What My Gigantic Family Picture Taught Me About Idolatry

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I ordered family pictures last night, the ones I wrote about the other day. As promised, I enlarged one to gigantic proportions: 16 X 24. I pulled out the tape measure to be sure. 16 X 24 is big.

I also ordered smaller prints for grandparents and made a photobook for Justin and I. It was 40% off. I’m a modern day virtuous woman.

Anyway, it was late and I was reviewing my order and thinking of the gigantic print in my cart and thinking about what I’d written about family pictures being altars, and I realized that for a lot of people, and maybe (maybe) for me, they were definitely altars but not altars to God.

I realized these pictures, framed in gold, hanging above the fire place, bound in beautiful leather books are sometimes altars to another god we worship—our families.

I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t you go there. You just convinced me my family pictures are evidence of love for my family and a reminder of my blessings. I’ve gone and booked a photo shoot and ordered twenty prints of the kids’ baby pictures, and it’s all non-refundable.

Sorry.

It’s just that the more I mull it over, the more I think family is the “good” Christian’s go-to mistress, our honorable idol.

Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods says, “A counterfeit god [idol] is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”

Two weeks ago my parents drove my girls from Alabama to Texas and, praying John Wesley’s covenant prayer the morning of their trip, I became convinced they were going to die in a car accident.  I came to the words, “I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal” and quite suddenly I broke. I cried like a fire hose, explosive.  My shoulders shook, my face crumpled. Because I didn’t want God to “dispose” of my kids.

Nobody does, I know, but the way my flesh took over like that, the reflex crying and the lump in my throat and the pain in my gut, all those aches pointed to a problem. If I couldn’t imagine a future without my kids, maybe, just maybe, I’d made them into gods. 

Keller says, “We look to our idols to provide us a sense of confidence and safety… to provide us with value and a sense of beauty, significance, and worth.” And I think of the pride I take in being London’s mom when her manners are impeccable or in being Eve’s mom when she says something crazy-witty nobody can believe just came out of a four year old’s mouth. Or in being Justin’s wife when he preaches a sermon and I cry it’s so true and beautiful. And while these thoughts might be innocent, I wonder if sometimes they aren’t idolatrous.

If we’re not careful we can begin to think our family is what’s best about us, our greatest work, and if that’s true we’ll make their happiness and success our ultimate pursuit.

We’ll chase after their “good” so hard we’ll find ourselves yelling at a little league coach or gossiping about a teacher or buying expensive clothes and bows and light-up shoes. 

We might whine on Facebook when our kids forget their lunch boxes at the house and we have to drive home to get them and then drive back to school, but inside we feel needed and important and indispensable.

We’ll smile deep down in our hearts when our husbands say, “What would we do without you?”

And that’s not okay.

Here’s the thing about making our families our gods: Families make terrible gods. Our kids and our spouses can never provide all we need. They will disappoint and disrespect and betray and reject and abandon.

They can’t help it. They’re not God.

Sometimes, when my kids smile or sing me a song or brush my hair and tell me how beautiful and kind I am, I think, “This is it. This is all I need.” Or when my husband tells me what a good mom I am, I think “This makes it all worthwhile.” 

But then a day goes by and my kids are terrors and they tell me they wish they could move in with Lolo and Papa and Justin comes home and doesn’t notice I’ve spent the entire day washing the sheets. And I realize, angry and empty, “I need more.”

In Deuteronomy, the children of Israel call out to God in need, and God says, just before rescuing them from their suffering,“Now where are their gods, the rock they took refuge in, the gods who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offerings? Let them rise up to help you! Let them give you shelter!” And as I read those words I think of the times I’ve turned to my family for help in dark times instead of turning to God—planning a family date night or a trip to Sea World or a bike ride in the park—and realize how stupid I’ve been. All of those things are beautiful and enjoyable as gifts from a loving Creator, but as last ditch efforts to wring peace and joy from the fabric of my family, they prove disastrous. 

Think National Lampoon’s Vacation. Or Beloved.

Families are ripped apart like a shirt torn from four corners when everyone expects too much of everyone else.

Like a plague, idolatry lays waste to everything in its path. It leaves the idol worshipper empty, unsatisfied and unsaved, and it crushes the idol under the weight of the worshipper’s need.

God never buckles under the weight of our problems. He fills and satisfies and saves.

When God cautions His people not to trust in idols, He isn’t like a jealous spouse, hoping His mate doesn’t find something better. He knows there is no something better, and He wants to protect His people from the disappointment and emptiness they’ll find elsewhere. 

So back to the pictures. There I was staring at a cart full of beautiful images, worried I’d end up making the wrong kind of altar. I wanted to celebrate my family and thank God for the blessing of two bright girls and one wise partner, and at the same time, I wanted to insure that I would never, ever look at those pictures without looking for God. 

And then an epiphany…

I went back to the photobook I’d made and started over. On every other page I typed my favorite passages of scripture, verses to remind me who made my family and for what purpose. 

On the cover I wrote, “Praise be to the Lord, for He showed me the wonders of His love.”

And now, every time I see my family smiling back at me from the coffee table, I’ll see the words “wonders of His love” above our heads, and I’ll remember Who to praise.