When I brought my oldest child home from the hospital, I spent the first couple of nights sleepless – not because he was needy, not because I was afraid, but because I was so taken with his presence. I could not close my eyes to sleep because I could not take them off of him. I had never known a love so profound in my life. The love a parent has for a child is a holy picture of God’s love for us. He is, after all, “our Father.”
I can only imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have felt, gazing at infant Isaac. Born after years of anguished waiting, the child of promise dozed in their arms, a warm and solid reality. Is it any wonder Abraham’s love for his son grew to exceed his love for anything or anyone else?
In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller explains how this happened:
“Previously, Abraham’s meaning in life had been dependent on God’s word. Now it was becoming dependent on Isaac’s love and well-being. The center of Abraham’s life was shifting. God was not saying you cannot love your son, but that you must not turn a loved one into a counterfeit god….”
Keller goes on to say, “If anyone puts a child in the place of the one true God, it creates an idolatrous love that will smother the child and strangle the relationship.”
As the title of Keller’s book implies, idolatry is an insidious forgery of genuine parent love. The shift is subtle, but the danger is acute (for my child and for me). How can I know when my child has become my idol?
1. I cannot bear to discipline or displease him.
A parent who relies on her child’s affection or approval will not be able to discipline according to what the child needs. Take Samson, a gift from God to barren parents. Samson was a strong man with a stronger will, but his parents could not tell him no. Contrary to God’s law, Samson demanded a Philistine wife. When mom and dad feebly suggested he could marry a nice Hebrew girl, he retorted: “Get her for me, for she pleases me” (Judges 14:3). Their unwillingness to displease Samson fostered his unruliness and lead to his ultimate destruction (See Judges 13-16).
2. I need to influence or control most things that affect my child.
Colossians 3:21 says, “Fathers, do not provoke (exasperate, irritate) your children, lest they become discouraged.” The JB Phillips translation puts it this way: “Parents, don’t over-correct your children, or they will grow up feeling inferior and frustrated.” Over-parenting is a sure sign of idolatry, and few things exasperate an emerging young adult more than a controlling parent. For example:
– I pay thousands of dollars for private batting lessons, but my son is only moderately talented and feels guilty every time he strikes out. But he’s okay with it, because we discuss every at-bat after every game. I never miss a game.
– My daughter’s two friends are quiet and sweet, but I’m going to throw her a sixteenth birthday band party and invite the whole grade because I know she’ll come out of her shell.
– I write up exam study schedules, book salon appointments, comment on every outfit, have an opinion about every friend, leave a devotion on the pillow every night, “like” every Instagram post, and buy every item on the Christmas wish list.
After all, if my child’s life is perfect – if he or she is never hurt, angry, disappointed, or sad, never underachieves, loses, or (God forbid) FAILS – then my child will be good and happy. Right? And I will be a great mom. Right?
Vigilant parental control actually weakens a young person. It sends the message that I do not believe my child is capable of handling life without my help. It’s a vote of no-confidence in his or her fledgling maturity. On the other hand, allowing my child to struggle, and then demonstrating how Jesus helps us in our weakness, empowers us both to trust our Savior. But if I don’t trust Him with my child, I can’t expect my child to trust Him either.
3. A corollary: whatever affects my child has the potential to control me.
Have you ever cried yourself to sleep when your child endured a broken romance? Hung your head in shame over a missed game-winning free throw? Gone to desperate lengths to hide your kid’s encounter with the police? Demanded an explanation at the school when he or she didn’t get the part in the musical? Of course we feel our children’s disappointments and sins acutely. We don’t want to see them hurt, and we don’t want to see them suffer the consequences of their actions…. Wait, but that’s how they learn…
Examining my own reactions to what happens in my child’s life is crucial to uncovering idolatry.
4. Another corollary: My desire to protect (control) my child is stronger than my desire to see him grow to be the man God called him to be.
Even Mary the mother of Jesus struggled with this one. On one hand, she encouraged His ministry: “Go ahead, Son, Your time has come, so change the water into wine.” And yet, when opposition grew fierce and Jesus was in danger, she went with His brothers to ask Him to come home. Mary feared the cost of His obedience more than she wanted God’s will, and as a mom, I know how that feels.
I take comfort and guidance from the example of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Barren and distraught, Hannah prayed and told God that if He would give her a son, she would “give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11). After Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the priest Eli to be raised at the temple. Eli was a lazy spiritual mentor at best, and his own sons literally ran wild. But Hannah knew she was not entrusting her only son to them but to God. Her faith was handsomely rewarded. God gave her five more children, not to replace Samuel, but to fill her house and her arms. As a man Samuel returned to his hometown, Ramah, and from there served Israel as a mighty judge and prophet. Hannah loved her son dearly so she held him loosely, loving and trusting her heavenly Father – and his heavenly Father – even more.
The first two of God’s Ten Commandments deal with idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” (Exodus 20:3-4). Obeying these commands protects us, as well as our children, from an idolatrous love that destroys our relationship with God and with each other.