Jay Blogs – Child Worship, Revisited

I’ve been writing this blog now for nearly eight years. There are some things I write about that are “one-timers,” mostly inspired by a current event or recent school happening: an election, a tragedy, or a particular celebration. There are some, however, that are so important that they warrant revisiting every few years, just to keep my own perspectives on them fresh, and to walk alongside a new generation of school parents as they navigate timeless truths (or deceptions) for their first time.  Child worship is one of those roadblocks. It’s particularly nasty and insidious, because it masquerades as something so good, so pure, holy, even: the love one has for one’s child.

We all love our kids, even when they drive us crazy. But, can we love them too much? The answer to that question is, in a manner of speaking, that we absolutely can and do.

I confronted this painful truth multiple times when raising my girls, but the times I most remember were during school award ceremonies. I secretly hated award ceremonies, because they brought out the worst in me. Most of you didn’t know my girls when they were at Grace, but they were great kids. They were, however, very normal kids. Not particularly academically outstanding, not great athletes, not super-talented musicians. I think they’re amazing, and they love Jesus now, for which I’m endlessly grateful, but they were not the kids who were going to take home the goods at award ceremonies (we joke all the time with them, “at least you have great hair.” Don’t underestimate great hair as a gift from the Lord).

If I’m totally honest, it really bugged me that they’d never win. I remembering sitting in the crowd, secretly thinking, “who are these teachers, anyway? Why don’t they recognize how great my kids are and give them an award? Why are they left out?” Looking back on it now, I completely empathize with the teachers- there were others who deserved those awards more, and it’s a good lesson for kids that not everyone gets a trophy–my kids’ psyches remain intact to this day.  And, yet, while sitting there in the crowd, being ticked off, the Lord convicted me: my desire to see them win was way more about me than it was about them. They were actually pretty cool with it. But, in my distorted dad-mode, I was feeling as though the teachers’ lack of recognition for my kids in that moment was a lack of recognition for my own work, effort, and sacrifice as their leader.

I know. That’s really twisted, isn’t it? It makes no sense. And, yet, God used it to expose me to the way my children, at times, were an idol in my life. It also exposed that I was my own idol, as well. Here’s what I mean.

Idolatry is as old as humans. In Genesis 2, the writer tells us that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” This means they weren’t self-conscious. Like I talked about last week, we were created by God to get our identity- our value and self- worth- from God. We were created to passionately pursue and to seek fellowship with Him, and for God alone to help us see that we were good enough, valuable enough, and worthy enough.

When sin came into the world, our relationship with Him was fractured and distorted. In our sinful distraction, other things took God’s place in providing our identity, to tell us we’re good enough, that our lives have value and meaning; that we matter. In Romans 1, Paul says that we are guilty of “worshiping the creature, rather than the Creator,” meaning that we worship (find our value and worth) in God’s stuff, the things He created, rather than in Him. Even if we love God, at any point in time, we may become distracted idolaters.

And, it’s not just “bad” stuff, like porn and alcohol, that consumes us. “Good” things, like exercise and people, can be idols for us, too. And, good people- like our spouses, and our kids–can consume us, as well.

Here’s how I see child worship show up every day at school and church, some warning signs that our children have become our idols (I’m not trying to hit too close to home here, just being a loving friend diagnosing an illness I’ve been guilty, at times, of having):

Are you quick to defend your child when someone calls their attention to sin, bad behavior or error on his or her part? When someone calls out wrongdoing by your kids, no matter how gently, do you immediately feel defensive, deny or begin making excuses for your kid, or start blaming other things or people for the wrongdoing, maybe even counterattacking the bringer of bad news? Is your kid’s version of what happened always the “correct” one, in your mind?

Do you jump in and fight your children’s battles? If your kid is dealing with a peer who is being mean or impolite to them, do you immediately approach the other child’s parents to join in the battle and right the wrong, or come up to school and expect them to right every wrong?  I’m not talking about when your child’s safety is truly at issue, just life’s little conflicts and minor injustices. Do you talk to other parents about what a “bad kid” the offender is?  Is every one of these hills a hill to die on for you?

Do you routinely rush in to save your child from failure? When they get a bad grade on a test, do you try to work the system to get the grade changed? Is your kid’s playing or performance time so important to you that you jump in to advocate more opportunity for your kid? Do you automatically start looking for someone else to blame for your child’s failure? Have you ever tried to intimidate a teacher or a coach into manipulating success for your child?

Are you a “drone” parent? Do you use digital technology to monitor every move your child makes? Are you constantly tracking them down with their phones? Does it completely stress you out when they don’t have their phones with them because you cannot immediately get in touch with them at all times?

These are only a few instances, but you get the idea. A good indication of what constitutes your idol is what consumes your time, your money, and the bulk of your thoughts and conversations. Raising a child is an awesome, time-and-expense-consuming responsibility, but it shouldn’t require the allegiance we owe the King of Kings, and our identity shouldn’t be wrapped up on our kid’s success and flourishing. Tim Keller often talks about “shallow idols” and “deep idols,” and he says no matter what the “shallow idol,” the deep idol is always the same: us.  In the case of our kids, this means that their success, their accomplishments, their thriving, becomes about how we think of ourselves, our success as parents, our identity as leaving a worthy legacy of ourselves.

It’s kind of twisted, when you think about it: using our kids to meet our own needs that way, but if we’re honest and reflective enough, almost all of us have been guilty of it at one time or another, haven’t we? (And, it’s so much easier to see it in other people­–that annoying person who talks or posts about his or her kids all the time–than in ourselves, isn’t it?).

Child worship damages our relationship with God, because it puts someone else in His rightful place in our lives. We become lost, finding our identity and hope in someone who was never created for that purpose. It undermines our relationship with God, and it undermines the health of our kids. It builds in them an unhealthy focus on self, an unhealthy pride. No one should be god of someone else’s life, and no one can bear the weight of our hopes and dreams, our identity and security. It’s a hugely unfair burden to put on a child. And, when we rescue them, enable them, make excuses for them, and try to engineer their success, we gut their abilities to become strong, resilient God-worshippers in their own right, which can only be accomplished through taking responsibility for their own actions and enduring hard things well. We’ve done them, and ourselves, grave harm.

Idolatry, child worship is sin, and the solution to it and all other sin is to repent, to fall back on the grace of Jesus in our lives, to restore Him to His rightful place–on the throne of our lives–and to place our kids back in their appropriate place. If I’m counting on Jesus, and not my kids, to tell me that I’m loved, I matter, I have purpose and value and dignity and worth as His child that transcends my role as husband or wife or boss or parent, it provides tremendous freedom. It frees me to raise kids, not as my little idols, but as God’s children that I’ve have been entrusted to protect, shepherd, provide for, and teach about Jesus.

If my kids have conflict with others, I can coach them through that conflict, not fighting their battles for them but teaching them to resolve issues themselves biblically. I can equip them to be resilient and ready for the world ahead of them.

When they make a bad grade, or have a bad athletic performance, or fail, or make mistakes, I can guide them, helping them to learn from it or maybe work harder or work smarter (or, with sports and other events, just lighten up and let them enjoy participating) all the while praying for them and trusting that the God of the universe loves them more than I even have the capacity to do, and His great passion for their lives is that they love Him and obediently serve Him. If God is the object of your worship, then for your children to obediently and passionately follow Him in the joy that comes with abundant life in Christ is really the only truly important thing. And, the failures and pain and little injustices they experience along the way are merely the mechanisms that the Holy Spirit uses to get them there.

The key questions in life are who and how I love. Augustine called these questions “rightly-ordered loves”- only if Jesus is first can we love our kids (and everyone else) the way they were meant to be loved: as God’s beloved children, entrusted to our care, and not our possessions or our gods.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.