Can Children Become Idols?

By Blogger Dr. Karin Heller

Karin,

I was really struck by one of the things you said in class Friday night and I have been going over it in my mind ever since.  I won’t be able to quote you exactly, but you made reference that to put the love of your husband, and even children before the love of Christ is considered idolatry. To me,  it feels wrong to put the love of anyone, thing, entity, God, Christ, before the love of my children.  My children were given to me by God, and as such it seems that he would want me to love them completely.  I’m feeling tremendously guilty for feeling that way as I never thought of the love I have for my children as idolatry.  Did I misunderstand the meaning in the lecture?  Am I committing one of the worst possible sins by loving my children in this way?  That seems wrong to me.

Kindest Regards,

– Amanda

Dr. Karin Heller

Dear Amanda,

No, you didn’t misunderstand me! But here is more about it. The event of Jesus of Nazareth consistently challenges family values, including Jewish values, which were very high. The gospels, in particular, convey to us some hard issues to ponder. These issues are the following ones. Jesus says, “Who prefers father or mother, son or daughter to me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-38) and, “Who comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and his own life, too, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26). The only person NOT mentioned in these lists is the “husband”, because in a patriarchal society where Jesus lived, it was simply NOT conceivable for a woman to leave her husband and follow Jesus, although a husband could!!! No gender equality at this time … But the text makes it clear that parents cannot put their children above Jesus.

In the Catholic tradition we have the case of Saint Joan of Chantal, widow and mother of four children. She founded a religious community, the Order of the Visitation, together with St. Francis of Sales in the 17th century. When she left her home to enter the convent, her youngest son who was 14 years old, is said to have thrown himself over the threshold. His mother stepped over his body. Well, there are situations like these … I had to love God and Christ more than my parents and had to choose between my parents and Jesus! It was very heart breaking, just as heart breaking, I  guess, would be the choice between one’s love for his/her children and Christ. Things may not always turn out as radical as these, especially in a Christian family, where parents and children are united by the same faith and where love is not the effort to transform the other in what “I” want him/her to be, but where love is to set the other free so that he/she can truly become whom God wants him/her to be.

However, marriage and a family always run the risk to end up in mutual idolatry, that’s what the gospels underline! So, if one wants to avoid this temptation, then it’s better to follow Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 and remain single for the sake of Christ! Only 20 years later, in 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul changes mind and becomes more in favor of marriage. Marriage lived out as a way to follow Jesus is a tough thing! I walked on a spiritual journey with a French countess for four years until her death. She struggled a lot over the love her already deceased husband and son. She all put them BEFORE Jesus. Only a dream in which Jesus appeared to her, delivered her from this idolatry and she was 90 at that time! She passed away very peacefully … I was with her eight hours before her death … she had learned to find her beloved ones IN Jesus alone!  Jesus had to be reached first, and then in him she had found her beloved ones, too!

– Karin

Dr. Karin Heller is a professor on the theology faculty at Whitworth University. Her blog, Table Talk with Dr. Karin Heller, features her responses to questions that students have asked her over the years.  Check back each week to see new posts, and if you have a question leave it in the comment section below!

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7 responses to “Can Children Become Idols?

  1. I don’t have children (do dogs count?), and can’t imagine being in Amanda’s position. For those of you who are parents – what’s your response to this?

  2. Hanane Neff-Loutf

    Hello everyone,

    If I was to speak from a Muslim perspective I’ll have to say that love for God is different from love for our children, spouse, parents…
    Once a person realizes the existance of God he or she would probably ask the question why does He exist and why did He created us… If a person is finaly able to answer these two questions he or she will understand that the purpose of life is to worship God (following His commandments, doing good, avoiding evil). Now how do you worship God if you don’t love Him? It’s impossible! Then how can you love God if you hate your kids? Do you think He is going to be pleased with you not loving your own kids? I don’t think so.

    What I want to say is loving your children is a way to love God and we all (parents & children) belong to Him, His love is of a higher status.

    Does the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son inspire in this case?

    Hanane

  3. From Dr. Heller:

    Dogs, or pets in general, too, can become idols. We can put them above God and Christ. In ancient times animals were venerated as domestic and national gods. Today, there are still countries, in India for example, where monkeys, serpents, cats or other animals are veneratred in special areas. Or holy cows in the streets! In Western countries our veneration for animals is less visible. However, when our pet dies, it is often a drama, and we tend to immortalize our pets in different ways! To make an idol out of something is to attribute to a creature immortality and powers we do not have. Animals have powers man does not have. Before we invented the planes in the 19th century, only birds could fly … fish live for years immersed in water … we are not yet at that point …

    We have to learn day by day, not to put creatures over the Creator God!

    Karin Heller

  4. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Tim 5:8

    I tend to think those “Hate” family passages fall into the same category as the “gouge out your eyes” ones…dramatic prophetic words used like cold water to shock and awake the dull of heart and mind.

    Leaving your kids for God is almost always ridiculous religious megalomania in my opinion and pastoral experience.

    Jesus might call folks to periods of training or service for awhile, like soldiers do, but i doubt he would call you to make an orphan and widow to go save orphans and widows. Many families have suffered from kingdom myopic followers that miss the work of God right in front of them.

  5. I think the key word in the discussion is love. To make you children an idol is not to love them more than God,but like the Stage mothers and Helicopter parents, who make an idol of their children, it becomes a warped sense of oppression pretending to be love. We humans are good at making a idol of almost anything ideas about God, singlehood, marriage and our selves all can be turned into idols, but let us not make the mistake of calling this love. As Paul so pointedly says that without love, all these are the worthless. But if I love God with all my heart and mind, since God is love, then I will love of others. Many of have a zero sum understanding of Love, if I love x then I have no more for y, God’s love works differently than zero sum love. If i love Jesus, I am fill with love of all. I make the choice to love my children more, I really misunderstand the very nature of love and God and have neither love for my children or God. Ask the children who had stage mothers or obsessive parents about how oppressive it was to grow up and the truth of what it means to be the center of another’s life really means.

  6. “the truth of what it means to be the center of another’s life really means.”

    Yes, you nailed it with that line.

  7. Ernesto, very well said!
    Over the past ten years of pastoral ministry with families, I have seen what could be described as a “cult of the family,” by which parents emphasize strong family development, togetherness and sacrifice. These principles can be great, but in some situations they come at the expense of those outside the family group. A fair amount of research has been done showing that groups which generate sacrificial action by their members in their relations with one another typically foster a very different pattern of action in relations with outsides. Often, the stronger the sacrificial tendencies in intragroup relations, the weaker such tendencies in intergroup relations.
    Jesus’ call was often most bombastic towards those who had excluded others from a relationship with God; who had taken the blessing they had received and not honored the responsibility to bless others (ala Abraham). Family units often fall into this pattern, especially in our American, nuclear family culture.
    I agree with some other contributors that believe Jesus was dramatically calling attention to issues of which others were ignorant. I don’t believe he is establishing an either/or prescriptive principle.

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