In a previous post, I suggested that our natural tendency is to put other people somewhere along an imaginary line, stretched between the two poles of idolatry and enmity. Whether we nudge someone toward the “idol” pole or the “enmity” pole depends on how nicely or nastily they treat us. The gospel, of course, shatters this self-absorbed enmity-idol continuum and replaces it with radical, risky, faith-filled love.

I would like to apply some insights of this model to the task of Christian parenting.

Looks like love, but isn’t.

It’s obvious when parents are pushing their children toward the “enmity” pole. We see it when a dad barricades himself behind his smart phone instead of talking with his children. We see it when a mom shames her daughter in front of her friends. We see it when parents speak harshly to their children, as if their children were the only thing barring them from a life of bliss and contentment.

But there are no warning lights of blaring sirens when parents begin to nudge our children toward our “idolatry” pole. So childolatry slithers by, completely undetected. Why? Because idolatry often passes as love. Like love, idolatry adores, dotes, and lavishes on its object. Like love, idolatry fiercely guards its object. But there is a sinister difference. At its core, idolatry is merely seeking its own. Idolatry’s “love,” if you can call it that, is like the love of a spider which sucks the life out of its pitiful prey.

Childolatry: Expecting from your child what only God can give

As Christian parents, let us guard against the temptation to expect from our children what only God can provide. Lest childolatry sneak into our hearts, let these questions serve as faithful sentries: Is my affection for my children a sort of grasping, possessive affection? Then it is idolatry, not love. Am I determined to keep my children near me at all costs? to keep my children liking me at all costs? Then it is idolatry, not love. Am I determined that my children make me proud, determined to enjoy the comforts I couldn’t have when I was growing up so I can vicariously relive my childhood through them? Then it is idolatry, not love.

Remember the pivotal difference: idolatry takes; but love gives. Idolatry looks to the child for ultimate happiness. Love looks to God for ultimate happiness, and thus is willing to surrender the child to the only one who can satisfy both parent and child.

The agony of true love

Parenting with true love is an agonizing thing. It means guarding your daughter as if she were your most prized possession, but being willing, when the time comes, to give her up as if you didn’t possess her at all. It means pouring your life into your son, only to prepare him to enter into a deeper relationship to which your status as a parent will be permanently subordinate. I have seen my own parents and parents-in-law pass through this phase with incredible grace and wisdom. I have seen other parents not fare so well. As a parent of young children, I can only imagine what agony this pain-pleasure alloy will be like. Such is the conflicted nature of true parental love in an age when faith and hope are still necessary virtues.

My children bring me great joy. I love cuddling with them, laughing with them, comforting them. But I dare not place on them the crushing burden of being daddy’s idols. That is a weight that no child—no human being—can bear. Only by loving God first can I truly love my children.

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

And parents, keep your children from becoming your idols.