“There are more idols in the world than there are realties.”
In his famous observations about American life from the 1830s, recorded in Democracy in America (pg. 296), Alexis de Tocqueville wrote,
“strange melancholy haunts the inhabitants (of America)…in the midst of abundance…the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy (the human) heart.”
And perhaps most insightfully of all, the Swiss reformer, John Calvin, in The Institutes of Religion (1.11), once famously stated,
“The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols.”
Yes, it’s a little strange (and humbling) that an atheist philosopher, French politician, and non-Lutheran theologian all seem to understand this important concept of Christianity significantly better than I have for most of my life. It took me about twenty-five years and thousands of hours of reading Timothy Keller before I started to grasp the concept of idolatry. But it’s changed my life, my faith, and my understanding of the Bible.
In essence, it works like this. Satan gets us to take our eyes off of eternity and obsess with created things above our Creator God. Humanity seems to recognize that we were originally built for paradise, but whenever we experience a life that is less than paradise, we tend to obsess over some earthly thing that we think will bring heaven to earth for us. We take a good, created thing and we make it the ultimate thing in our lives, violating the First Commandment, the one that is really the umbrella under which all the others fall, the one that says, “You shall have no other gods BEFORE ME.” (Ex. 20:3) A good thing, loved in a disproportionate, misprioritized way, i.e. more than God, is destructive to both our relationship with God AND our relationship with that thing. A good thing that becomes a God thing, that’s an idol.
So, for instance, the Apostle Paul says to the Colossians, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which IS IDOLATRY.” (Col. 3:5) Paul is not at all suggesting that sex and material wealth are evil (as has sometimes unfortunately been insinuated by religious people). These are good things, wonderful things! God himself created them. Nonetheless, when they are pursued to a greater degree than God himself by a fallen human heart, our relationship with these things and with God is ruined. That’s idolatry.
If we believe that idolatry is predominantly something practiced by ancient pagans or perhaps by uneducated people in third world countries with silly statues in their homes, we expose our ignorance on the topic…and are more susceptible to it. Whatever you or I have disproportionate love for…that’s our idol. For many modern western people, common idols seem to come in the form of better relationships, financial stability, professional success, physical attractiveness, life control, social approval, and many more.
It seems like I struck a bit of a nerve several weeks ago when I brought this up in a sermon. I mentioned that, as far as I can tell, for Midwestern, church-going people, the most common idol that I tend to see is the pursuit of the ideal family.
In other words, we all look at the beautiful families in the stock photos from the picture frames – the family that is attractive, happy, and everyone is getting along perfectly – and we assume that this is what our family is supposed to look like. But invariably we discover that this is NOT our family.
A peaceful family is a good thing, but when we make it a “God thing,” it becomes destructive. One of the signs that you have a false god (an idol), is that you compromise the true God’s commands in order to serve your false god. So, for instance, if your false god is pleasure, you might freely break the true God’s command against sex outside of marriage. If your false god is wealth, you might break the true God’s command against stealing and dishonest business practices. If your false god is social approval, you might break the true God’s command against speaking lovelessly about others, with the goal of making yourself look better. Again, you worship your false gods by breaking the true God’s commands.
Consequently, as I’m suggesting about Midwestern church-goers in general, if your false god is indeed “the perfect family unit,” you’ll willfully break the true God’s commands in order to love, serve, and worship that false god.
What does this look like? Well, how far would you go to present a positive image of your family? Have you ever lied about how well your family is doing for the sake of appearances? That’s breaking the true God’s command for truth in order to serve the false god of family idealism.
It’s amazing to me how many people I’ve talked with at my church who are terrified about how others would perceive them if they found out the family’s deep, dark, dirty secrets. As a pastor, I’m probably more privy to this type of information than most. And while I wouldn’t expose anyone’s private information, I invariably want to tell these same people, “You have no idea what everyone else is going through. They’re going through the same stuff!” Literally, everyone I know has SOMETHING. If we were a little less concerned about presenting the image of a perfect family to others and actually took God’s command through James seriously: “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16), I’m curious how much more “healing” we’d actually have. I can nearly guarantee that, at the very least, we’d be a more tight-knit, more sympathetic group of Christians. By the way, my guess is that this particular post gets shared fewer times on Facebook than others have, in part, because the mere sharing of it might seem to insinuate that “my family is, in fact, not perfect.” One of the great dangers of Facebook and other social media has been the deception of presenting life and family that are greater, smarter, more accomplished, more beautiful, happier, and in general, more perfect than they realistically are.
Of course, there are other evidences that family is treated as an idol. Perhaps you disregard God’s command for regular public worship for the sake of “quality family time.” Perhaps you disregard God’s command for parental discipline or spiritual accountability because it will rock the family boat too much. Whatever it may be, you know that you’ve turned family into an idol, that your allegiance to family is destructively strong, if you’ve ever sacrificed the true God’s commands in order to serve family.
So, how does a Christian family repent of the idol of family idealism? First, you acknowledge what you’ve always known but perhaps have tried very hard to hide – the fact that your family isn’t perfect. It’s appropriate to mourn the loss of perfect family – which you were created for – but it’s inappropriate to live under the delusion that your family can ever reach that status in this lifetime. Furthermore, if you manage your family like they can/should be perfect, you will establish such unrealistic expectations that members will crumble under the pressure. As a result, by making “ideal family” an idol, you will actually drive your family away from you. Your idol will curse you.
A Christian doesn’t deal with imperfection by trying harder. A Christian deals with imperfection by celebrating a perfect Savior. The resurrection perfection that this Savior gifts to us by grace is enough hope to move us past the troubled times of a sinful world, and the pain of a family that isn’t what it was created to be.
Finally, a Christian is able to recognize that our earthly family, when it is functioning correctly, is only a shadow of the family that is established in Christ. Because Jesus was forsaken by his Father on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34), all who trust in him are eternally reconciled to the family of God. This is the reason why when someone says to Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” (Matt. 12:47), Jesus replies by saying,“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48,50) Jesus is suggesting that the bond of the children of God supersedes any earthly bonds. You may have grown close to someone after 70 or 80 years here on earth, but just imagine how close you’d be after 10 billion years in heaven?
You will have a perfect family one day. Just remember that that day isn’t today. Nonetheless, for the sake of a resurrected Savior, you will enjoy a perfect, resurrected family soon enough. That’s a lot to look forward to.