Family: Beautiful Gift, Insufficient Savior
Family is the chief biblical metaphor to describe how God relates to us. God is our Father and we are his children. Jesus is husband and we are his Bride, the Church. We are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours, says Solomon’s Song. The marriage between a man and a woman, in the purest sense, is a pointer to and picture of the love between Christ and the Church. In our shared union with Christ, we are also sisters and brothers to each other.
At its best, the nuclear family can serve as a pointer to the love between God and his people.
But like any good and beautiful thing, when family becomes our ultimate thing, it does more damage than good. In the modern west, “family-centered” faith communities have been known to elevate the nuclear family as the apex of human existence. When this happens, it can lead to unanticipated wounds and alienation for those whose family narratives are broken ones.
For example, when on Mother’s Day a church centers its attention chiefly on mothers instead of Jesus, an unseen shame and sorrow can emerge for others who are present. As those whose “happy mother stories” are put front and center, as roses are handed out to some women but not all women, as those with more painful mother stories sit in observation, silent and often overlooked, as memories of an estranged mother/child relationship, a recent miscarriage, an infertility situation, what is intended as a celebration of some can become an unintended wound for others. Over the years as a pastor, many women have told me that they do not attend their churches on Mother’s Day for this very reason.
Because of this reality, churches should continue to honor and affirm the calling of motherhood on Mother’s Day, but should also thoughtfully and lovingly acknowledge the pain and sorrow of other people’s stories.
Just like any vocational calling, the calling of motherhood should be celebrated, but more care and sensitivity than what is sometimes the case in “family-centered” churches. This is not only for the good of those with sad family stories; it is also for those with happier ones. If we slip into thinking that the intact nuclear family is somehow the thing that “completes” our lives — and if having a happy nuclear family is presented, either explicitly or implicitly, as the Christian ideal — then everyone, including intact nuclear families, will miss out on God’s true ideal.
The nuclear family is a wonderful servant to God’s purposes. But like any created thing, it is a poor master and an even worse lord and savior.
When the nuclear family is treated as the end-all-be-all in churches, it tempts single men and women to believe that they will never be complete until they find that “special someone” to spend their lives with. But this is a lie. As my friend Paige Brown wrote during a time when she was single, wanted to be married, and had no marriage prospects — our marital status doesn’t give us our identity; our redemptive status does. According to Paige (and Scripture), it is impossible for God to shortchange any of his children. She goes on to say that if she meets the man of her dreams and lives happily ever after, it will be because God is so good to her. Similarly, if she never marries and dies “an old maid” in her nineties, it will be because God is so good to her. Do we believe this in our churches? What’s more, do we act like we believe it?
(You can read Paige’s full essay here)
Rather than feed the false view that the single life is the unfulfilled life, the Church must renew its vision for singleness as a high and honored calling—one that was shared by the Apostle Paul and Jesus—that positions uncoupled men and women to serve God’s kingdom with unhindered focus, creativity and zeal.
It’s also helpful, if not essential, to realize that depending on the nuclear family more than we depend on Jesus for our identity diminishes family itself. Marriages often collapse not because husband and wife put too little stock in their marriage, but because they put too much stock in marriage — that is, they put Jesus beneath marriage in the hierarchy of their loves. But when we depend on marriage more than we depend on Jesus, irritation turns into hurt, then hurt turns into anger. Anger turns into a grudge, and a grudge turns into contempt. Contempt turns into refusal to forgive. Then someone moves to the guest bedroom or hires a lawyer, and nobody wins.
Aim first at Jesus, and you’ll get more fulfilling marriage thrown in. Aim first at fulfilling marriage, and you’ll get neither. It’s how the kingdom works. If I love Jesus more than I love my wife Patti, I will end up loving her more than I would if I put her above Jesus instead of beneath him.
When humble apologies, forgiveness, and new beginnings can no longer be found in a marriage, there’s usually something deeper going on. It usually means that one or both spouses are demanding that the other be a savior, a true north, an ultimate source of joy and fulfillment and meaning. But as millions have discovered, it’s always a disaster when one broken sinner demands that another broken sinner be their Jesus. Only Jesus can be the Spouse who will never let us down.
Treating the nuclear family as lord and savior, as the ultimate thing versus the good and beautiful thing that it is, also weakens parenting. The sometimes idolatrous, over-emphasis on children in the west has led many moms and dads to parent their children out of neediness instead of healthy love. I once heard a counselor say that parents abuse their children not because they love them too little, but because they love them too much.
If our “love” escalates into a demand that our children think, believe, achieve or behave in a certain way before we will approve of them, it is only a matter of time before we melt down and punish. This is what you call reversing the flow of the umbilical cord: Parents demanding that their children be their source of life; their emotional nourishment; their ultimate meaning in the universe…their Jesus. But this always ends in sorrow and alienation and loss. As in marriage, we must relieve children of the burden of providing for us things that only God can.
Scripture is quite clear that the nuclear family is a wonderful, yet temporary, entity. We raise children with the goal of releasing them as adults into the hands of God. Similarly, when Jesus returns, those of us who are married will release our spouses into his arms. From that point forward, there will be just one marriage—Jesus, the everlasting Bridegroom, and the Church, his everlasting Bride. In his kingdom, there will be no more marriage or giving in marriage…because we will be our Beloved’s, and our Beloved will be ours.
Similarly, there will be just one Father and Mother (God and the Church), and we will be his (and her) children.
Don’t let your earthly family become your Jesus.
Instead, let Jesus and his family become your family.
If you do, your earthly family will thank you for it.
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