The Idol of Family

I managed to put the cat amongst the pidgeons a week or so ago when, during question time at the end of a sermon, I suggested that one of the idols that threatens a congregation like CCB is the family. Chaos ensued. In a very polite middle class generally disapproving sort of a way! Well, someone asked me what I meant which is tantamount to wholesale rebellion for us! Wonderfully they gave me a chance to clarify what I’d said.

An idol is essentially an important thing  that becomes an ultimate thing. It becomes the thing that takes God’s place. I’m sure that Tim Keller, whose excellent book on the subject, Counterfeit Gods, is well worth getting and reading, has a neat definition. But all I can remember is Mark Driscoll’s which is ‘an idol is a good thing that we make a god thing so that it becomes a bad thing!’

An idol is something that takes up centre stage in our lives. It’s the thing that dominates our life. It’s what we give our time, our energy and our resources to have. You can tell what people worship by where their cash is spent, what appears in their diary and what we think is worth pitchig up for. Not having our idol makes us disproportionately angry. And we take our anger out on those that deny it to us. It’s the thing that makes us happy when we have it. And we’re indebted to those that give it to us. Life begins to revolve around it. The reason that we do that is because we think that it’ll provide us with our version of heaven, whatever that is. Our idol provides us with comforting reassurance that heaven is ours. And because it promises us salvation we’ll gladly make sacrifices to it.

For some of us, and I do not exempt myself from this temptation, our version of heaven is the well educated child. He, she or it is rounded in every respect; able to play violin, rugby, perform algebra and recite the works of Milton. Backwards, if necessary. That’s not a bad thing. I’d love for my children to be in a school environment where they flourish and thrive as human beings. Which parent wouldn’t? It’d be perverse to want our children to be in an educational environment where they’re stifled.

For some of us our version of hell is the poorly educated child. But I’d want to be more precise than that. Education is the whole package. Schooling is what school does. Education is what parents do. And so our version of hell is really the poorly schooled child. If that’s our version of hell then guess what our functional saviour becomes. The school we send them to. But not only that. It’s the experiences we give them; gym, cricket, brownies, spanish classes and the like. In the end, the whole of family life revolves around the kids and their activities. They become the non-negotiables in the diary when there’s a clash. They become the reason why we can’t see people, we have no slack in the system and we can’t make the church event. Everything else takes second place to our child or children. And when we do that we’re not serving them, we’re worshipping them. Or at least what they might become when they comfort us in the future. If an idol is what gives us comfort, then what could be more comforting to us in our old age than well educated, well adjusted, well paid adult children?!

Every idol requires sacrificial worship. And the sacrifices are what we’re prepared to give up to have the idol. In our context that’ll mean private education and the sacrifices we make will need to be financial. It costs about £4K a term to put a child through a prep school. That’s 12 grand a year. And that’s not including uniform and the hidden costs. We’ve got three children. My earning potential is limited to the Vicar’s salary. But Rosslyn’s isn’t. And so we could sacrifice her! We could slowly kill her by sending her out to work as a partner in a GP’s Practice. She’d have to put in long hours and she might have to travel a long way to find a partnership. She’ll probably bring work home with her, in every sense of teh phrase. The kids would grow up without a Mother and she’d have to ditch Women’s Bible Study. But the kids would get a first rate schooling experience. You could see how we might make that decision if the thing that we most value is a well schooled child. But it would cost us.

But is it worth it? For some of us, yes. If we have huge earning potetntial and after we’ve give generously and sacrificially to our local church, after we’ve been prudent and wise in saving and after we’ve purchased life’s necessities there may well be disposable income that could fund our children’s schooling. And that wouldn’t be wrong. It might be quite an easy decision if we really do earn lots of money. And it’ll be an easy decision for those at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. If we know that we simply can’t ever afford it, then it’s not a decision we really have to think about out. Our issues will be envy and a sense of injustice. But it’s toughest for those of us who could just about afford it with some sacrifices. If we work a little harder, if we stay at work a little longer, if we bring home work to show willing then we’ll get the promotion that we’re working towards. And then, finally, we might get the money we need to pay for what we want. But there’ll be casualties. Potentially our own faith because we simply haven’t got the time or the energy to invest in maturing as a Christian. Potentially our kids who grow up with an absent father because he’s either away at work or when he’s at home he’s thinking about work. Potentially our wife who likes the money but can’t cope with the neglect. Are any of those a price worth paying?

I’m hugely grateful to my parents for the sacrifices they made to enable me to attend a private school for my sixth form. I well remember the conversation a few years ago when Dad said ‘I paid the last installment on your school fees last month!’  I knew that it had cost him to put all four of us, I have three sisters, through sixth form. But it hadn’t crossed my mind that he’d been paying all those years. I’m really grateful for my time at Monkton, but I’m most grateful that my parents were there for me throughout my teenage years and that they supported me personally growing up.

This is such a tough one for middle class aspirational parents. We so want our kids to do well. And none of this should suggest that a private schhol is a bad thing. It’s not. It’s a good thing. But it may become a god thing. And that would be a bad thing.

I wonder what our kids might say to us in 20 years. ‘Dad I’m grateful for the schooling you gave me but I’ve have preferred to have had you’. ‘Dad if there was a choice between you being a Christian and me going to private school I’d have taken you being a Christian any day of the week’. ‘Dad, I got great results at school and a place at a good university but I’d have preferred to have grown up with you and Mum in the same house’.

I guess we need to be careful what we worship.

7 thoughts on “The Idol of Family

  1. Nigel r March 2, 2010 / 11:07 am

    Very helpful ‘piece’ Perks – just wondering, does an idol have to be a good thing to start with? Someone could worship pornography as their idol (or would they just be worshipping a distorted view of sex (which is obviously a good thing?)) – a bad thing that’s become a god thing and now an even worse thing. Just a thought. By the way Driscoll’s in Durban this week can you believe – maybe I’ll ask him!

  2. theurbanpastor March 2, 2010 / 11:53 am

    Hey Nige. No I guess not. Allah is an idol and he’s not a good thing. He’s a God substitute. So perhaps it’s better to say that an idol is something which we adore and worship because we think that by having it we’ll be fulfilled and satisfied. Let me know what Driscoll says. No doubt he’ll be searching you out for your wisdom!!

    • Lauri March 2, 2010 / 5:54 pm

      Im not going to contradict you Perks, just want to recategorise something. I guess in my book sin does not have a substance of itself. It is a twisting of the good. So Porn is the distorrtion of real sex then Alah is the distortion of the teaching of the real God. I guess the way I frame the discussion is based first on looking what the heart might want, but what it is filled with is a distortion of that. And then when we combine two good things. Film and Sex, we make a double abuse of the good. With Alah, it might be teaching about God (schripture) and the worship of God. Does that make sense? I just dont want to give up my definition of sin as being a distortion of the good. Do you think thats a wrong definition?

  3. peterB March 2, 2010 / 12:46 pm

    We’re too young for schooling to become the thing, but in a borough with lousy secondary schools I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

    We’ve struggled with trying not to make an idol out of obedient children. That is, to put their outward physical obedience at the centre of our lives. There is obviously a lot to be said for training your child in the way they should go, but in the same way that you can’t debate an athiest in to faith, you can’t discipline a child in to heaven.

    Balancing efforts between training them to behave and directing their hearts towards Jesus is a toughie.

  4. Andy March 2, 2010 / 3:56 pm

    It occurs to me that we often do a disservice to the idols we create. So many of our parents here worship their kids (we’re fertile soil for this – a private school where large numbers present are the first generation of their family to attend a fee-paying school); mum rushing in tearfully and foaming at the mouth if Little Jonny has been called a name or caused to scrape a knee… and invariably those children are the spoiled and selfish brats; much like, on a larger scale, our rock stars or footballers. We weren’t made to take the place of God.
    My mum had me back at school a week after I was hit by a car I’ll have you know… broken arm/leg and ribs still smarting… there’s a lot to be said for benign neglect!

  5. Rory Rodgers August 19, 2012 / 2:26 pm

    Thanks Richard, great article, will be quoting some of it today in my “God is not subservient to the Family” sermon. God be placed at the center of worship and may our good beautiful things never be god things!

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