Uprooting the Idols in Our Families

"Robyn" was ready to give up on her marriage of nearly 50 years. Her husband was a highly successful lawyer, but an unhappy husband. He had become overly critical, nitpicking Robyn’s wardrobe, hairstyle, vacation plans, and housekeeping. As she unpacked their story, a pattern emerged around her husband. Family vacations were meticulously planned with the hopes of being perfect, only to fall short of the impossible expectations. Children were held to high standards and then pushed away when they (inevitably) disappointed. Robyn’s husband craved perfection in everything and in everyone, and when perfection didn’t happen, he became depressed, critical, and angry.

Idols take God's place

He is not alone; Robyn’s husband is all of us. Rooted at the center of his heart--at the center of our hearts--is a longing for approval, for acceptance, for contentment, for security. These are ultimately things that only God can give us. When we look to other things or people to give them to us, the Bible says that we have made an idol. We often view idolatry as a relic of primitive cultures, but in fact, it is the fundamental problem of the human heart. And, idolatry almost always involves setting something good (but not God) at the center of our hearts. Something good that is taking God's rightful place. Unfortunately, these false gods can never deliver what we are looking for, and we are left angry, bitter, despairing, and unsatisfied.

Common idols we hold

In family life, identifying our idols--those things we trust for happiness, security, and meaning--can be a significant step in dealing with conflict and brokenness in our homes. Consider the following examples.

  • Sex & intimacy: When we assume that fixing our sex life (by spicing it up, by having sex more often, by using pornography) will deliver happiness or self-confidence, or, when we believe that if our spouse was more emotionally supportive, more nurturing, or a better listener, we would finally feel whole, we are using intimacy as a means of feeling complete. Our impossible demands will alienate our spouse, and leave us perpetually unfulfilled.
  • Family: Some of us clasp tightly the ideal of a close-knit, conflict-free, successful family as the source of meaning in our lives. We overburden our children by involving them in far too many activities: sports, theatre, music, and academic activities, expecting them to succeed in each one of them. Their failures will not only disappoint us, they will crush us. We will hold our children too closely, making it impossible for them to emotionally or physically leave us.
  • Money and wealth: Budgeting and setting financial priorities is a wise practice. But in a consumer-driven and materialistic world, we trust in our wealth for security for the future and happiness in the present. Even as our income grows, we become stingy, refusing to spend money on things that may be important. We fight with our spouse more and more over finances. We tell ourselves if we just secured that next promotion, bought that newer car, moved into a bigger house, then we’d finally be happy – but happiness is always just over the horizon.

There are many more idols lurking in our hearts; how can you smash the idols that may be causing conflict in your home? Imagine idols as weeds in your garden.

Identify the weeds in your heart

What are you looking to for happiness, hope for your future, security, comfort when you are distressed? One of the ways we identify our idols is by recognizing those things that make us exceptionally angry or depressed when we don’t have them or when we lose them. It also helps to recognize “if-then” thinking. On what do I tell myself that my happiness depends? Weeds often look like good crops – and so do idols. Money, sex, family, intimacy – these are all good things, until they crowd out what matters most.

Dig to the Root

I had to teach my children early on that it was not enough to simply remove the leaves of the weeds in our garden; they had to pull them up by the roots. So it is with our idols. It’s not enough to identify our idols; we must seek the root. If you recognize that money is your idol, what lies at the root? Money can be used to gain their approval, or it may be used for security. Money may be the idol, but approval and security are the roots. Sex may be a way that you seek ultimate joy. At the root of our worship of sex lies the root of our need for happiness. Dealing with our idols requires that we dig to the heart-desire behind our idols and ask God to uproot them and establish his throne.


We cannot merely suppress our idols, or restrain our desire for them. We must remove the root, and ultimately, “plant” something new in our hearts. Paul summarizes how we are to live godly lives by writing in Colossians 3:15 that we are to “let the peace of Christ rule our hearts.” Dethroning our idols happens when we look to Jesus for what only he can give us. Jesus alone can give us the security that we long for. Jesus is the perfection that we cannot find in ourselves or in others. Jesus is the joy that is unmatched by anything in this world. When we recognize our idols, and what we are seeking from them, we need to let the gospel penetrate into our hearts, meditating upon the security we have in Jesus, the comfort that comes from knowing him, the fulfillment that he affords us. The peace of Christ should rule our hearts!

The prayer of the hymn writer James L. Nicholson from 1872 still rings true:

Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul;
Break down every idol, cast out every foe—

Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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