The Curse of the Standard Bearers: When Idolatry Masquerades as Love by Norm Wakefield
The burden in my heart has compelled me to seek the Lord in how to minister to the growing number of families who are suffering the devastating effects of what I’ll call The Curse of the Standard Bearers. This is no infrequent problem. Although I know of hundreds of tragic accounts, perhaps from heaven’s perspective, there are tens of thousands. There may be dozens of relationships within your own circle of friends, church, or community which are not what they appear. All seems well on the surface, but if you could see what God sees, you would see these people need your love, encouragement, and prayers. Thousands suffer in isolation and fear from the curse of the Standard Bearers.
My heart goes out to the sincere, committed parents who are suffering disappointment, discouragement, hurt, alienation, and embarrassment from their children for whom they once had great faith and hope. Ten years ago they would never have thought their family relationships would be so dysfunctional and hurtful. Additionally, the stress from fear of how to explain it to their friends haunts them. They either are helplessly silent or hardened to the guilt of gossip. The misery, fear, and burden they bear must be overwhelming.
Equally, I empathize with the children of these parents, who in their heart of hearts, long to have a deep, meaningful, loving relationship with their parents. They want to honor, love, and gain the approval of their parents perhaps as much as their parents want the best for their children. Like their parents, there’s no righteous way to talk about it to observant friends without sinning (gossip). Only those who have suffered the same dynamics in relationships can completely understand the frustration, bitterness, hurt, and torment.
My prayer is that this series of articles will be used of God to bring light into the darkness and liberation for the glory of God. May God bring a spirit of revival as relationships with both God and family members are reconciled.
In this article I plan to explain what I mean by my title. Then I’ve picked two testimonies out of hundreds to illustrate the dynamics to which many of you can relate or observe (one which I’ll share in this article and another in the next). As I go, I’ll try to explain the curse that has brought about such destruction. We know Satan has his hands in this kind of tragedy, and we need to know his schemes. Otherwise it continues, and others will fall into the same trap. In the following articles, we’ll see the destructive attitudes and actions more clearly. Learning how to apply the gospel to these dynamics will be emancipating. Hopefully we’ll discover how both parents and children may be set free from the curse, be healed and reconciled, and glorify God. At first, this may be a little painful, but I encourage those of you who are hurting that there is hope ahead. So let’s begin with some explanations.
Who has control of the keys?
Tim Russert, moderator and managing editor of Meet the Press, included a powerful story contributed by Merabeth Lurie in his book, Wisdom of our Fathers. Her seven-year old little brother, Jim, liked to watch and “help” his father as he made such things as chandeliers from old wagon wheels and unusual light fixtures from copper bulbs that float in toilet tanks. While his dad was at work, Jim would use his tools to make his own creations, but wouldn’t put them back in their rightful place many times.
After telling Jim the importance of putting things back, his dad decided to build a small tool chest where he could keep his best tools so Jim couldn’t get to them. As Jim’s dad worked on the chest, Jim watched and helped excitedly. When the lock was being installed, Jim asked, “What’s that?” To which his dad replied, “It is a lock, so that in order to get tools from the chest you have to open it with a key.”
Jim got a strange look on his face, looked up at his father, and asked, “Who will have the key, Dad?”
His dad paused for a moment, considered the look on his son’s face, and wisely and lovingly said, “There will be just two keys, Jim. One for you and one for me.”
What are you communicating about relationship?
Jim’s dad wisely chose to yield his right to control his tools and set aside his standard of order to communicate value and love to his son. The workshop might be messier, but he had the heart and respect of his son – a small price to pay for a rewarding relationship with a special person in his life. Had Jim’s dad valued the standard of neatness and orderliness above showing his son respect by allowing him control of the key to the chest, he would have “cursed” his relationship with his son.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the wisdom and love that Jim’s dad had for him. Many family members communicate rejection, shame, and judgment by controlling all the keys of life for those they say they love and want to bless. They think they know what’s best for those for whom they are responsible (and they might), and with sincerity and good-intentions demand the right to control all the keys. Without realizing it, in the name of righteousness and love, they place upon them the curse of the Standard Bearers.
Who are the Standard Bearers, and why such a strange descriptive title? I use the term standard because sincere, religious people usually have many standards they consider important to secure significance, praise, and reputation before God and man. Everyone has some standards they practice, but the issue in this article is the level of importance and significance people place on those standards.
I use the term bearers because that is the image they bear to others: Living by certain standards is a true sign of righteousness and spiritual maturity. Others often think of them as almost perfect or Christ-like in their talk and appearance being impressed with the way they live for Jesus. But there is a subtle, yet significant difference between someone living for Jesus and Jesus living in them. Unfortunately, the emphasis of a Standard Bearer rests on the standards rather than relationship.
Standard Bearers have an inconsistent application of God’s character toward His creatures. For instance, when trying to convince a non-standard bearer of his need to change, they communicate that God is very stern. Yet when they deal with their own sin, they apply the view that God is forgiving and gracious. There’s a disconnect between how they think God sees the sins of others not like them and how He sees their sin.
A True Image Bearer
In contrast, a True Image Bearer focuses on relationship with Jesus and has one aim: to be a conduit of the life and love of Jesus Christ for the glory of God and to lead others to experience the same blessing of such a powerful, love-engulfed, grace-filled relationship. Although his life is lived with standards perhaps similar to a Standard Bearer’s, the root and motivation of his life is different – he recognizes his lifestyle as a gift of grace through his relationship with Jesus. The true image of Jesus wasn’t a life focused on standards, but a life focused on a relationship with His Father in heaven.
Consequently, a True Image Bearer doesn’t demand that others live by standards to gain approval, encouragement, and affirmation. They’re more interested in the process of relationship with the Holy Spirit for others. People who live in close company with a True Image Bearer know that if they were to disappoint them or have another view, they would still be respected and valued.
True Image Bearers respect the Holy Spirit and His right to move, transform, and convince others. They apply the power of the cross-work of Jesus to those who haven’t seen the light they have and consider the judgment of others a holy responsibility for Jesus alone. They don’t think the Christian life is “living for Jesus”, but instead it is “Jesus living in them” (Gal. 2:20). When people are around a True Image Bearer, they usually sense the love and presence of Jesus.
Often Standard Bearers think they are True Image Bearers because they have good feelings about themselves due to their commitment to standards. To them commitment to standards is the expression of their love for Jesus. However, they are not unlike the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who viewed themselves as the “separated ones.” In their zeal to be distinct in a complex, godless Greek culture, they established oral traditions (standards) and considered them not only equal to the written Law, but more important. Their judgment of others and lack of love, forgiveness, and grace was condemned by Jesus repeatedly. A True Image Bearer would not look down his nose at, avoid, or judge those who don’t hold to his or her standards. Instead, he lives in freedom and prays for and encourages others to treasure relationship with Jesus.
The curse of the Standard Bearers
Let me introduce you to Marty, an individual whose life illustrates the curse of the Standard Bearers.
Almost overnight, Marty’s life changed. His parents decided to become associated with other homeschooling families whose goal was to raise children with godly character. With the new direction for the family came more responsibilities and expectations from his parents. He already felt smothered by their efforts to make him into the type of young person who would give them a good reputation among their peers, but with the change came a tidal wave of standards and goals he felt were impossible to meet.
Marty didn’t make it easy for them. In fact, he questioned them constantly as to why they had to live by all these standards of dress, social etiquette, grooming, facial expressions, entertainment, courtship, attitudes, education, and food. His honest questions brought accusations of rebellion and disrespect, which were not his intentions. Eventually, the conflict became so great that in order to protect their reputation, Marty’s parents sent him to live and work with an uncle, hoping God would eventually open his eyes to see the blessing he was rejecting.
Marty’s well-meaning parents were Standard Bearers. Without realizing it, self-ambition (lust for significance and success) and an idolatrous love of man’s approval gained ascendancy within their hearts. The curse of the Standard Bearers rested upon them and all the relationships for which they felt responsible. Unwittingly, they looked to standard bearing as the solution to parenting Marty and to gaining significance and acceptance for the whole family. Instead of demonstrating a life lived in a relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit and leading Marty to do the same, they were caught in the enticing trap of a form of religion. They quickly learned what standards were acceptable and not acceptable among those with whom they wished to connect and then commanded obedience from Marty.
At age fifteen and living at home, Marty knew he should obey his parents, but they never led him to deal with his heart relationship with God. Consequently, the parent-child relationship was always about responsibility and expectations. It’s no wonder that Marty felt unloved, controlled, and unvalued. Living by rules and standards cannot build relationships based on God’s love and grace. A form of outward obedience may occur, but liberty and love that comes from the Holy Spirit’s work internally is overlooked.
Until Marty has a relationship with Jesus, his parents must teach, train, and demand honor and obedience (Eph. 6:1-4). However, once the Holy Spirit indwells him, Marty should be taught to walk by the Spirit in relationship with the heavenly Father. As Jesus told his disciples, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). As a son starts to walk by the Spirit, an earthly father should encourage his son’s decision-making and guidance to come from a personal relationship with the heavenly Father, not himself. To the degree that the father makes the decisions and dictates the lifestyle of his believing son, to that degree he hinders his son’s spiritual life. A father’s role should decrease just as John the Baptist’s role decreased when Jesus appeared (John 3:30).
Doesn’t this break your heart?
Many churches and hundreds of families have been destroyed by this curse. It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider the glorious testimony to the grace and glory of the cross for a Standard Bearer to be honest and confess their idolatry and the sins of control, rejection, slander, and shame. It would glorify God, bring healing to the relationship, and teach the rest of the Standard Bearers what standard is really worth bearing: the life and image of Jesus Christ. Forgiving, loving, and forbearing with others as we trust God and encourage them to follow the Holy Spirit sets people free to find themselves through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Outward conformity to standards to achieve public praise and approval cannot please God.