The Family Idols

One of the more important aspects of the book of Genesis is the way in which the Holy Spirit lays bare the inner motives and desires that drive the actions of the members of the patriarchal family. The cameos of the men and women of the covenant family set out, in stark contrast, the antithesis between living life in the flesh and living life in the Spirit, by human effort or by divine promise–by works or by faith. In short, we find, in the patriarchal narratives, the seemingly insatiable quest for safety and satisfaction–interestingly, the very things that God graciously pledged to give Abraham by faith in the coming Christ (Gen. 15:1).

In the patriarchal family we see the father of the faithful handing his wife off to a powerful king (twice!) in order to gain security (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:2). We find him taking his wife’s handmaiden to himself in order to attempt to gain, by human effort, the satisfaction promised by the Covenant God (Gen. 16). We find this same principle at work in the life of his son, Isaac, when he also lied about his wife to protect himself (Gen. 26:7); and again when he chose to show partiality to Esau–the son of Isaac’s flesh who seemed to embody what he wished were true of himself (Gen. 25:28). Additionally, we see it in Jacob seeking to gain the birthright by con-artistry and deception (Gen. 25:29-34; 27:1-29)–another attempt to work for the blessing of God.

While all of these acts are meant to draw our attention to the fact that the promises of God can only be received by faith in the Redeemer, they also warn us about the heart-idolatry that manifested itself in the lives of the patriarchs…even as it often does in our own lives. The essence of this idolatry was seen in the members of the covenant family seeking to find protection and fulfillment in themselves or in their closest of relations rather than in the living God of promise.

This family idolatry is preeminently seen in Leah seeking to win the love of her husband by having children for him and in her sister, Rachel, putting herself in competition with her in order to find satisfaction and fulfillment in bearing children (Gen. 30:1).

In his excellent book on the lives of Isaac and Jacob, Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace, Iain Duguid draws out of the Rachel-Leah saga the fact that idolatry lay at the heart of both women’s race to have children. He writes:

“This is the essence of idolatry: someone or something other than the living God is occupying the God-shaped space at the core of our being. We were created as worshiping beings, people whose meaning and purpose cannot be derived from ourselves but must come from outside us. There is always someone or something other than ourselves on which we have hung our whole identity or self-worth. If we turn our backs on the true God, we inevitably attempt to fill that void with something else. Whatever we must have instead of, or as well as, the God of the Bible, if life is to have meaning for us—that is our idol. For you, it may be health, comfort, wealth, control, the affection of a particular individual, or any of a thousand and one things. Whatever it is, it is an idol. Idols, however, ultimately never satisfy. In reality, a deep relationship with God and God alone is all we need to possess life in all its fullness (see Ps. 27:4–5).”1

This serves as a warning for those of us in the church today. We, no different than they, have hearts that are conditioned and bent toward giving our time, energy and affection to created things and persons–even to those who are our closest of relatives in the home–rather than to the living and true God. The perniciousness of this idolatry is seen in the fact that we can even make idols of our spouse or children in the name of being a good husband or wife, father or mother–all the while justifying our idolatry as if we are doing it as unto the Lord. Throughout the Genesis narrative, the men and women of the patriarchal home are constantly appealing to the name of the God of the covenant while acting with sinful and idolatrous motives (Gen. 27:20; 30:6; 30:13).

There is a very real danger for those who live in the pale of the church to fall into family idolatry in the name of having a model marriage or in being seen as being a good parent.

I sometimes fear that marriages in the church–where the parents are always together in the home with their children–but who are relatively uninvolved in the life of the church on a day-in or day-out basis–may be more driven by an idol of family than by a deep commitment to the Lord. It is no sure mark of godliness that husbands and wives are constantly together, have very few friends outside of marriage and do everything together. It may actually be a mark of the idolatrous quest for security and satisfaction.

Additionally, there is always the danger of chalking idolatrous parenting up to godly parenting. It is not alway easy to discern whether parents in the church have fallen into idolatrous parenting or not. It is far too easy to counterfeit godly parenting with idolatrous parenting. One of the ways to help determine whether or not you have fallen into such family idolatry is to ask yourself how much time do you invest in reading the Scriptures to your children, in praying with and for your children and in having your children involved in the life of the local church in order to shepherd them to Christ. In many serious-minded churches today, rather than investing in those things, the overwhelming amount of time is invested in seeking to find fulfillment in having as many children as possible, in being consumed with researching health matters, in homeschooling and in only spending time with other families in the church that are deeply interested in the same commitments. This is not to say that having many children is idolatry, or that we should not be interested in our children’s health or schooling; but, it is a call to examine whether or not we have fallen into an insidious form of family idolatry or not.

Jesus warned against this form of idolatry when He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37). All of us must examine our hearts to see whether we give more time and affection to our spouse or children than we do to Christ. If we get angry that we are being asked to examine this aspect of our lives in this way then it is probably a mark that we have more family idolatry in our hearts than we would like to admit. The cross frees us from this form of idolatry, even as it does the idolatry of covetousness (Col. 3:5), lust, anger, control, pleasure and false teaching, etc. Jesus died to win the love of His spouse–and to insure that her love for Him would excel, in a superior way, her love to every other relation (even to the relationships in the home during the time of her sojourning here). May God give us grace in Jesus Christ to put to death the idolatry of our family relations for the love, glory and honor of Christ. When we do, we will actually end up loving our spouse and children in a way that will much more effectively teach them to find their greatest love in Christ.

1. Duguid, I. M. (2002). Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace: The Gospel in the Lives of Isaac and Jacob. (T. Longman III & J. A. Groves, Eds.) (p. 82). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

5 Responses

  1. Thomas Hanna

    If you would be open to a bit of a dialogue about this, I would ask you to email me rather than filling up comment sections here. I appreciate your concern in this area and yet I don’t fully agree with the thrust of the article, including the part of about disagreement possibly indicating family idolatry. Hopefully, that is not true of me, but God will be my judge on that one!

    Blessings to you and your ministry! Thank you for serving our great God and Savior!

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