THE IDOLATRY OF FAMILY
Author: Greg Wilson
Christians have idols that we love to hate, at least superficially, like materialism, pride and sex. For some reason, it is much easier to see how they can divert our attention from the Lord than the idols that we love to love, like conservative politics, the American dream, and the nuclear family. These, we elevate to the status of “Christian values.” Yet, even the good and well-intentioned things that we do as Christ-followers are idols when they cause Christ to lose preemminence in our lives.
According to Tim Keller, an idol “is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Keller reminds us good things can be idols too, if they come between us and what is best for us, which is the Lord. Anything can be an idol – a hobby, a church or ministry, a job, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a husband or wife, a brother or sister, a parent or child. Take a look at this extremely difficult text from Luke 14:25-33:
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Some dismiss this text as a command that cannot possibly be taken literally. But I intend to challenge us to look carefully at this statement and not be so eager to dismiss it, because Jesus calls it a requirement for being a disciple: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
What on earth did Jesus mean when he said that we should “hate” our fathers, mothers, wives, children, brothers and sisters – even our own lives? There is no doubt that this is a difficult text. When studying a difficult text, it’s important to first look at the context. Jesus is teaching about discipleship, specifically the costs associated with discipleship. The focus of his teaching here is not family life, per se. But he is teaching something important, something that I believe is absolutely vital for families to understand, about how followers of Christ are to relate to our families.
I think to begin to understand how the verb miseo (“hate”) is being used here, we need to look at how it is used elsewhere in Scripture. From Scripture, we can see three possible meanings for this verb miseo:
- malicious and unjustified feelings about others, for example when Jesus said in the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22)
- righteous indignation against something which is evil, as when Paul refers to his hatred of his own sin: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
- Jesus is obviously not commanding us to maliciously hate our fathers, mothers, wives, children, brothers or sisters any more than he is commanding us to maliciously hate our own lives. The Scriptures are very clear that children are to honor and obey their parents. It’s one of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:12)! And Jesus reiterated it as well:
1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:1-9)
Jesus is criticizing here a scheme that some Jewish leaders had concocted to avoid caring for their parents in their old age by tagging the funds they would have used for their parents’ care as “given to God.” Jesus exposes this practice as a shameful loophole to avoid showing honor to their parents.
Paul taught in Ephesians 5 and 6 how husbands, wives and children are to relate to each other. Husbands are commanded to love their wives,“as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)
Jesus also taught that we are to love our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37) – and even our enemies (Luke 6:27). So, clearly, we are to love our families.
So, we’ve ruled out the first two possible definitions. The first is a malicious hate and the second is more of a righteous indignation against sin. Both are clearly not what Christ is referring to here.
One of my favorite former seminary professors, Dr. Dwight Pentecost, put it this way:
“When God said he loved Jacob, He was not expressing His emotion, but rather his will; God meant He had chosen Jacob. His statement of hatred of Esau was not a manifestation of His emotion but rather of His will; He meant he had set Esau, the first-born, aside. To love, then, is to choose or to submit to. To hate is to refuse to submit to the authority of another. To be disciples of Christ, people must reject every other authority and be solely under the authority of Christ. Unless they are willing to do so, they cannot be Christ’s disciples. Further, they must hate their own life, that is, they must set aside their own wills and accept the will of Christ for their life. Otherwise, they cannot be Christ’s disciple.”
This setting-aside of the authority of our family for the authority of Christ can take a couple of different forms.
- There may be times, sadly, when following Christ does result in a break in family relationships. This doesn’t happen too much in the U.S., although I do know of some instances in which it has been the case. My wife Cristi and I have a friend who was told in college by his wealthy, atheistic parents that continuing to profess the name of Christ would lead to him being disowned and disinherited. Sam is still a believer, and he isn’t in his parents’ will. Cristi saw numerous examples of families who were separated by the cross when she was a missionary in the predominately Muslim country of Albania. There, it was commonplace for new followers of Christ to be disowned by their families.
- But, more often than not in the U.S. (and particularly in the Bible belt and the suburbs), this simply means not allowing our families themselves to become idols that separate us from Christ.
Some examples of how our families can become idols:
- Parents who nurture their children, but not their relationship with the Lord or their marriage, for 18-plus years, and then get divorced when the children are grown because they have nothing else.
- Parents who seek the approval of their children more than the approval of the Lord, so they fail to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
- Families who will spend a fortune on nice vacations to spend quality time together, and then claim to not have time or money to send their kids on a short-term mission trip. How about taking a mission trip together as a family, and forgoing the vacation?
- Men who abdicate their God-given responsibility to be the spiritual leaders of their home, settling for father of the year instead. It’s a lot harder to plan a family devotion than a family excursion.
- Church singles ministries in which seeking a spouse becomes a higher priority than seeking the Lord. My wife and I were single until we were 35, and those single years were amazingly productive times of ministry for both of us. Family life is a huge blessing, but is also very demanding.
- Families who would rather spend quality time together as a family at nights and on weekends than being on mission in our neighborhoods, looking for opportunities to engage those around us with the gospel. As a result, we don’t even know our neighbors.
I remember my first flight with my wife and my daughter after becoming a dad. For the first time, I really thought about the flight attendant’s instructions about parents placing the oxygen mask on themselves first, and then on their children. They know that parents who are struggling to breathe can’t adequately care for their children. There is an appropriate priority that will give both the parents and the children the best chance of survival.
Similarly, God has designed the universe such that everything works better (including family relationships) when His glory is our singular priority.
“The enjoyment of [God] is our highest happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.”
What needs to change to promote His glory and His lordship in your home and family today?
Keller, Tim., Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), xvii.
Pentecost, J. Dwight., The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 332.
Edwards, Jonathan., “The Christian Pilgrim” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 17, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, ed. Mark Valeri (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 437-438.
Posted on April 14, 2012