Someone once asked Jesus what the most important commandment was. His reply? ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.’ God wants us to love him so deeply that we put him first in our lives, above everyone and everything else that competes for our affections, time and energies. He wants our hearts!
Yet, as sinners, we find many different idols to give our hearts to. Three thousand years ago God’s people were tempted to worship golden calves and Baal because that is what everyone around them was doing. We are unlikely to find that particularly tempting, but 21st century British culture has its own idols and we need to recognise them so that we can guard our hearts and resist the temptation.
Over the last century, British families have changed beyond recognition. In my grandparents’ day, children were usually in employment from their early teens, and even before that had to help at home or on the farm, fitting into their parents’ lives and contributing to the family. Fast forward to today, and things are reversed; childhood is almost revered, and the norm is for family life to revolve around the children. Our children have become the motivation behind everything we do; we sacrifice ourselves to give them everything they want, devote our lives to entertaining them and make few demands upon their time. They often become our main topic of conversation as we find our identity in being a parent and our own sense of fulfilment from seeing that they are happy and successful. Society tells us that putting our children first is good parenting, but have we, without even realising it, made ‘childhood’ and our children into idols? Have we given them the place in our hearts and lives that only God should have?
What’s the problem?
Children are a gift and a blessing from God, and it’s obviously right that we love them, but if we start idolising them it brings all sorts of spiritual problems both for them and for us.
If we, by our behaviour, are teaching our children that the world revolves around them, how can we also teach them that putting themselves first is the very essence of sin?
No-one likes to see their children upset, but in our desire to keep them happy we find it hard to say ‘no’ to them. We are reluctant to make any demands on their time, and it becomes easier to overlook their wrong-doing than to discipline them properly. Yet if we fail to address their sin, how can we show them their need of a Saviour? And how can they learn the joy of serving if they never help at home?
What happens when they want to join the local Sunday league football team, or don’t want to miss a friend’s party that clashes with church? Do we prioritise the need to regularly meet together to worship God (Heb. 10:24-25) or do we put our children’s desires first and drift further away from God as we (and they) miss out on teaching and fellowship? What are we teaching our children when we allow worship to become optional?
Jesus warned that following him can put a strain on families, including parent-child relationships, but still demands that he be our first love (Matt. 10:35-37). He never said it would be easy!
Guarding our hearts
How can we guard our hearts against the temptation to idolise our children? Rather than focusing on our children, we need to keep our hearts and minds fixed on our heavenly Father.
Our identity is primarily as children of God, not as parents.
Being a parent can be all-consuming and exhausting, especially in the early years, but our role as parents is only part of who we are. Our primary identity is as a child of God. He has loved us from before the foundation of the world, he has forgiven our sins, he provides for our needs and listens when we pray. Our chief purpose in life is not to be a parent, but to love God. If we seek fulfilment through our children, we will never be truly satisfied; only God can meet our deepest needs.
Our relationship with our children should reflect God’s relationship with us.
Ephesians 5:1 tells us to ‘be imitators of God, as beloved children.’ We are God’s children, and we need to keep our focus on him, learning how to be parents by following his example.
We should reflect our Father’s love as we love our children.
God’s love is indescribably patient, kind and gentle; it is unconditional, unchanging and sacrificial. We are precious to him, and he loves to give us good, generous gifts. However, he also knows that sometimes we want things that are not good for us, so he says no or makes us wait until the time he knows is right. Sometimes he even leads us in directions we would never choose for ourselves, and we resist because we cannot understand the bigger picture. All this is part of his love for us, and a challenging pattern for how we love our children too.
We should reflect our Father’s opposition to sin as we discipline our children.
God is a loving Father, slow to anger and quick to forgive, but he demands obedience and disciplines us when we sin in order to restore our relationship with him. In the same way, we need to discipline our children, requiring obedience and pointing them to the Saviour.
We should teach our children in the way our Father teaches us.
Throughout the Bible we see God described as the teacher of his children, revealing himself to them and teaching them how to live. In the same way, we must teach our children about God, who he is and what he has done for us, teaching them diligently, as a natural part of daily life, answering their questions and making the most of every opportunity to talk about him (Exod. 12:26-27; Deut. 6:7-9).
Yet the starting point for teaching our children about God is loving him ourselves, with our whole being (Deut. 6). Children learn as much by watching us as they do by listening to us! Even in this God has given us the perfect example to follow; our Father hasn’t just told us how to live, he has shown us, and so we need to keep our eyes fixed on him.
What a challenge!
Parenting is a great privilege but we need to raise our children in a way that pleases God, keeping him (not them) as our first love. Putting God first doesn’t mean loving our children any less, in fact when we look at our Father’s perfect love for us we realise how far short our own love falls. We need to keep our focus on him, humbly learning from the example he has set us and asking for his help as we seek to live for him.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne
And worship only Thee.