The Idols of a Mother’s Heart
Note: This article now appears in Desiring God’s free ebook Mom Enough, available in three electronic formats, as well as paperback.
When you are upset because you can’t do something you’ve wanted to do, it might be because that thing has become an idol in your heart.
I said these words one afternoon in response to one of my kids who was frustrated because I had taken away his highly valued time on the computer. We then talked about how idols are not always easy to recognize and that our emotional responses can sometimes be an indicator of what’s going on in our heart.
Idols Specific to Motherhood
John Piper says that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” We were made to love and worship God. When he isn’t the longing of our heart and the source of our satisfaction, we seek to fill our bellies somewhere else. Instead of filling the God-shaped hole in our heart with enjoyment of him, we fill it with love for things, experiences, desires, and responses from others.
We often think of an idol as a manmade object that a person bows down and worships. An idol is really anything that we love more than God. It consumes our thinking and energies. It’s something that is so central to our life that if we didn’t have it, we would be devastated.
There are unique idols to motherhood. If you are a mother, you may recognize many or all of these:
Affirmation: This idol can include being affirmed by friends and family, and even by strangers, that our children are “so well behaved” or “so talented.” Pride then bubbles up in our heart. And when we don’t get those kinds of responses, or even receive the opposite, we are discouraged and frustrated. We also can seek affirmation through our children; their love for us can become an idol.
Children: Our children in and of themselves can become idols. It can start with even the desire to have children. It can become an all-consuming longing, becoming more important in our life than God. Once we have children, they can become idols when we live for them and always try to make them happy. We can seek to find our fulfillment in and through them. When they don’t respond to us as we expect or fail us in some way, we are devastated.
Success: We want our children to be successful because it is a reflection on us. We may press them endlessly to excel. We may have in our mind an image of what our “perfect family” looks like, and until we have it, we feel like a failure. If our children have limitations in some way, this may shatter our dreams as well.
Control: Being in control of all the details of life is a big idol for many moms. We sanitize little hands, keep them away from other kids with runny noses, and try to plan ahead for any unexpected event. We spend our days trying to orchestrate every detail of our life and our children’s life. But because nothing is actually in our control, we become anxious, worried, and agitated when things don’t go as planned.
These are not the only idols a mother can have. In fact, the options for idol-making are endless. As John Calvin so memorably said, our hearts are idol-making factories. The question is not whether our hearts are manufacturing idols, but which ones.
Toppling Our Idols
I’ve worked with my children on identifying idols by having them cut out words and images of things that a person could love more than God. They glued those images into a heart shape on a drawing of a person I had done. We’ve done this activity a few times because it is helpful for them to see how much we fill our hearts with things other than God. One time, my son drew a frown on his person’s face and said, “He is sad. All these things he loves haven’t made him happy.”
As moms, finding our own idols can take some effort. Like weeds, they may have twisted themselves around our heart, burrowing down deep into the recesses and crevices. They may have become such a part of our heart that they we have trouble recognizing them.
We have to pray that God would reveal the idols in our heart and help us to see and recognize them. Sometimes it helps to be aware of our emotional responses to the circumstances in our life. How do we react when our children let us down? How do we respond when we don’t receive the affirmation from others that we desire? When God brings an idol to our attention, we have to humbly acknowledge our sin, repent, and turn away from them.
Turning away from our idols doesn’t mean only turning away; we then have to turn toward something else. And that something else is the great Someone: Jesus. As Tim Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods,
Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol. That is what will replace your counterfeit gods. If you uproot the idol and fail to “plant” the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back. (172)
We can’t simply try harder to avoid idols. We can’t just resolve to resist them. We have to focus our hearts on Jesus’s person and work. He must be the source of our satisfaction. We aim to desire him above all else. We want to dwell, meditate, and saturate our hearts with the truth of God’s love and grace for us through the shed blood of Christ on our behalf. The more we rest and trust in the gospel, the more our love for Christ grows until it overflows, drowning and washing away the idols in our heart.
Has motherhood revealed idols in your heart? How can love for Christ uproot those idols?