‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ John 1:12-13
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Luke 12:51-53
Easter is drawing near and many of us will be making a journey back to our childhood homes for family gatherings. For some of us family gatherings bring great joy, but for many singles family gatherings can be hard (see my earlier post on thriving at Christmas). As I have gotten older one of the hardest things for me at these gatherings has been watching my siblings’ lives change through marriage and children while my personal life feels largely the same as it did in college. I have struggled with trying to find my place in the new and continually evolving family structures of in-laws, nieces, nephews and grandparents. I want to take part in conversations around the dinner table but feel like I have little to offer when many conversations largely revolve around children; having them, raising them, schooling them etc. Despite telling myself that ‘this is their life and yours is just different, not less’ a small voice inside my head (the enemy) keeps saying things like ‘you don’t belong here’ or ‘you have failed to do the most basic of things expected of a woman, get married and have children’. And while, thankfully, none of my siblings have ever said anything to me about not being married or why don’t I have kids I still so often feel like I am on the outside looking in.
Last year I spent nearly 30 vacation days in my home country and at the end of the year I felt more tired and discouraged about family after than I did at the beginning. Not only had my holiday been no holiday at all, the family relationships that I struggled with most seemed to be unchanged or worse. Feeling fed up with the whole thing and wanting to see my much prayed for breakthrough, I realised I needed a new perspective. I needed the Lord to show me what I am missing and how I can navigate family relationships without feeling drained, discouraged or alienated. I wanted to know what the Lord had to say and so I asked the Lord to help me think about how is the family portrayed in the Bible and what can I learn from this about my own family and my expectations of them. I also asked Him how can I stay in relationship with difficult family members but not continually get hurt? And finally, what does it mean to part of the family of God and how can this help me in making sense of my biological family?
After much reading, prayer, contemplation and discussion with God, answers emerged and I wanted to share these in this post. A disclaimer though that these are just the answers that came to me, they will not be for everyone or for every season so if they do not resonate with you, please disregard them. It is my intention that they would encourage us to persevere with our biological family and to embrace our identity as members of God’s family, while being true to ourselves and honoring to the Lord.
The Bible shows families as a web of complex relationships with many challenges that leave them in desperate need of the Lord, much like the reality of family for most of us today.
When I started to really look at the families written about in the Bible, I realized that they were not exactly the Hallmark ideal, to put it mildly. Starting with the first family, that of Adam and Eve, in which not only do they lie and blame each other in the Garden but then one of their sons (Cain) kills the other (Abel) in a jealous rage. Hardly a well-functioning family unit!
As we continue through Genesis, and beyond, the stories of Biblical families do not improve. We see conflict between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between siblings, in-laws and everything in between. Many of these conflicts end in someone being killed, or other kinds of violence, including rape. In fact I was hard pressed to find a single family in the Bible in which things went well and in which everyone got along. Even in the story of Ruth and Boaz, often held up as one ideal, we often gloss over the fact that it was Ruth’s second marriage, she was a foreigner and that Boaz’s mother was Rahab, a prostitute. Hardly the story of two people raised in the church, meeting in Bible college and going on to have the perfect family.
In the New Testament, family gets a slightly better treatment but now it is expanded far beyond the nuclear or extended family, now family means all believers. Family membership in the New Testament actually derives from faith rather than biology and all believers are called sons and daughters of God. It is Jesus himself who first makes this distinction and then repeatedly emphasizes this throughout His ministry.
When Jesus leaves his parents as a twelve-year-old and goes to teach in the temple, he replies to their concerns that ‘I must be about my Father’s business’. Later on, when told that his mother and brothers are outside a certain house where he is teaching, he does not say oh quickly bring them in and give them an honored place, no he says whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matt 12:50). Jesus also says in Luke 14:26 that If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple. Then in Mark 10:29-31 Jesus says that no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, along with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. Clearly leaving family for Jesus if it was to follow the Lord, was not only not a problem but it was actually rewarded.
In terms of his disciples we also see family dysfunction, James and John’s mother is pushy and ambitious and tries to get her sons seated at the right and left of Jesus and that the sisters, Martha is in dispute with her sister and asks Jesus to intervene. Again and again throughout the Bible families are not portrayed as places of peace and unity but rather as sites of contestation and character development. At no stage in Jesus’ ministry does he elevate or praise or affirm that the biological family as the primary organizational unit for believers. Rather he continues to exhort believers to remember that through following him they are now part of a new family, the family of God. Paul also continues in this vein and talks at length about what it means to be adopted into the family of God. Paul, like Jesus never marries, has no children and says that he believes that believers are better off to be single, how different things are today in the Western church, where being single is often viewed as a sign of immaturity or some kind signal of deficiency and being married as the ultimate state that all believers should attain.
The Bible is not advocating the neglect or destruction of the family but rather it is to stretch beyond the four walls of the family home. In most non-Western cultures this is not a foreign or strange concept with them phrases such as ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ being a common understanding of community/family. However in the individualistic cultures of Western Europe, North America and Australasia the nuclear family is the unit to be defended and protected at all costs. Pastors are told to put their families first, workers are told to put their family first, in fact the putting of family before anything else has become a widely agreed and accepted norm across all Western cultures, by both Christians and non-Christians alike. However the cost of the elevation or even idolization of the nuclear family has meant that those who are not married and/or do not have children are viewed as having lives that are less important, less mature and of less value. We can see this in the workplace where people can take time off to take a child or spouse to the doctor but not a parent or a friend or a niece or an aunt. By narrowly defining family to parents and children we have by definition excluded everyone else.
From the Bible we therefore learn that firstly there are no perfect families and secondly that the family we, as believers, need to identify with first is the Family of God.
Our expectations of family are therefore unrealistic as they are based on popular cultural understandings and norms and not on the reality of family according to the Bible.
The numerous accounts of family dysfunction that stretch across the entire Bible, coupled with what Jesus says about family, actually made me wonder when did we start expecting that all families should get along, that there should be no issues and that everyone will be kind and loving to each other. When also did we start elevating the nuclear family over our extended family and the family of believers. In the first century church the Book of Acts describes how they were one and shared everything they had (ref).
Today the closest church to living in the way of the early church is the persecuted church. In countries in which believers are not free to worship and have to gather in secret they have returned to a more biblical concept of family, one that is the family of God, inclusive of all believers rather than exclusive to mum, dad and the kids. They care for each other, support each other and provide for each other.
However, in the West, our expectations of a perfect family are shaped, it seems, by popular culture and the media. We all for some strange reason think we should belong to a family like the Waltons, the Brady Bunch or even Malcolm in the Middle. You know, the family where mum and dad are really into each other, dad has a great job, mum might work part time but is totally committed to the kids and they are both so proud of all their children and enjoy simply marvelous times together. Sure there are little spats but everyone talks it out and in the end they all love and care for each other, one little unit against the world. But this is so far from the reality of the majority of families. Further to that I believe that it is this unrealistic and idealistic image of the perfect family that ultimately sets up so many people for disappointment.
This is what makes family gatherings so hard for so many people, married and single alike. We have expectations that fall far short of reality and we carry dreams of close family relationships that are yet to, or may never, materialize. We put so much pressure on ourselves and on family members to behave in perfect, loving ways, mostly without realizing it, that it is inevitable that things crack at the seams when our unrealistic expectations of each other fail to materialize.
If however we had truly looked at families in the Bible and what Jesus said about family then we would realize that if we did indeed experience a conflict free family get together, we would be among the precious few who have. But if we have get togethers that are marked by antagonism, bickering and the like, then we are in fact no different and (assuming a homicide hasn’t occurred) probably still better than most of the families in the Bible. With this in mind we can lower our expectations to something more realistic such as there may be conflict at our next gathering, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I can handle it because God has been in the business of dealing with family conflict literally since the beginning of time.
We can also stop expecting or needing our biological family to fulfil the most important role of family, that is to affirm us and love us unconditionally. When we become believers we are actually adopted into a new family, our real family if you will. At the head of this family is the perfect Father who is always there for us, always loves us and always cherishes us. We have Jesus as our brother, the perfect brother, the closest friend and we have the Holy Spirit living in us to ensure that our relationship with God the Father and God the Son is unbroken and assured. In addition, we have our brothers and sisters in Christ who are there for us as well. All of this enables us to let our biological family of the expectations hook, we can stop trying to make them perfect and pray for them. We can sit back, detach and know that ultimately the Lord will work out his purposes, we can trust our Dad. In the light of the Word of God we become more dependent on the Lord and less on our earthly family.
In order to be able to stay in relationship with the more challenging members of the family I may need to have some time and space away from them but I also need to stay connected.
It is all very well to reduce our expectations of family members and our get togethers but how do we handle those family members who really get under our skin or who hurt us? In the Bible we can see that many families faced times of separations between members before healing or reconciliation happened. Jacob, after cheating his brother Esau out of his inheritance, went to live with his father in law for decades before they were reunited (check out this great sermon by Eric Johnson which discusses this). Joseph was not reunited with his brothers for decades after they sold him into slavery and told his father he had been killed by a wild animal. After murdering an Egyptian Moses went to live in the desert and was away from his siblings for 40 years and it was only when he went back to Pharaoh that his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, really appear on the scene. The common thing in all these events however was that God was doing a work in the lives of all involved. He was convicting Jacob, humbling Moses and Joseph while at the same time helping Esau to forgive and Joseph’s brothers to repent. So, a time of physical separation is not necessarily bad or unhealthy as long as we allow God to work and given a few caveats, which I describe below.
Firstly, research by psychologist Harriet Lerner (which supports what we read in the Bible), tells us that we should not cut off contact completely with our family of origin, unless of course there is abuse. She states that we should remain open to some form of communication, even if limited to email as she finds that there are many negative psychological ramifications from holding a grudge or unforgiveness against family members that leads us to disconnect and retreat.
Other research by Carol Tavris in a wonderful book called Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion finds that we should also not speak about the person or people concerned over and over, what she calls rehearsing the problem. She states that by continually talking about the problem with the person we are upset with we will keep our negative feelings and negative perception of the person alive and rather than getting it out we are really stoking the flame. So we should talk only to trusted people who will help us calm down and only very infrequently.
Better though is if we can talk to the person concerned. Jesus in Matthew 18:15 says if we have something against our brother we should go and tell him immediately, while Paul writes that we should not let the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26). It also tells us that life and death are in the power of the tongue, so watching what we say is critical. Further to that the Bible has specific exhortations for children to parents; parents to children and husbands and wives to each other. the Bible commands us to honor our parents, so that it may go well with us. Fathers are told not to aggravate their children and husbands are told to love their wives, while wives are instructed to submit to or more correctly respect their husbands. So the Bible makes it clear that there is a minimum standard that we should adhere to, regardless of the other person.
However nowhere does it say that we have to spend lots of time with family members who treat us poorly. We need to ensure that if we do choose to spend time with these people it is for a manageable amount of time in a manageable context. If it is possible and the other person is open to change then we can explore talking about how we feel, but only in a way that will be heard by them and if they have expressed a desire to change the status quo. If not there is little point and we may find ourselves feeling even worse than before (for more practical strategies and information about this read Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion).
We do not need to feel guilty or pressured into spending time with family members if we do not feel comfortable with them. We do need to pray for them and pray for good relationships, but we need to stop trying to make this happen in our own strength. We can step back and release these people to God, forgiving them and trusting that just as He brought Jacob back to Esau, Joseph’s brothers and father to him and Miriam and Aaron to Moses he too will reunite us. But in His way and in His time.
The church and fellow believers are not third-rate substitutes for biological family, they are in fact family of the truest and most permanent sense.
I believe that in the absence of a true community of believers, of a true church family, we start to look to our biological family to fulfil needs that only our Christian family, with God the Father at the head, Christ at the center and the Holy Spirit within us, was designed to meet.
In the New Testament, as we discussed before, Jesus turns the concept of family on its head by expanding the definition to mean all believers. That is in Christ we are all brothers and sisters and also spiritual parents and that we are to love each other accordingly. So it is clear that we are expected not to dishonor our parents and we should care for both siblings and parents as they need. But we are also told that we should care for all believers who have needs in the same way as our biological family. This is because as believers we are now called the sons and daughters of God and we have been adopted into a heavenly family where God is our father.
When churches start embracing the Biblical blueprint for family and treat all members as equally valuable and welcome I believe we will see a great influx into the church of single people who currently choose not to attend. If churches were to treat family as defined by the Bible then I believe single Christians would not only enjoy far greater inclusion in the life of the church but that this would set them free to live full lives for the Lord, rather than believing the lie that they have just somehow drawn the short straw in life, or the even worse lie that God gave them an (unwanted) ‘gift’ of singleness.
At the end of the day the family that we will spend eternity with is the family of God, it is all other believers with our Heavenly Father as the head. In heaven there will not be in and out groups, there will not be people with loving families and people without. There will not be singles and married, or those without children and those who have them. No! we will all be one family, equally blessed, equally loved and equally precious to the ONE father from whom all families on earth get their name (Ephesians 3:15). So today if you are struggling with your earthly family relationships be encouraged that God is your Father, that He will not let you down, that your experience is totally normal, but that God wants to heal and restore. Give yourself a break, take time out, spend time with other believers and pray that the Lord will give you a revelation of His love for you, His precious child. Let us stay connected to our earthly families, but draw healthy boundaries and ask the Lord to give us His wisdom about how to engage and when and trust Him that He will take care of us in the meantime.
Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close Psalm 27:10