A few days ago my four-year old asked my wife why Sunday was called "Sunday." My wife went on to explain about how some pagan peoples named days of the week after pagan gods, and that some of those pagan peoples worshiped the sun as a deity. My daughter thought it was strange to worship the sun, and further curiosity led to discussion about God being the only one deserving our worship. It was a challenging but important conversation.
Being the father of four children age four and under, I consider it one of my highest callings to raise my children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Obeying this command requires an enormous sacrifice of time, mental energy, and physical stamina so that we, as imperfect parents, are equipped to answer these tough questions.
But in our efforts to obey this command, can we fall into idolatry? Recently I have heard an increasing number of Christians make comments about how easy it is to worship our children. In this post I want to address this issue by looking at what idolatry actually is and how idolatry might look when it comes to parenting.
The short answer is, "yes," we can absolutely idolize our children. In fact we can idolize anything--sports, video games, self-appearance, sex, money, food, etc.. Our sinful tendencies to elevate creation above the Creator are boundless. Before we look specifically at what idolatry of children might look like, let's review the basic definition of idolatry.
What Is Idolatry?
Let's define idolatry first by looking at two good biblical examples. First, in Deuteronomy 4,
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:15-19 ESV)
Here God tells the people of Israel, "Don't be drawn away from me by anything that I have made. Don't serve anyone or anything other than your God. Don't bow down to anything in creation other than the Creator."
Sound familiar? That's because similar language is used in Romans 1,
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
(Romans 1:24-25 ESV)
So in simplest terms, idolatry is worshiping and serving anything in creation other than the Creator, who is God.
What does "worship" mean in this context? The Greek word is defined as "to fear" or "show reverence and awe." Interestingly, the root word for "worship" in this verse is the same word used for the title of the Roman emperor, Augustus (e.g., Acts 25:21, 25:25, 27:1).
What does "serve" mean in this context? The Greek word is defined as "to serve for hire" and more often as "to render religious service or homage." We can think in terms of "servant" or "slave."
So any time we replace God as the object of our reverence and awe, any time we replace God as the object of our service, we commit idolatry. Paul says in Colossians 3:5 that covetousness is idolatry. In the Greek, to covet means to have greedy desire for something else. Idolatry is to replace one's desire for the Creator with a greedy desire for the created.
The idea of greedy desire is an important distinction, because it helps us determine the difference between good and bad desire. It also helps us determine if our desires are God-given, or if they are rooted in sin. How do we know if our desires are idolatrous? Can we desire things within creation without committing idolatry?
I think the answer is in the passage from Romans quoted earlier. Do you see how Paul ties idolatry to lust? God gave these people up "in the lusts of their heart." Why? Because in doing so they "worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator." They committed idolatry because they greedily desired, served, and craved earthly things rather than the Creator.
This is how we know whether or not our God-given natural desires for things like sex, food, love, and rest are idolatrous. If we desire any of these things in the sense that we are consumed by them, our mind is bent on them, our focus on God is replaced by them, and we seek our fulfillment of happiness through them, THEN we are committing idolatry.
So let's say I am sitting at work and suddenly I fill hungry for my wife's spaghetti. I start thinking about that perfect combination of spaghetti noodles and pasta sauce with mildly spicy sausage meatballs and the aroma of oregano. My mouth begins to water. Am I committing idolatry?
If my desire for spaghetti begins to consume me and control me in such a way that I am enslaved to that desire, if that desire becomes my master and overtakes me with a craving and a lusting so that my will is controlled by the thought of attaining that spaghetti, then I am committing idolatry.
However, if my desire prompts me to call up my wife and say, "Honey, you make great spaghetti, could we have some tonight?," and I then proceed to look forward to that spaghetti and anticipate that spaghetti while being thankful to God for the delicious food I am about to receive, then I am not committing idolatry.
So in short, idolatry is a greedy, will-controlling, mind-enslaving lust for something other than God.
Application To Parenting
How do we apply the Bible's teaching about idolatry to parenting?
Well, most parents aren't bowing down and worshiping their children in a literal sense so this can be difficult to spot. Unlike cars or sports, we have a God-given duty to our children--to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). To the dismay of some, God does not require any attention to cars or sports.
Like many sins, idolatry of children probably looks different with different parents, depending on a parent's own personal weaknesses. For example, someone who struggles with craving affection from others might become enslaved with idolatrous desire for the affection of their children. Additionally, this would probably result in the parent subjecting themselves to the desires and wishes of their child, rather than subjecting their child to training in Godliness.
Another possibility is the parent who seeks their own happiness through the happiness of their child. Instead of the parent living for God and the happiness that comes from knowing Him, they live for the happiness of their child. When their child is happy, they are happy. When their child is sad, they are sad. Their identity is found not in God, but in their child. I think this would also be idolatry.
So idolatry of children might be summarized in (but not limited to) the following points:
- Parents sinfully crave their child's favor.
- Parents are enslaved to their child's desires and wishes.
- Parents depend on the happiness of their child for their own happiness.
- Parents live vicariously through the lives of their children.
Raising a child up in the admonition of the Lord takes a tremendous amount of work by dedicated parents who will make a lot of mistakes along the way. Christian parents are responsible, by command of the LORD, to train their children into Godliness.
As a side-note, it is profound that this is one of the only commands given to Christian parents. In contrast, parents are not commanded to "box out" time for themselves away from their children. Parents are not commanded to have date nights. Parents are not commanded to ensure time for daily devotions.
Unchecked desire for these things I believe can also lead to idolatry of self.
We should be on guard in our hearts for resistance against God's command. Are we constantly longing for a break from the often hectic life of parenting? Are we using devotion time as a secret excuse to get away from our children? There's nothing inherently wrong with breaks or devotion time. We need them often. In fact Proverbs 4:26 says, "Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure." Careful thinking and meditation are difficult to do in the midst of chaos. And frankly, sometimes we just need a break for our own sanity, but as parents we need to constantly evaluate the true intent of our hearts. We must continually ask ourselves, are we submitting to God's command to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the LORD? Or, are we committing idolatry by seeking happiness in being away from them or through them? May we all as parents seek wisdom in these things.