Most days I spend as a referee. I intervene in squabbles and arguments. I settle disputes. At times, I even prevent all-out wars. And on really bad days, I cast off my referee’s striped garb and jump into the ring myself, arguing right alongside my kids.
If you have children, it’s likely that you are a referee as well. You might have even resorted to wearing a whistle and calling out penalties. Maybe you’ve thought to yourself, “What is going on around here?” and “Why is there so much conflict?”
The Idols of our Hearts
James speaks about the quarrels and fights we have in James 4:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people!” (4:1-4)
What is the source of all our fights and quarrels, even those in our own homes? Our idolatry. We fight with one another because of the idols in our heart. This is true for our children as well.
An idol is anything we love and serve more than God. It doesn’t have to be constructed of wood or stone, as the idols spoken of in the Bible. The idols we most likely worship are things, success, money, affection, control, and the like. For our children, their idols might be fun, friends, toys, video games, being liked, and succeeding in sports or academics. Tim Keller defines idolatry as: “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship” (from Counterfeit Gods, pages xvii-xviii).
Our arguments and conflicts stem from these idols. James says that we see that others have what we want and so we fight to obtain it. Or perhaps someone gets in between us and our idol. Maybe someone threatens to take away our idol. This causes us to fight and argue and to defend what we hold dear.
Getting to the Heart
As a referee, I get caught up in trying to stop the argument or conflict and fail to address the underlying issue behind the problem. Idolatry is a heart issue. Simply calling a truce or timeout or calling out penalties won’t get to the root of the problem. Those same fights and quarrels will just start up again another day. That’s because idolatry has a grip on all our hearts. As John Calvin said, our hearts are idol making factories.
In order to effectively address the conflicts in our homes, we need to see the real issues behind the conflict. We need to get to the heart of the matter. Our children’s hearts. Our hearts. We need to pray and ask the Spirit to make us aware of the idols we worship. We need to pray for the Spirit to do the same work in our children. We need to pray for wisdom to work with our children in discussing these idols and what they mean to them. We need to confess and repent of our idolatry. Then we need to turn to Christ and replace the idol with greater love for him. We need to reorder our desires or passions so that Christ is our greatest desire and love.
James 4 puts it this way, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:7-10).
We need to turn to the gospel of grace in humility, acknowledging our need for Jesus. Only by the grace of Christ and the work of his Spirit in us, can we ever hope to remove the idols of our heart. The same is true for our children.
So the next time you find yourself calling a timeout because of a fight or quarrel in your house, stop and consider what might really be happening. What idols lie beneath the conflicts in your home?