When visiting a number of Reformed churches in the last few months, we’ve noticed a significant trend. These churches are bursting with children—lots of biological children, of course, but also a good number of adopted and even foster kids. This is a great thing, all those kids, even if we are a little extra sensitive, due to our status as Dreaded Infertile Couple. But we’ve gotten used to this baby boom—the infant dedication/baptism/rose-on-the-piano acknowledgements, the romper-room-kindergarten-classroom atmosphere in the sanctuary, the baby showers. And lest we sound too much like curmudgeons, we assure you that God has helped to heal the pain of infertility through the adoptions of our two sons (and used those same two wiggly, loud, preciously infuriating boys to confirm that we were not, ever, meant to be parents of a huge family).
But perhaps this sensitivity to the “normal” family experience of marriage at 21 with five kids by age 30 (five is the new two) has given us some perspective that may have escaped the Normals. It came to me this Sunday while sitting behind a family with six or seven kids and listening to the pastor talk about the things we sacrifice to God’s agenda. He was talking about how the disciples had ambition for the wrong thing—power in an earthly kingdom. He went on to apply that faulty expectation to misplaced ambitions in our lives: wealth, power, and fame. He clarified that these things are not inherently, incurably wrong, and some devoted Christians do indeed gain wealth, power, and fame. But he spoke of the lust for them, the chasing after them, the have-to-have-them, the sum-total-of-my-being, as being the problem. He quoted David Powlison: “good gifts, bad gods.” True, powerful, and convicting words.
And it struck me that those examples—wealth, power, fame—are primarily idolized by men. Sure, women may want some of those things. But more often men fantasize about being the richest guy, the prodigy in their field, wielding power and influencing people, being known and respected. A family may support him off to the side, but he’s longing for the accolades, the respect, the riches. But I found myself, while he described the feelings of idolatry—the sense that this is my whole life, this is what I live for, this is what I dream of, this is what completes me and gives me significance—thinking that, for me, this is family.
This stuff of many women’s fantasies includes an adoring, faithful spouse; attractive, obedient kids; people who depend on you, love you, give you a reason to get out of bed, regularly stand up and sing your praises. And it is idolatry, just like money, power, and fame. It’s the thing that causes the mom in your women’s Bible study to post the 67th picture of her daughter’s birthday party on Facebook. It’s the reason for the magazine-quality family pictures all over the house. It’s why the mother-of-the-bride obsesses about her daughter’s wedding and treats it like a part-time job. It’s (at least in part) why Christmas letters get sent and then end up making their recipients feel mad and competitive.
Gift or God?
What makes it even trickier and more confusing is the value the Bible places on family. It is the building block of a just and moral society. It is a hedge of protection for the traditionally vulnerable children and women. The Bible has much to say about the blessing of a godly spouse and a houseful of children and includes lots of good directives on how to keep those relationships healthy and godly. Parents are charged with the precious task of directing and guiding our children’s hearts towards God, so it is easy to think of family as an unqualified good. “Family values” is practically synonymous with “orthodox Christian.”
If so, then why do I feel so convicted, sometimes, about worshiping at the altar of family?
Isn’t family still a gift, not a god? Isn’t it still something that can be elevated into first place, which should be reserved for God alone? I think we see the problem in our reactions to the hardships of family life—fractured relationships with parents, wayward or difficult children, marriages that are anything less than Christian-movie quality. We take it personally. We feel somehow personally affronted or shafted by God, as though the Perfect Family were our birthright as Christians. And when I say “we,” I mean “I.” It’s a personal battle, waged mostly silently by other families and friends.
Churches encourage our husbands daily to not make idols out of their careers, and to not look at porn. But how are we, as wives, encouraging and exhorting one another not to make idols out of perhaps our greatest gifts: our families?