and planned a last-minute bicycle trip out to begin school in Indiana. I needed time because my shame and humiliation over the failed audition ran too deep for conscious reflection in a kind of emotional hijacking. In the months that followed, I lost my longstanding interest in trombone, classical music, and the church, where I so often sang and played.

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Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

Gilbert_review_03042015Roberta M. Gilbert. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group.  Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Families matter.  How much they matter to our health and well-being is sometimes shocking.  Frequently in patient visits in an emergency room, physical and psychiatric problems could be linked to problems elsewhere in the family, such as a death or trauma.  This might be obvious when a young mother comes in complaining of chronic headaches, but it might also be a significant factor explaining backache, heart attacks, stroke, ineffective medication, and drug addictions.  Of course, as a chaplain one needs to ask.


Family systems theory helps to make sense of these connections by focusing on “the family as an emotional unit”, rather than on particular individuals (3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice.  The systems approach often yields counter-intuitive results[1].  Family systems theory is often applied to other “emotional units”, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.


In her book, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, Roberta Gilbert outlines 8 principles of family systems theory which outlines her chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Nuclear Family Emotional System;
  2. The Differentiation of Self Scale;
  3. Triangles; Cutoff;
  4. Family Projection Process;
  5. Multi-generational Transmission Process;
  6. Sibling Position; and
  7. Societal Emotional Process (4).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue.  Murray Bowen developed family systems theory in the 1950s working as a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Health in Washington DC; he elaborated this theory as a faculty member at Georgetown University[2].  Roberta Gilbert was one of his students.

In her explanation of emotional units, Gilbert write:

“My grandfather’s herd of cattle…Say the cattle are peacefully grazing…but…one cow gets too close to the electric fence, sustaining a shock, she may jump, vocalize and even jump or run, showing that she is in a very anxious state.  How long does it take for the other cows in the pasture to ‘catch’ the anxiety?  Of course, it happens almost immediately. Their behavior soon becomes agitated, showing they have taken on the anxiety of the initial individual.  The cattle are showing, by the movement of anxiety through the herd, that they are an emotional system.” (6)

Anxiety is Contagious

Anxiety transmission is a flag for the limits of an emotional system.  Gilbert classifies anxiety as acute—in response to stress—and chronic—the background anxiety in a group (7-8). Relational responses to anxiety come in 4 patterns:

  1. Triangling;
  2. Conflict;
  3. Distancing; and
  4. Overfunctioning/underfunctioning (11-12).

Anxiety is infectious (7).  Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak (21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (33). Gilbert’s grandfather attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle (22).

Family Systems Concepts

Family systems theory focuses on how a particular group resolves anxiety.


An important therapeutic result from family systems theory arises in how anxiety is resolved.  If a parent is anxious, then the other parent picks it up. If a child is nearby, they too will become anxious—the child becomes the third corner in a “triangle”.  If this situation is repeated, then the child may develop a symptom (48).  This symptom could be simple things, like sleep problems or bed wetting, or it could develop in social problems, like acting out, fighting, etc.  If the child’s symptom developed in response to parental conflict (think about divorce or separation), then sending the child out for counseling will not resolving the problem.  However, the child’s problem could be resolved by dealing with the parental conflict.


Gilbert defines conflict as: “when…neither [party] gives in to the other on major issues.” (15) Obviously, conflict has the potential to generate a lot of chronic anxiety.

Distancing and Cutoff

When people resolve conflict or anxiety through leaving—either temporarily or permanently—nothing is resolved—only deferred.  Gilbert writes:

“Distanced persons think about each other, the relationship and the conflict that led to it, a great deal.  By distancing, they are far from free of the problem.  They are still emotionally bound and defined by it” (16).

To see this effect, think about a reunion that you have attended—what did people talk about?

Gilbert speculates that because grief is, in part, the result of emotional cutoff (distancing), remaining in contact with the deceased persons extended family can help mitigate at least some of the grieving process (62).  This is part and parcel of a traditional funeral.


Gilbert writes:  “the overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity describes partners trying to make one self out of two.” (17)

The overfunctioner:

·       Knows the answer,

·       Does well in life,

·       Tells the other what to do, how to think, how to feel,

·       Tries to help too much…

The underfunctioner:

·       Relies on the other to know what to do,

·       Asks for advice unnecessarily,

·       Takes all offered help, needed or not, becoming passive,

·       Asks the other to do what he or she can do for self… (18)

Gilbert notes that in the workplace, leaders can be overfunctioners (19).

An important outcome of family systems theory is that differentiation-of-self functions as a shock absorber on the emotional system.  High functioning leaders lead through principles (not emotion), stay grounded in facts and thinking, and remain in good contact with appropriate individuals in the system (43).


Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory is a helpful book.  In my case, I was already aware of the principles of Bowen theory, but had not fully absorbed their significance.  Gilbert’s presentation simplified my learning process.


[1] My last two published papers working as a financial engineer applied the systems approach in risk management (Responding to Systemic Risk (; Putting the System Back in Systemic Risk (

[2] Murray Bowen (1913-1990;

Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

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1 Corinthians 7: Don’t Be Anxious

Maryam and Stephen Hiemstra, 1984
Maryam and Stephen Hiemstra, 1984

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (v16)

Do you believe in salvation?

Because my father married at age 21, I spent of most of my 20s anxious that I had missed the boat.  My consolation was that my grandfather married at age 28.

My anxiety was misplaced.  For example, in my first visit to a lock-down, psychiatric ward in college, I was shocked to run into the president of my senior class in high school—I was not there to visit her!  Two years out of high school, she had had two children and attempted suicide when her husband divorced her.  While I envied my peers in graduate school who were married, many of them were divorced only a few years later.  By the time I married at age 30, many of the people I knew had been divorced and remarried one or more times.

The Apostle Paul seems aware of this problem of unstable relationships and advises us not to be anxious about our marital status.  He writes:  Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called (v 20).  Elsewhere, he advises:  I wish that all were as I myself am [single]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another (v 7).  Do you think of your marital status as a gift of God?

Paul expands on this thought.  Before God, neither male nor female, neither circumcised nor un-circumcised, neither slave nor free, counts for anything (vv 17-22).  In case you were thinking Paul was having a bad hair day, he repeats this point in Galatians 3:28.  Why is Paul adamant about this issue?  He gives at least 2 reasons:

  • For the present form of this world is passing away (v 31).  In other words, don’t be rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titantic!
  • But the married man [woman] is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife [her husband], and his [her] interests are divided (vv 33-34).

In fact, Paul maintains a balanced view of relationships, not favoring the married or the single (vv 7-9), the man or the woman (v 4).  He also gives his motivation for this balanced view:  I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (v 35).

This brings us back to the question about salvation.  If your identity is in Christ and you sincerely believe in salvation, then it will bear fruit in your relationships.  For example, how patient are you?  Are you willing to wait on God’s timing for your marriage?

Paul sees marriage as a formative institution instituted by God himself.  It is interesting that the Kellers[1] describe the Bible as a book that begins with a wedding! Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24 ESV). It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle was saving a wedding (John 2) and the book of Revelations reaches a climax in the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelations 19:9). God cares about marriage: it was His idea!

If marriage is instituted by God, then how is it formative?  It is formative because spouses care about the health and well-being of their spouses.  What is one of the signs that the person you are dating is serious about your relationship?  They start working on your bad habits—if you smoke, they ask you to stop—that kind of thing.  In marriage God gives us someone who cares enough to tell us things we do not want to hear.

The photograph above is of my wife, Maryam, and I when we were engaged.  We will celebrate our 30th anniversary in November.


[1] Timothy and Kathy Keller. 2011.  The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton. page 13.


  1. How was your week? Did anything special happen?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 6?
  3. What is Paul’s purpose in writing this chapter? (v 1)
  4. What does Paul advise about marriage? What are his main points? What strikes you as unusual about his comments? (vv 1-6)
  5. Who is in charge of what? Why is this unusual? Why? (v 4)
  6. What is Paul’s marital status? (vv 7-8)
  7. What is Paul’s advice to single people? (vv 8-9)
  8. What is one purpose in marriage according to Paul? (v 9)
  9. What does Paul say to people in troubled marriages? (vv 10-11)
  10. What advice does Paul give to people in mixed marriages? (vv 13-16,39)
  11. What is the relationship between marriage and salvation? (v 16)
  12. Should we be in a hurry to marry? (v 17)
  13. What three things does Paul compare our marital status to? What does he advise?  Why (vv 17-24)
  14. Why does Paul advise to be content with one’s status? (vv 26-31)
  15. How does Paul advise those who are engaged? Why does he spend some much time taking about engagement? (vv 25-38)
  16. How does Paul advise widows? (vv 39-40)

1 Corinthians 7: Don’t Be Anxious

First Corinthians 8

First Corinthians 6

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