Parenting and the Idol of Control

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“You remembered to wash your hands, right?” I asked, looking up to my son, who now towers nearly a foot above me.

He looked at me with a “You’re kidding, right?” kind of look but responded, “Yes, Mom.”

The moment the words came out of my mouth I recognized them for what they were. To anyone else, they might sound like the words of a concerned mother. Or of a mom who has forgotten her kids are no longer little and dependent upon her.

But I knew from whence they came and what they signified.

The Idol of Control

Have you ever dealt with a sin only to have it pop up again when you least expect it?

My relationship with the idol of control is like that. It comes in and out of my life, making an appearance when I’m distracted and looking elsewhere—usually in times of stress. Most of the time, I assume I’m freed of its influence. But like a weed left unattended in a garden, when it appears, it soon spreads its way across my heart.

When my children were young, the idol of control was a constant companion. I turned to it time and time again to deal with all my parenting worries and fears. I looked to it for help when I didn’t know how to navigate early motherhood. I trusted in it when my children battled chronic asthma and the doctor’s office was like a revolving door and we were on a first name basis with the pharmacy staff.

Since those early years of motherhood, the Lord has worked in my life and heart. The light of God’s word streamed into the dark recesses of my heart, seeking out hidden idols. The Spirit taught me to identify these counterfeit gods and see their true weakness—that they have no power to rescue and save. I learned to uproot them and replace them with love for Christ.

Until the pandemic appeared.

The idol of control found me again this spring, laboring over plans for our family. As our family’s master organizer, business manager, and schedule keeper, I take my job seriously. I enjoy making plans and look forward to them coming to fruition. When the pandemic arrived, one by one, all my carefully laid plans were cancelled. A long-awaited family trip. A son’s first mission trip. Summer camp for one son. An epic once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trip for the other. Each time I broke the news to my teens, I felt control slip from my grasp. Though I know intellectually anything I plan is governed by God’s providence and control, functionally, I live as though my plans stand firm. Even though the act of writing something in a calendar cannot ensure it comes to pass, I quickly realized I live as though it does.

The idol of control also revealed itself as all those old fears about my children’s health reemerged. A pandemic isn’t good for anyone and certainly not for those with asthma. When my kids were young, I could make sure they kept their hands clean. I had control over what they did and who they interacted with. These days, it is harder, especially now that much of normal school life has returned, including team sports. My desire for control grows strong in the face of a fast-spreading virus. I find myself asking, “Did you wash your hands?” “Did you physically distance?” “Have you been using your inhaler every day?”

The idol of control is a sneaky sin. It’s not such an obvious sin, as bowing down to a god crafted of wood or stone. This idol is often shaped out of good and important things. A mother’s concern for her child. A desire to be safe and healthy. The goal of being organized. These are all good things, but they become  idols when our heart trusts in them rather than in the only God who alone can rescue and save. Because the idol of control hides behind such good things, it quietly advances its way into the deepest corners of our hearts, burrowing deep roots.

Identify, Uproot, and Turn from the Idol of Control

Idolatry is ultimately a posture the heart. It’s what we yield our hearts to. It’s what we look to for hope, life, and meaning. And just like any other sin, we must take drastic measures against it.

First, we need to identify the idol of control. A good question to ask is: To what or whom do I turn to when I need help and hope, rescue and deliverance? For me, I often turn to methods, research, lists, schedules, and routines. I trust in those things to make my life better and give me peace. I yield my heart to that idol—it becomes my functional savior—rather than turning to God to give me the true help and hope I desperately need.

Another question to ask is: How do I respond when the idol I trust in doesn’t work? When my idols fail me, it feels like I’ve lost control. I grow increasingly tense and anxious. I reach out in desperation and grasp at anything I think might work.

God in his grace sometimes put obstacles in our path so we cannot access our idols (Hosea 2:6-7). This helps us stop in our tracks and realize we are chasing after a false god. Other times, he simply shows us how weak and powerless they are. We are left emptyhanded with nowhere else to turn. That’s when we return to our first love in repentance. To repent is to turn away from our sin. This is impossible on our own, but only through the Spirit’s power at work in our heart. He does the deep work of revealing our idols to us, convicting us, and prompting us to repent. He shows us our need for the gospel to cleanse us from all sin.

But we can’t uproot the idol of control and expect it to disappear. Like weeds, idols are prone to reappear. That’s why we have to turn from our idols to something else—to Someone else. We have to replace that idol with increasing love for our Savior. We do so when we look to Christ as the Source of our life and hope. We do so as we grow in our knowledge of who Christ is and what he has done. We do so as we relish his great love for us in the gospel. We do so as we recognize that he alone is our rescuer and deliverer. Christ is our life.

Crises, such as a pandemic, often bring idolatry into the light. In times of stress, we are prone to look for help and rescue in false gods. When we see the idol of control sneaking its way into our hearts, may we be quick to grasp it by the roots and turn instead to the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

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